Throughout The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a story about a human man named Arthur who hitchhikes through space, many characters try to find meaning in their lives and search for the significance of their own existences. As they focus on discerning the meaning of life, though, their happiness decreases, and their efforts to eke out an existential purpose ultimately prevent them from enjoying life. By illustrating many fruitless attempts to formulate an understanding of existence, Douglas Adams suggests that such lofty philosophical considerations often obscure the actual experience—and pleasure—of being alive in the first place. The most successful and happy people, he implies, are those who accept life as a nearly meaningless experience, something that just is. No matter how hard people (a word Adams uses even when referring to aliens) strive to understand life, they will seemingly never fully comprehend its supposed purpose. As such, Adams intimates that such considerations often produce little more than unnecessary agony, frustration, and confusion.
In the very first chapter, Adams prepares readers to contemplate the superficial ways that people assign meaning to otherwise arbitrary concepts. Describing Earth, he writes: “Most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.” The mere fact that humans spend most of their time proposing “solutions” to unhappiness indicates the extent to which they analyze the nature of their experience as living beings. Unable to discern what exactly is making them so unhappy, they attach meaning to something tangible: money. Adams’s choice to call money “small green pieces of paper” emphasizes how absurd it is to superimpose meaning onto something as meaningless as a dollar bill, which is nothing more than “paper.” By beginning the novel with this observation, Adams spotlights humanity’s desperation to find things in life that carry symbolic weight. Unable to reach more profound answers about their own unhappy existences, people turn to their worldly possessions in order to alleviate their discontent. In the end, though, this does nothing to change the fact that they’re unhappy. Instead of simply living their lives, they frantically grasp for meaning by investing themselves in material items that ultimately do nothing to address their discontent.
While humans try to alleviate their existential unhappiness in simple materialistic ways, other races in the galaxy work more directly to discern the meaning of life. Adams explains: “Millions of years ago a race of hyperintelligent pandimensional beings […] got so fed up with the constant bickering about the meaning of life […] that they decided to sit down and solve their problems once and for all.” Determined to finally understand existence—its purpose, its underlying significance—they design a supercomputer called Deep Thought that is (at the time) the smartest computer in the galaxy. Unfortunately, Deep Thought takes 7,500,000 years to tell these beings the answer to “Life, the Universe and Everything.” When the computer is finally ready to deliver the answer, the “hyperintelligent” beings rejoice, saying, “Never again will we wake up in the morning and think Who am I? What is my purpose in life? […] For today we will finally learn once and for all the plain and simple answer to all these nagging little problems of Life, the Universe and Everything!” By showcasing this desire to finally answer vast existential questions, Adams demonstrates how obsessed seemingly all living beings can become with finding meaning. Indeed, without an “answer” to their endless questions, these beings are “nag[ged]” by the “problems of life.” Rather than approaching life as something that doesn’t necessarily have to mean anything, they agonize about the specific conditions of existence.
Despite the determination of these “hyperintelligent” beings to pinpoint the meaning of life, Adams demonstrates the absurdity of thinking that there’s a “plain and simple answer” to something as complicated as existence. He does this by providing an answer that is so simple it ridicules the very notion that any response could ever help somebody understand the meaning of life. Indeed, the “answer” to “Life, the Universe and Everything,” Deep Thought asserts, is the number 42. This is an ironic moment, since the “hyperintelligent” beings clearly see life as so complicated that they need a supercomputer to understand it. Deep Thought’s answer, though, is simple—so simple that the beings who asked the question can’t even discern how it relates to anything at all. In this way, Adams emphasizes the pointlessness of obsessing over such lofty existential questions. After all, even a simple and tangible answer doesn’t do anything to help the “hyperintelligent” beings make sense of life.
Rather than giving up and embracing the idea that existence doesn’t need to mean anything, the “hyperintelligent” beings refuse to let go of their obsession. Deep Thought explains to them that the reason they don’t understand the answer to life is because they don’t truly understand the question they’re asking. As such, they tell Deep Thought to build another computer that can explain this question to them—this “computer” is the earth, and it will take 10,000,000 years to finish the problem. Without hesitation, the “hyperintelligent” beings embark upon this absurd project, dedicating millions of years to their ridiculous fixation. This, Adams implies, is the kind of monomania that overshadows life itself. These beings could simply accept that they’ll never know the true meaning of life, but instead they waste time working toward an answer.
This obsession is worth juxtaposing with the lackadaisical attitude of Zaphod Beeblebrox, who’s arguably the most content character in the novel. In fact, his girlfriend, Trillian, even begins “to suspect that the main reason he had had such a wild and successful life was that he never really understood the significance of anything he did.” Rather than getting hung up on finding “significance,” Zaphod simply takes life as it comes. Because of this, he has had a “successful” and enjoyable life, whereas the “hyperintelligent” beings have spent millions of wretched years hell-bent on studying existence. In turn, Adams shows that embracing a sense of insignificance and meaninglessness can actually help a person lead a happier life.
Meaninglessness and Happiness ThemeTracker
Meaninglessness and Happiness Quotes in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.
This planet has—or rather had—a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.
Bypasses are devices that allow some people to dash from point A to point B very fast while other people dash from point B to point A very fast. People living at point C, being a point directly in between, are often given to wonder what’s so great about point A that so many people from point B are so keen to get there, and what’s so great about point B that so many people from point A are so keen to get there. They often wish that people would just once and for all work out where the hell they wanted to be.
“Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.
“The argument goes something like this: ‘I refuse to prove that I exist,’ says God, ‘for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.’
“ ‘But,’ says Man, ‘the Babel fish is a dead give-away, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. [...]’
“ ‘Oh, dear,’ says God, ‘I hadn’t thought of that,’ and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.
“ ‘Oh, that was easy,’ says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next pedestrian crossing.”
England no longer existed. He’d got that—somehow he’d got it. He tried again. America, he thought, has gone. He couldn’t grasp it. He decided to start smaller again. New York has gone. No reaction. He’d never seriously believed it existed anyway. The dollar, he thought, has sunk for ever. Slight tremor there. Every Bogart movie has been wiped, he said to himself, and that gave him a nasty knock. McDonald’s, he thought. There is no longer any such thing as a McDonald’s hamburger.
He passed out. When he came round a second later he found he was sobbing for his mother.
“Yes, do continue…” invited the Vogon.
“Oh…and, er…interesting rhythmic devices too,” continued Arthur, “which seemed to counterpoint the…er…er…” he floundered.
Ford leaped to his rescue, hazarding “…counterpoint the surrealism of the underlying metaphor of the…er…” He floundered too, but Arthur was ready again.
“…humanity of the…”
“Vogonity,” Ford hissed at him.
“Ah yes, Vogonity—sorry—of the poet’s compassionate soul”—Arthur felt he was on a homestretch now—“which contrives through the medium of the verse structure to sublimate this, transcend that, and come to terms with the fundamental dichotomies of the other”—he was reaching a triumphant crescendo—“and one is left with a profound and vivid insight into…into…er…” (which suddenly gave out on him). Ford leaped in with the coup de grace:
“Into whatever it was the poem was about!” he yelled.
The nothingth of a second for which the hole existed reverberated backward and forward through time in a most improbable fashion. Somewhere in the deeply remote past it seriously traumatized a small random group of atoms drifting through the empty sterility of space and made them cling together in the most extraordinarily unlikely patterns. These patterns quickly learned to copy themselves (this was part of what was so extraordinary about the patterns) and went on to cause massive trouble on every planet they drifted on to. That was how life began in the Universe.
The principle of generating small amounts of finite improbability by simply hooking the logic circuits of a Bambleweeny 57 Sub-Meson Brain to an atomic vector plotter suspended in a strong Brownian Motion producer (say a nice hot cup of tea) were of course well understood […]. [One] thing [scientists] couldn’t stand was the perpetual failure they encountered in trying to construct a machine which could generate the infinite improbability field needed to flip a spaceship across the mind-paralyzing distances between the farthest stars, and in the end they grumpily announced that such a machine was virtually impossible.
Then, one day, a student […] found himself reasoning this way:
If, he thought to himself, such a machine is a virtual impossibility, then it must logically be a finite improbability. So all I have to do in order to make one is to work out exactly how improbable it is, feed that figure into the finite improbability generator, give it a fresh cup of really hot tea…and turn it on!
He tapped irritably at a control panel. Trillian quietly moved his hand before he tapped anything important. Whatever Zaphod’s qualities of mind might include—dash, bravado, conceit—he was mechanically inept and could easily blow the ship up with an extravagant gesture. Trillian had come to suspect that the main reason he had had such a wild and successful life was that he never really understood the significance of anything he did.
The Heart of Gold fled on silently through the night of space, now on conventional photon drive. Its crew of four were ill at ease knowing that they had been brought together not of their own volition or by simple coincidence, but by some curious perversion of physics—as if relationships between people were susceptible to the same laws that governed the relationships between atoms and molecules.
As the ship’s artificial night closed in they were each grateful to retire to separate cabins and try to rationalize their thoughts.
Many men of course became extremely rich, but this was perfectly natural and nothing to be ashamed of because no one was really poor—at least no one worth speaking of. And for all the richest and most successful merchants life inevitably became rather dull and niggly, and they began to imagine that this was therefore the fault of the worlds they’d settled on. None of them was entirely satisfactory: either the climate wasn’t quite right in the later part of the afternoon, or the day was half an hour too long, or the sea was exactly the wrong shade of pink.
And thus were created the conditions for a staggering new form of specialist industry: custom-made luxury planet building. The home of this industry was the planet Magrathea, where hyperspatial engineers sucked matter through white holes in space to form it into dream planets—gold planets, platinum planets, soft rubber planets with lots of earthquakes—all lovingly made to meet the exacting standards that the Galaxy’s richest men naturally came to expect.
“You want to check your legal position, you do, mate. Under law the Quest for Ultimate Truth is quite clearly the inalienable prerogative of your working thinkers. Any bloody machine goes and actually finds it and we’re straight out of a job, aren’t we? I mean, what’s the use of our sitting up half the night arguing that there may or may not be a God if this machine only goes and gives you his bleeding phone number the next morning?”
“That’s right,” shouted Vroomfondel, “we demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!”
“Well, I mean, yes idealism, yes the dignity of pure research, yes the pursuit of truth in all its forms, but there comes a point I’m afraid where you begin to suspect that if there’s any real truth, it’s that the entire multidimensional infinity of the Universe is almost certainly being run by a bunch of maniacs. And if it comes to a choice between spending yet another ten million years finding that out, and on the other hand just taking the money and running, then I for one could do with the exercise.”