When one speaks of a “meaning of life,” what one is really talking about is a teleological ultimate value which man should pursue throughout his life. While the concrete derivatives of this value may vary from man to man as a result of personal preference, the ultimate value itself is universal to all men (e.g. if the meaning of life is to eat one’s favorite food, then “favorite food” is the universal while that particular favorite food can vary from person to person). There is only one value that man can pursue throughout his life which qualifies as a teleological ultimate value. This value is man’s life – not the life of another, but his own life.
Before this claim is defended, what does pursuing one’s own life mean? Pursuing one’s life means pursuing all the requisite needs to maintain it. These needs exist in two forms: material and spiritual. Material needs are determined by man’s biology without which man would physically deteriorate and ultimately perish – food, water, and medicine are but a few examples. Spiritual (i.e. emotional) needs are those which give man reason to continue the pursuit of his material needs – examples include happiness, self-esteem, and romantic love.
Still, man’s life, on its whole, must be justified as an ultimate value. Man’s own life is the only possible ultimate value because it is the value without which all other values would cease to exist. A dead man cannot experience any alterations to his state of existence – in fact, he cannot experience anything – and thus it is impossible for him to possess any values. As such, it is impossible to speak of there being a “meaning of life” independent of the continuance of man’s life itself. Moreover, man’s ultimate value cannot be the life of another because even if another’s life continues, man’s own values cease if he loses his own. Therefore, man’s life must be the ultimate value that he should pursue because no other value can be pursued – or exist – without it.
The reason man must pursue his material needs should be largely apparent – man’s life, and all derivative values, would cease to exist if he did not obtain them. As such, he has the obligation to himself to obtain, save, and use these values effectively and efficiently. So long as man devotes himself to the acquisition of these values, his life is maintained so that he can pursue his spiritual values. Moreover, if man engages in discovering new manifestations of physical values (like medical technology), he can prolong his life potentially indefinitely, allowing him further time to pursue other subsidiary values.
The necessity of pursuing one’s spiritual values is derived from man’s need to experience the worth of his own life. For even if man has enough physical values at his disposal to continue his life, one cannot assume he will want to do so if he finds himself in a state of constant pain and misery. Happiness – meaning the emotional state of attaining or coming into contact with one of one’s rational values (i.e. those beneficial to one’s life) – is fundamentally important for this reason. However, while happiness is certainly an intangible value worth pursuing, it cannot be pursued in and of itself because it is an emotion. In other words, it is a response to attaining other rational values, and it cannot be attained independently of those other values.
Rational values are any values – physical or spiritual – which assist in the furtherance of man’s life. Irrational values are those things which man pursues but are ultimately detrimental to his life. For example, while extravagant desserts may be rationally valuable in the sense that they are enjoyable without causing physical or psychological harm (as do various kinds of drug usage), eating nothing but desserts would be irrational because of the health problems that would result. A rational spiritual value would be finding a romantic connection with someone who shares and represents one’s values because happiness would result – pursuing a romantic relationship with someone diametrically opposed to one’s rational values would be inherently irrational.
Quite simply, man’s life – and all that is requisite to maintaining it – is its own meaning.