The best books on what makes a life meaningful

Todd May Author Of A Significant Life: Human Meaning in a Silent Universe
By Todd May

The Books I Picked & Why

Nicomachean Ethics

By Aristotle, David Mills Daniel

Book cover of Nicomachean Ethics

Why this book?

This may not be the best place to start, but sooner or later you’ll want to land here. Aristotle’s view of a good life, one that involves developing virtuous ways of being, is surprisingly contemporary. And unlike a lot of contemporary philosophy, he has deep reflections on the role of friendship in creating a worthwhile life.

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Beyond Good And Evil

By Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

Book cover of Beyond Good And Evil

Why this book?

Nietzsche’s recommendation that we leave morality behind and seek to create ourselves by overcoming who we currently are is not for everyone. A friend of mine once described Nietzsche’s entire philosophy as kicking you in the head and saying, “Wake up!” He’s always engaging even when he’s maddening.

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Meaning in Life and Why It Matters

By Susan Wolf

Book cover of Meaning in Life and Why It Matters

Why this book?

This is the most influential book on my own thinking about meaningfulness in life. Wolf's idea that a meaningful life is distinct from both a happy life and a moral one—although there can be overlapping with these—is both simple and profound. And, unlike many contemporary philosophers, her writing is clear and accessible.

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Existentialism Is a Humanism

By Jean-Paul Sartre, Carol Macomber

Book cover of Existentialism Is a Humanism

Why this book?

Okay, so it’s a lecture, really, rather than a book. But it’s the classic statement of existentialism. The idea that life doesn’t have any meaning other than what we create for it, that we’re alone in the universe without a God to guide us, that we are nothing more than the projects we commit ourselves to—it’s all here.

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Memoirs of Hadrian

By Marguerite Yourcenar, Grace Frick

Book cover of Memoirs of Hadrian

Why this book?

This one’s a novel, a book that took Yourcenar thirty years to write. It doesn’t offer answers, but by having the main figure (the emperor Hadrian) reflect back on his life in the moments before his death, the novel brings before us the beauty and tragedy that is life itself.

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