Updated: Feb 18
As with all reviews on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete overview of the book, but rather to examine how the book relates to the meaning of life. In this review, we will examine some of the main topics such as statistics, fragility, and the meaning of life.
About the book:
On Purpose: How We Create the Meaning of Life was published in 2016 by a professor of Sociology at Baylor University named Paul Froese. The book starts with a question: "What is your purpose in life?" The author then dives into examining the question through statistics, history, self-help gurus, and philosophers. It quickly becomes apparent that Paul Froese believes the answer to the question is whatever we imagine it to be--with a few twists of course. Furthermore, he investigates the “purpose” that self-help gurus sell to people. As such, do not mistake thinking this book is a self-help guide, but rather view it as an overview of “purpose.”
Purpose based statistics:
Throughout the book, the author often refers back to real world data. For example, did you know that 3 out of 5 Americans are currently trying to "find themselves"? Or did you know that 99% of citizens of the Congo-Kinshasa, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, and Togo say their lives have an “important” purpose? Liberians top the charts for those that view themselves as living a purposeful life. On this note, it is important to understand that feeling that you are living a purposeful life does not necessarily mean you feel you are living a happy life. Unfortunately, for those living in developing countries a purposeful life does not always equate to a happy life.
Paul Froese cites several statistical surveys and resources throughout the book. A few of them are:
The above links naturally only represent a small sample of the citations, but they are very important for the development of this particular book. From these resources, and others, a lot of interesting information is provided. For example, research has shown that there is a positive correlation between religiousness of a nation and the percentage of citizens who feel purposeful--a topic that will be briefly touched on later in this review. In particular, the Baylor Religion Survey (Wave III) examined "links between religion and mental health, religion's role in work and differing views of liberals and conservatives about life's meaning." Other interesting information in the book includes a chart for which people feel that their life has an important purpose. Netherlands, Czech Republic, and Austria top the chart for NO IMPORTANT PURPOSE! 27% percent of the people from the Netherlands indicated that they felt they had no purpose, while only 6% of those surveyed in the United States and 9% of those from Canada indicated no important purpose. The UK came in at 18%.
Reviewing more from another Gallup Poll on the relationship between religion and purpose also shows some interesting data.
Here it is clear that those that claim a religious affiliation are more likely to state that their life has an important meaning or purpose. The article cited here also breaks the statistics down by religious affiliation, showing that Christians are most likely to make the claim of having an important purpose and Jewish people least less likely (with the exception of those with no affiliation). With that said, this and other fascinating data can be found in the surveys above and in the book.
One of the main themes throughout the book, which becomes progressively apparent as one proceeds through the journey of On Purpose, is the increasing fragility of the meaning of life. Two hundred years ago, few people would question the meaning of life. The answer was simple, to serve God's purpose. Life was simple and unambiguous. However, in sync with the rise of secularism, atheism, agnosticism, etc. the meaning of life has become less clear. As the author says, "Purpose is no longer guaranteed, so now you must discover one for yourself." and "Imagination builds and destroys life’s meaning with equal fervor." Naturally, it is very exciting to review how the meaning of life changes throughout history, whether or not people will adapt to the introduction of artificial intelligence, and changes in plausibility structures.
One can easily fathom what it must have been like for early mankind to be on the edge of self-awareness, trying to contemplate existence and meaning; the first person, that first spark of intelligence which set in place one of the greatest achievements of evolution--the ability to reason, to question, and to contemplate what it all means. The question "What is the meaning of life?" may in fact be the pinnacle of evolution. This is why the question is so philosophically important and why the answers succumb to fragility, but we are saved by our endless imaginations continually creating new meaning as per the book. Religion may have evolved as a need to explain why a beloved family member stopped breathing, why the sun came up each day, and why the seasons change. Eventually, due to simplicity, many gods were exchanged for just one God--and thus the meaning of life changed as well. The decline in centralized religious authority has paved the way for the individualization of spirituality--thus changing the meaning of life once again.
Meaning of Life:
The author does acknowledge that history, communities of Truth, cultural tempos, etc., all, in some sense, help each of us understand the purpose or meaning of life. The cultures in which we live, the religions we are taught as kids, our education, and many other factors all help to develop us as unique individuals. However, the author quotes Christian Smith, “In order to make sense of the meaning of self, life, history, and the world, one has to get outside of them, to ‘transcend’ them.” In many respects, this is both true and untrue. One of those paradoxical facts of life. Because history, culture, etc. give us our eccentricity--upon which we can build a sui generis purpose.
Overall, Paul Froese’s book is a must read for any person interested in the topic of purpose. He examines the subject in a very logical way through the use of data, history, and other philosophers. His conclusion is unique, just as the meaning of life is for many of us—“We envision a meaningful universe as naturally as the flower blooms... even in the most desolate grounds, our imagination retains its ability to create meaning, allowing the human spirit to flourish.” The book is engaging, not overly intellectual to the point it is hard to read, and is enlightening. Everything you could want in a good book.
We rate the book the following:
Overall - 9
Meaning of Life Relevance - 10
Uniqueness – 9
Notable quote: "Most remarkably, we create meaning out of abstractions, like love, Truth, beauty, God, and life. To do so is uniquely human."
What did we miss? Do you agree with the author that we create the meaning of life out of abstractions?