Just over 42 years ago, Douglas Adams wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and amid the enthralling tale of adventure, he introduced a central bit of philosophical wisdom that has become more famous over the years than the book itself, or its many movie, TV show, radio play, and theater adaptations.
The book follows the extraordinarily average Englishman, Arthur Dent, as he wakes up with a hangover one morning to discover that, not only is his house about to be destroyed by a construction company, but also the Earth itself is about to be demolished to make way for an intergalactic bypass.
Arthur is rescued moments before the destruction of Earth by his best friend, who, it turns out, is actually a hitchhiking alien. Adventure ensues across the galaxy during which Arthur befriends a sad robot, a girl he once tried to ask out at a party, and a two-headed galactic politician.
The adventure reaches a climax when Arthur suddenly finds himself kidnapped by a race of “hyperintelligent pandimensional beings” who are bent on extracting Arthurs’s extremely average Earthling brain, and they can’t seem to understand what Arthur is so fussed about when they’ve offered him a simple electronic replacement.
The hyperintelligent beings, as it turns out, have a very good reason for wanting Arthur’s brain— his perfectly ordinary human brain is the result of a 10,000,000-year-long experiment and could hold the key to the Ultimate Answer about Life, the Universe, and Everything.
Millions of years ago, they explain to Arthur, this 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 life— its purpose and significance— they designed a supercomputer called Deep Thought, which was, at the time, the smartest supercomputer in existence.
When Deep Thought was finally turned on, the programmers asked it to tell them “the Answer” to “Life, the Universe, and Everything.” Deep thought assures them that there is such an answer, and it is indeed a simple one, but finding it will take some thinking.
Approximately 7,500,000 years of thinking, to be exact.
And so, over the next 7,500,000 years, the aliens kept a dutiful vigil over Deep Thought, until finally it woke up from its millennia-long slumber and announced it had found the answer, “Though I don't think you’re going to like it.” Deep Thought, after stalling as long as possible, finally delivers the long-sought-after answer.
“Forty-two,” it says.
“Forty-two!” they shout. “Is that all you’ve got to show for seven and a half million years’ work?” Deep thought assures them that he checked the answer thoroughly.
“I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”
Rather than cut their losses and accept that perhaps the super-meaning of life isn’t meant to be understood, these “hyperintelligent” beings only dig their heels in further to their obsession. They commission Deep Thought to build another computer, one even more advanced that can determine the Ultimate Question such that the Ultimate Answer will make sense. Deep Thought agrees but tells them this new computer, which it names Earth, will take 10,000,000 to complete its calculation.
Earth was, alas, destroyed at the very beginning of our story. Worse, upon its destruction, it was a mere five minutes away from completing its ten-million-year journey! Which leaves them with… Arthur Dent.
The aliens insist that Authur’s brain is “an organic part of the penultimate configuration of the computer program.” And so, the Ultimate Question must be coded in there somewhere. Ignoring his protests, they begin to come after him, bent on extracting their prize.
Miraculously, Arthur's friends break through the guards at the last minute to rescue him. Chaos ensues, and Arthur and his compadres narrowly escape with their lives (and brains) intact, at which point they ride off into the proverbial galactic sunset and head to the Restaurant at the End of the Universe to grab a bite to eat.
By poking fun at the impossibility and absurdity of arriving at a satisfactory answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything, I think what Adams is trying to say is that life is an experience to be lived, not a question that needs to be answered. People can go entire lifetimes— or in this case, thousands of millennia— and get no closer to understanding everything about life or the universe. Worse, the more time we devote to pursuing answers for their own sake, the less time we have for actually living life.
Life is an adventure and the goal is to have fun. We’re here to make the most of life and try to be good people while we’re doing it.
Since the book’s original publication in 1978, Adams’ fans (perhaps missing the point just a bit) have spent untold hours searching for all the places where the number “forty-two” pops up in an attempt to discover their own Ultimate Question to shed light on the Ultimate Answer. After all, in the worlds of math and science, the number forty-two does have some singular qualities: it is the angle at which light reflects off of water to create a rainbow, it is the atomic number of molybdenum, and forty-two mysteriously pops up may times in the Book of Revelation.
But I have another theory. Maybe the answer to the Meaning of Life— that Deep Thought Mark II (aka Earth) was about to present before its untimely demise— is the same answer that Viktor Frankl, the celebrated psychologist known for his work in using meaning as therapy: Meaning is in the doing. And therefore, the Meaning of Life, The Universe, and Everything is in what we give to the world, what we experience, and choosing a positive outlook on whatever life throws at us. I like to think life is an adventure and the goal is to have fun. We’re here to make the most of life and try to be good people while we’re doing it.