This page contains a list of the best books on the meaning of life. To be clear, there is no single best book on the meaning of life. The best book for you will depend on your preferred learning style and the amount of time that you want to spend reading about the meaning of life. An 800-page scholarly overview is unlikely to be best for someone looking for a short beginner-friendly introduction, for example. This list aims to take this ambiguity into account by featuring books that will appeal to a variety of learning styles.
Secondly, this is not a list of personal recommendations. It was created by compiling recommendations from a variety of online sources including bibliographies, course syllabi, and community recommendations. You can find out more about this process here. Links to the sources used are at the end of the post. Following these links will help you quickly find a wider range of options if the listed books do not fit what you are looking for.
Here are the best books on the meaning of life in no particular order.
What’s It All About?: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life – Julian Baggini
Publisher description: What is the meaning of life? It is a question that has intrigued the great philosophers–and has been hilariously lampooned by Monty Python. Indeed, the whole idea strikes many of us as vaguely pompous and perhaps more than a little absurd. Is there one profound answer, an ultimate purpose behind human existence?
Julian Baggini thinks not. Rather, as Baggini argues in What’s It All About, meaning can be found in a variety of ways. He succinctly breaks down six answers people commonly suggest when considering what life is all about–helping others, serving humanity, being happy, becoming successful, enjoying each day as if it were your last, and “freeing your mind.” By reducing the vague, mysterious question of “meaning” to a series of more specific (if unmysterious) questions about what gives life purpose and value, he shows that the quest for meaning can be personal, empowering, and uplifting.
Illustrating his argument with the thoughts of many of the great philosophers and examples drawn from everyday life, Baggini convincingly shows that the search for meaning is personal and within the power of each of us to find.
Exploring the Meaning of Life: An Anthology and Guide – Joshua W. Seachris
Publisher description: Much more than just an anthology, this survey of humanity’s search for the meaning of life includes the latest contributions to the debate, a judicious selection of key canonical essays, and insightful commentary by internationally respected philosophers.
- Cutting-edge viewpoint features the most recent contributions to the debate
- Extensive general introduction offers unprecedented context
- Leading contemporary philosophers provide insightful introductions to each section
Meaning in Life and Why It Matters – Susan Wolf
Publisher description: Most people, including philosophers, tend to classify human motives as falling into one of two categories: the egoistic or the altruistic, the self-interested or the moral. According to Susan Wolf, however, much of what motivates us does not comfortably fit into this scheme. Often we act neither for our own sake nor out of duty or an impersonal concern for the world. Rather, we act out of love for objects that we rightly perceive as worthy of love–and it is these actions that give meaning to our lives. Wolf makes a compelling case that, along with happiness and morality, this kind of meaningfulness constitutes a distinctive dimension of a good life. Written in a lively and engaging style, and full of provocative examples, Meaning in Life and Why It Matters is a profound and original reflection on a subject of permanent human concern.
Meaning in Life: An Analytic Study – Thaddeus Metz
Publisher description: What makes a person’s life meaningful? Thaddeus Metz offers a new answer to an ancient question which has recently returned to the philosophical agenda. He proceeds by examining what, if anything, all the conditions that make a life meaningful have in common. The outcome of this process is a philosophical theory of meaning in life. He starts by evaluating existing theories in terms of the classic triad of the good, the true, and the beautiful. He considers whether meaning in life might be about such principles as fulfilling God’s purpose, obtaining reward in an afterlife for having been virtuous, being attracted to what merits attraction, leaving the world a better place, connecting to organic unity, or transcending oneself by connecting to what is extensive. He argues that no extant principle satisfactorily accounts for the three-fold significance of morality, enquiry, and creativity, and that the most promising theory is a fresh one according to which meaning in life is a matter of intelligence contoured toward fundamental conditions of human existence.
Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor E. Frankl
Publisher description: Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s memoir has riveted generations of readers with its descriptions of life in Nazi death camps and its lessons for spiritual survival. Between 1942 and 1945 Frankl labored in four different camps, including Auschwitz, while his parents, brother, and pregnant wife perished. Based on his own experience and the experiences of others he treated later in his practice, Frankl argues that we cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose. Frankl’s theory-known as logotherapy, from the Greek word logos (“meaning”)-holds that our primary drive in life is not pleasure, as Freud maintained, but the discovery and pursuit of what we personally find meaningful.
At the time of Frankl’s death in 1997, Man’s Search for Meaning had sold more than 10 million copies in twenty-four languages. A 1991 reader survey for the Library of Congress that asked readers to name a “book that made a difference in your life” found Man’s Search for Meaning among the ten most influential books in America.
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi:
- Bibliography for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on The Meaning of Life
- Bibliography for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on The Meaning of Life: Contemporary Analytic Perspectives
For more introductory philosophy resources and reading lists check out this collection of Resources and Reading Lists.