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Meaning of Life - Clues From Ancient Civilizations For How to Live Today

Shanel Yang

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What is the meaning of life? It depends on what you mean by “meaning. " If you mean where did we come from, that's a metaphysical, religious, or spiritual question. If you mean what is the purpose of living, or how should we live our lives, the answer depends on who you ask.

This article is about the purpose of life, or how we should live our lives and why. As usual with me, I start with a little research to answer such tough questions. I ask, “How have others who have gone before us answered this question?"


It's anyone's best guess what human beings thought about anything, let alone the meaning of life, before the start of written recorded history. So our research begins with ancient civilizations.


Writings from ancient India, Egypt, and China reveal some of our ancestors’ beliefs about the purposes of their lives and how they thought people should best live them.

1. Ancient Indians

Around 3,000 BC, ancient Indians believed all actions had natural consequences, and they called this causal relationship “karma. " Thousands of years later, “you reap what you sow" is the famous biblical phrase that echoes this belief. If you plant good seeds, you will grow good plants. If you plant bad seeds, you will grow bad plants. The ancient Indians believed living correctly would eventually lead to the perfect state of existence that is formless and forever, or “nirvana. " Thus, the meaning of life for them was constant self-improvement.

2. Ancient Egyptians

Around 2,000 BC, ancient Egyptians taught their youngsters to listen carefully, speak politely, and avoid violence. They also taught them to be modest and to obey their fathers. Also, families who could afford it sent their children to school so they could avoid jobs with hard labor.

Ancient Egyptians believed that if they lived in moderation, and with respect for authority and kindness to those less fortunate, they would not only become successful in this world but also enjoy the afterlife.

3. Ancient Chinese

Some ancient Chinese believed hierarchy is the best way to create social order in the home and at work. Everyone had to know their place. Children must respect and obey their elders, while elders must use their power over younger generations with wisdom and generosity.

They believed in meritocracy. In theory, their rulers ruled, not because they were descended from prior rulers, but because they ruled with the best interest of the people in mind. If they lost sight of this purpose, they theoretically also lost their authority to rule over the people. Every man aspired to be a “saint, scholar, and a gentleman. "


On the other side of the planet, the ancient Greeks and Romans formed their own beliefs about the meaning of life.

1. Ancient Greeks

Around 500 BC, a famous Greek mathematician named Pythagoras started a boarding school in Southern Italy for young Greeks. He taught his students to eat a vegetarian diet and treated women as equals. In this last point, he was thousands of years ahead of his time.

The students were taught to avoid wine, not take their god's name in vain, and to avoid all forms of excess, frivolity, or “sexual deviance. " Pythagoras taught his students to take care of their bodies with proper diet and exercise, their minds by studying mathematics-especially geometry-and their emotions by studying and enjoying music.

Other, more popular, Greek philosophers believed that the meaning of life was to be happy and that lasting happiness came only from knowledge and eventually wisdom. To achieve this, their goal was to live honestly, orderly, and moderately.

2. Ancient Romans

Around 200 BC, many Romans, especially the educated ones, adopted the Greek philosophy that taught self-restraint, generosity, and courage as the true paths to happiness. They tried to avoid emotional attachment to anything that could be taken away from them so they could remain happy, even if everything was taken away from them. They most valued fairness, bravery, seriousness, self-discipline, and self-sacrifice.


To summarize, in the East, some of our ancestors believed in:

a. karma, i. e. , every action has a natural consequence

b. constant self-improvement to become perfect

c. moderation in all things

d. respect for others

e. kindness toward those less fortunate

f. formal education to get better jobs

g. proper behavior leading to success in life and to the afterlife

h. respect for elders in exchange for generosity to the youth

i. respect for government in exchange for ruling for the people

j. excellence in kindness, knowledge, and manners

In the West, some of our ancestors believed in:

a. proper diet and exercise to improve the body

b. formal studies to improve the mind

c. music appreciation to improve the emotions

d. equal treatment of women

e. limiting alcohol, swearing, silliness, excess, and illegal sex

f. knowledge and wisdom leading to happiness

g. honesty, peacefulness, order, cheerfulness, and moderation

h. self-restraint, generosity, and courage leading to happiness

i. emotional detachment from material things

j. fairness, bravery, self-discipline, and self-sacrifice

It's amazing that 4,000 years ago, various people around the world more or less held some of the same beliefs about the meaning of life, or how best to live one's life, as we do today. Be kind, generous, respectful, and fair to others; be moderate when enjoying pleasurable things; get a good education to get a good job; and, take life seriously by living it consciously to achieve success and happiness.


What do we believe is the purpose of life now? According to Wikipedia, the answer is everything and nothing and everything in between. Its answer divides current people's opinions into 6 major categories that include some of the ideas below.

1. Survival and Temporal Success

To survive, exist in time, and reproduce if possible before death.

2. Wisdom and Knowledge

To gain as much wisdom and knowledge as possible.

3. Ethical

To treat others with compassion. To work for justice and freedom.

4. Religious and Spiritual

To please God and to enjoy the afterlife. To be the best you can.

5. Philosophical

To benefit the human species or all life forms. To maximize happiness or minimize pain. Or, there is no purpose to life.

6. Other

To fulfill your dreams.

Many current ideas about the purpose of life are similar to our ancestors’ beliefs. However, some notable exceptions are to simply exist, there is no purpose to life, and to achieve personal goals.


What is the purpose of your life? Do you have one? More than one? Too many? Is your purpose anything more than your life goals? Does your purpose match any of the ones listed above?

Until you know what your purpose is, you can't get there from here. Unless, of course, your purpose is to merely exist.


If you're like me, you've had more than one purpose over the years. I started life, for the sole reason, it seemed, to take care of my entire family. (That's the kind of rough start that can lead even young children to question the meaning of life. )

At first, I didn't question why I had to take care of all my younger sisters when I was only a child myself. It was expected of me, so I accepted it as normal. Nor did I question why I had to parent my own parents, including playing referee during their terrifying knock-down, drag-out wrestling matches. These things happened so often that I accepted them as normal, too. Nor did I question why I had to help my dad run his small welding business starting from age 10 and well into my young adulthood. All of these things were as familiar to me as breathing, so I never questioned why my purpose in life was to serve my family.

But, when I started school and saw how my classmates were treated by their families, I started to question why my purpose seemed different from theirs. My parents were quick with answers. I had to take care of the family because we were strangers in a strange land; and I, being the eldest daughter in an immigrant family with no sons, had the filial responsibility to instruct and lead the family in this new land in all things unfamiliar to my parents, which was almost everything. Also, being the eldest meant I had to be a role model for my sisters. “Blood is thicker than water, " meaning family is everything and I was expected to sacrifice everything for them. If I complained about anything they asked of me or from me, I was branded a bad daughter, bad sister, and bad person.

It wasn't until my early adulthood that I finally grew tired of this old purpose for my life and began looking for a new one. At college, I studied ancient philosophy, including the beliefs of the ancient civilizations discussed above, and was happy to find a wide variety of life purposes from which to choose. I studied astronomy, archaeology, geology, oceanography, history, economics, psychology, and literature. I also read novels, essays, and poems that pondered the meaning of life and enjoyed movies and TV shows with similar themes. Even law school added taught me new theories to consider about the purposes for life.

My purpose in life gradually changed from taking care of others, but neglecting my own needs, to taking care of myself first. I still believed in helping others. However, I now realize I wasn't much good at it when my own basic needs were not being met. Ironically, this shift in perspective led me back to my roots of helping others. I found my true calling in life is to reach out to all of you, out there in the world, to help you achieve your own life goals, too!


I wish you success in your quest for your purpose in life. Or, if you have already found your purpose, I wish you success in achieving it.

Copyright © Shanel Yang

Shanel Yang

Easy Steps to Success (blog) (archive)

Shanel Yang shares the Easy Steps to Success that she has distilled after trial and error since 1971, when she came to the U. S. from South Korea with her parents and three younger sisters. Her parents had no education, no marketable skills, knew no English, and only $50 when they landed at LAX with absolutely no idea how they would survive in this new country. The responsibibities were divided between the parents and Shanel like this: The parents earned as much money as they could with odd jobs, like janitorial work in a church, dishwashing in a restaurant, and sewing in a downtown sweatshop, while Shanel learned as much as she could about how to do everything else in this country and taught it to the entire family.

All of that responsibility from such an early age left Shanel with a lifelong desire to help others similarly in need of all the important lessons she had to learn to help her family survive-and eventually thrive-in this great country. She went to UCLA Law School and practiced law for 10 years in Los Angeles. Now, she has begun her second career as a writer to provide self help advice to help others succeed in their lives. Her formula is People, Work, and Money. And, for immigrants who are struggling now as her family once did, she adds English and Law. Shanel believes that success in life can be simple if you focus on people first, work second, and money third. To simplify it further, if you have great relationships-especially the most important one, which is with yourself-the rest will naturally follow. Dare to be awesome! Strive to be your own hero!


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