Albert Camus claimed that the only serious philosophical problem is "Why shouldn’t we kill ourselves?" Why should we think that this life, with all its problems and pressures, really is valuable in itself?
In his movie Manhattan, Woody Allen’s character made his own personal list: Groucho Marx; Willie Mays; the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony; Louis Armstrong’s recording of Potato-head Blues; Swedish movies; Sentimental Education by Flaubert; Marlon Brando; Frank Sinatra; those incredible apples and pears by Cézanne; the crabs at Sam Wo’s; Tracy’s face.
All of us know of things that give life value and another person’s list might focus less on their own pleasures: eliminating terrible suffering; helping one’s children build their lives; winning a personal struggle.
This is why there can be no final answer to the question of life’s meaning. There are many things that make life worth holding on to and savouring. But life is unpredictable and we are often mysteries even to ourselves. We think success, happiness, helping others, or surpassing ourselves will make life worth living, but we can always be wrong or frustrated by events.
Philosophers have a lot to say about the value of all these things, and a little less to say about one of the most valuable things of all – love. So we can be clear enough about what it means for life to have meaning and value, but when we put down our philosophy books and actually get on with living, meaning and value can be elusive. Living well is more art than science or philosophy.
The only sense we can make of the idea that life has meaning is that there are some reasons to live rather than to die, and those reasons are to be found in the living of life itself.
Trying to work out the meaning of life can be rather like trying to assemble Ikea furniture when you’re convinced that you’re missing a piece or haven’t been given the proper instructions. But the real problem is that you’re trying to put together an elaborate cabinet when you have only got a standard three-shelf bookcase. Something only seems to be missing because you’re expecting much more.