On Purpose: How We Create the Meaning of Life

Image of On Purpose: How We Create the Meaning of Life
Release Date: 
January 6, 2016
Oxford University Press
Reviewed by: 

The answer isn’t 42. At least, that’s not sociology professor Paul Froese’s conclusion. Readers having an existential crisis will want to read this book. This slim volume won’t exactly help readers find their life’s meaning, or even explain how to find meaning, but it will enlighten readers insofar as aiding their understanding in how an individual’s meaning is created.

In many ways, knowing that a reader can create her own meaning is spirit-lifting: a reader is not beholden to other people’s ideals or demands, nor expectations (though these all do play a part in how an individual often goes about finding meaning in her own life). However, knowing one can create her own meaning can be disheartening to those who want to believe in a big reason or Truth, and to discover it or have it discovered for her.

Froese argues that there is no one Truth, not one that every single one of us shares. While over the course of human events there have been cultures, and there still are, and people who share in a Truth via goals, membership, and other communal aspects, individuals can step outside of these communities at any time and find a new Truth.

It used to be a Truth, such as in a totalitarian state, could be easily controlled and manipulated. The fast-forward time-march of culture and technology has begun eroding the canopy under which the pillars that supported such a Truth could flourish. Now individuals carry an umbrella of Truth with them that they can pop open at any time.

As poetic and interesting as this is, it’s easy to envision the many panels on this umbrella quickly tearing and flapping away into the wind, and the umbrella inverted and useless because technology and the double-step of culture around an individual has caused a person to lose track of their mental and physical health, and what she wants to have meaning in her life.

Time is an important aspect of creating meaning. With too much time a person can have an existential crisis, particularly those who belong to the rat race of the technologically advanced and financially secure countries that don’t have the instability of wars on their soil, dictatorships, high poverty rates, etc. Interestingly, people who live in the rushing stream of the 21st century want more time to relax yet show a higher dissatisfaction rate with their so-called downtime, arguably because they have not created meaning for themselves, and at work they are distracted from this sad existence.

Froese examines the purpose industry that has popped up to help individuals find their Truths. Readers who have long sought out the self-help aisle may be disenchanted with Froese’s honest conclusions—that each of these groups of self-help purpose gurus (like Oprah Winfrey, Rick Warren, or Stephen Covey) do not actually have the steps to give an individual meaning, particularly if their culture (the people they surround themselves with, their families, etc.) never quite bought into the whole “purpose in life” to begin with. Though Froese says he doesn’t have the answer for readers, in a way he does: create your own purpose, your own Truth.

Readers who enjoy self-help may find this volume frustrating, and though this book in no way belittles the purpose industry nor criticizes it, Froese’s arguments that there is no Truth will be disappointing and angering or depressing to someone who desperately seeks it. However, readers who have experience with self-help and Truth finding will discover some enlightening philosophical details in this book as Froese examines the complexities and consequences of humanity’s greatest question.

This brilliant book is cogent and coherent, written in a direct and easy-to-read language and style that any reader, from high school on up, will be able to access.