Sometimes, when faced with challenging situations, or perhaps even the mundanity of routine, we find ourselves asking questions. What does it all mean? Am I in the right place? Is there really an answer to the great big why of it all?
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Best Fiction Books on Finding Life’s Meaning
- Best Nonfiction Books on the Meaning of Life
- Best Philosophy Books About the Meaning of Life
These questions have fascinated humanity, including writers, for ages. Some have pondered out loud and on paper enough to formulate some kind of response. These searchers have taken to libraries and to nature, pursuing some kind of meaning for themself, and to publish and share with others. On the other hand, some great artists are naturally talented and manage to capture some of life’s meaning in fairytales and fiction.
In the selections below, you'll find a rich combination of philosophy, Persian poetry, journals, and naturalist essays. If you give it a chance, one is sure to make its mark on you.
Best Fiction Books on Finding Life’s Meaning
You may recognize some of the books in this first selection. Each one asks you to step outside your comfort zone to find meaning hidden in plain sight.
1. The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Written in 1943, this short story has been used to help people explore patience, acceptance, and love. The Little Prince is a life-changing book for both children and adults across every latitude and existence.
Inside, you’ll discover a unique relationship between the fox and the Little Prince. From the fox’s point of view, you’ll discover meaning in his sweet little life, and maybe yours, too.
2. Life of Pi by Yann Martel
The human spirit is strong and determined. If we set our minds steady, we can find the courage to act, even in moments of deafening silence.
Being isolated doesn’t mean that you have to give up or give in. In fact, Life of Pi challenges the reader to discover their limits, find their fears—and own them.
3. The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter
In The Education of Little Tree, Carter writes of a young part-Cherokee boy called Little Tree who goes to live with his grandparents after he is orphaned.
There, the boy is taught lessons in charity, courage, acceptance, appreciation for nature, and a love for reading. While the story reels with challenges and heartache, it's also about survival in the face of adversity.
4. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
As you read and reread Siddhartha at different stages in your life, you'll find your connection to it changes with you.
A younger version of yourself might internalize lessons differently than the more experienced version of who you are today, or who you might be tomorrow. Hesse's novel thereby exposes that the meaning of life travels its own roads, too—sometimes waiting for you to catch up.
5. The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
Philosophy is one of our greatest instructors. Not because the teachers tell you what to think, but because they help you understand why to think. Afterward, it is up to you to decide what to do with that understanding.
In Prophet, Gibran offers hundreds of useful philosophies that compel the internal search for the meaning of life. When you have finished reading this book, you'll likely want to gift several copies to your friends.
6. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám by Omar Khayyám
Within The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám, a beautiful, ancient Persian poem (translated into English by Edward Fitzgerald), you'll discover that life and death are intimately connected. One can't exist without the other. Love, too, can't live without both life and death creating a yearning and lust.
No one knows where they will be born. No one knows where they will die. But we do know where we will drink and be tempted, so the moments are yours to seize—or not.
7. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
In this dystopian novel, you are introduced to children of the future being raised in an orphanage. The meaning of life is not found in them so much as it is found in how they came to be, and also why they choose to remain locked inside this world of fear.
Never Let Me Go challenges you to look both forward and outward to examine how you would react in a complex creation of humanity—or lack thereof.
Best Nonfiction Books on the Meaning of Life
As humans, we seek to protect our family and faiths. We wish to grow our minds and hearts. To do this takes courage, determination, and a lot of faith.
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8. The Hardest Life I Could Ever Love, The Memoirs of Mary B. Blahnik by Frederick Blahnik
All of Mary's hopes and dreams came crashing down when the doctors informed her that her 43-year-old husband had contracted polio. How much could this pregnant farmer's wife with seven small children handle?
Through actual journal entries compiled to create The Hardest Life I Could Ever Love, you'll discover that for Mary, the meaning of life is about three simple things. One, put your faith in God. Two, love and keep your family first. And three, keep putting one foot in front of the other.
9. Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau writes, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."
10. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande, MD
In Being Mortal, Dr. Atul Gawande describes how physicians struggle with age, fragility, and mortality. When providing cancer treatment for their patients, doctors often treat life as a destination rather than a journey.
Gawande shares his experiences and vision for embracing medicine as a practice for the whole patient. He wants to revolutionize the way we see death, creating a culture of death positivity versus the current culture of fear by prescription.
11. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki
Suzuki writes in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's, there are few." It is with the daily reflection of Shoshin that you'll discover a way of experiencing life that is more spectacular and increasingly life-affirming.
A morning will not be like other mornings. A birdsong will become dissimilar to the birdsongs from yesterday. With enough practice, your mind will open itself to more compassion, perhaps making this one of the most influential books you'll ever read.
12. My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir
John Muir was one of our country’s most notable conservation advocates and environmental essayists. Mother Nature was his muse while the California Sierras were his heartbeat. My First Summer expresses the immeasurable delight of escorting sheep from winter to summer pastures.
The resplendent boon of Springtime echoed his reverence for all-natural life, resulting in the founding of the Sierra Club in 1892.
13. The Ivington Diaries by Monty Don
From January to December, Monty Don shares with you his ever-changing garden, including his thoughts and observations about life, in The Ivington Diaries. To him, "Gardening is one of the few domestic activities that can force you to work within the rhythm of the seasons and the natural annual cycle."
In this, the meaning to life becomes less about what is internal, and more about external forces, shaping your ability to adapt to things over which you have little or no control.
14. A Sand County Almanac, And Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold
Those who know how to protect land understand that you must observe what the Earth does of its own volition before you step in and start making changes.
Our Earth's biodiversity is a finely tuned energy circuit of land, air, and water—and everything alive, growing, changing, or dying therein. For Leopold, as we learn in A Sand County Almanac, the meaning of life is an awareness of our life inside that energy circuit.
15. The Daily Coyote by Shreve Stockton
Early in her book, The Daily Coyote, the author writes, "In the city, space is shared with thousands upon thousands, and the only thing that's truly yours is time…In the country, the inverse is true."
A leap of faith stole her away from the concrete and noise, delivering Stockton to Wyoming. There, an orphaned coyote helped her learn some of life's biggest lessons, including the path to life’s meaning.
Best Philosophy Books About the Meaning of Life
Look inside the minds of philosophers from ancient Rome to India, Russia, Austria, and the United States in your search for the meaning of life.
16. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
Frankl’s logotherapy philosophy relayed in this book suggests that life is less about pleasure and more about the pursuit of meaning.
Humans are bound by suffering, but we’re defined by the ability to cope with the suffering, find some meaning to it, and then move forward equipped with that knowledge.
17. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Influenced by the Stoic thinker Epictetus, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote Meditations without ambitions for publication. Instead, these were his thoughts and writings about such things as maintaining focus, keeping to a set of principles, and finding one’s space in the universe.
Many who read it walk away with a clearer impression of being a better version of oneself.
Pro-tip: Choose the Gregory Hays translation. Also, note that if you purchase this book online, some publishers create atlas-sized books, which isn’t a reasonable size for anyone outside of childhood.
18. The Spiritual Teaching of Ramana Maharshi by Ramana Maharishi and C. G. Jung
In his Spiritual Teaching, Ramana Maharshi teaches a non-duality and that the world is one experience. His words are well-chosen, short, and concise because the words themselves have so much power and imagery that excess is unwarranted.
Pro-tip: Pick up the translation by Arthur Osborne.
19. I Am That by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
I Am That will open your world to experiencing small moments as if they were the most profound instances of belonging to the world.
Maharaj writes, “Consciousness is the totality of the known and the immensity of the unknown.” It’s a state of thinking or understanding that all things are a construct of one’s consciousness, including one’s unconsciousness.
Pick up a copy before you go camping or plan on taking a moment at the top of a mountain for lunch.
20. A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine
The nature of the Stoic is to overcome obstacles and endure hardship without complaint. Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life builds on that foundation while using his life and experiences to paint a roadmap to a life better lived.
21. A Confession by Leo Tolstoy
Check out Tolstoy’s A Confession if you’re searching for the meaning of life, the possibility of a God, love, truth, untruth, and a reason to live. At its writing, Tolstoy lost his path and began searching for something greater than himself.
Pro-tip: The Aylmer Maude and Penguin Classics translations rank the highest.
22. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain by Antonio Damasio
Neurologist Antonio Damasio challenges the quote “I think, therefore I am” to suggest that emotions are as integral as thinking. His approach uses science, data, and experience in the field of neurology to prove his point in Descartes' Error.
The Meaning of Life is Everywhere
It’s in a fresh bough as a sleeping pad under a wide sky. It’s in a wife’s struggle to provide for her family. It’s in the rebirth of a garden each Spring. Mostly, it’s already right there in your heart. You just need to awaken it.