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Famous People on the Meaning of Life

Four psychologists did a study of notable quotations from famous people around the world about the meaning of life. The study analyzed the quotes of 195 men and women who lived within the past few hundred years. Here's a summary of the major themes and some of the people representing each theme:

  1. Life is primarily to be enjoyed and experienced. Enjoy the moment and the journey.
    17 percent of the famous people in the study endorsed this theme (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Cary Grant, Janis Joplin, and Sinclair Lewis). Janis Joplin is best known for her lyric: "You got to get it while you can."
  2. We live to express compassion to others, to love, to serve.
    13 percent endorsed this theme (Albert Einstein, Mohandas Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama). Albert Einstein stated: "Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile."
  3. Life is unknowable, a mystery.
    13 percent endorsed this theme (Albert Camus, Bob Dylan, and Stephen Hawking). Hawking wrote, "If we find an answer to that (why we and the universe exist), it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God."
  4. Life has no meaning.
    11 percent endorsed this theme (novelist Joseph Conrad, Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, Bertrand Russell, Jean Paul Sartre, and Clarence Darrow). Darrow compared life to a ship that is "tossed by every wave and by every wind; a ship headed to no port and no harbor, with no rudder, no compass, no pilot, simply floating for a time, then lost in the waves."
  5. We are to worship God and prepare for the afterlife.
    11 percent endorsed this theme (Desmond Tutu, Billy Graham, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Teresa). Desmond Tutu said, "[We should] give God glory by reflecting his beauty and his love. That is why we are here, and that is the purpose of our lives."
  6. Life is a struggle.
    8 percent endorsed this theme (Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, and Jonathan Swift). Swift wrote that life is a "tragedy wherein we sit as spectators for awhile and then act our part in it."
  7. We are to create our own meaning of life.
    5 percent endorsed this theme (Carl Sagan, Simone DeBeauvoir, and Carl Jung). Carl Sagan wrote: "We live in a vast and awesome universe in which, daily, suns are made and worlds destroyed, where humanity clings to an obscure clod of rock. The significance of our lives and our fragile realm derives from our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life's meaning."
  8. Life is a joke.
    4 percent endorsed this theme (Albert Camus, Charlie Chaplin, Lou Reed, and Oscar Wilde). Charlie Chaplin described life as "a tragedy when seen in close-up but a comedy in the long shot." The rock star Lou Reed said "Life is like Sanskrit read to a pony."

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