The meanings of life

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The meanings of life

A family party, Italy, 1983. Photo by Leonard Freed/Magnum

Happiness is not the same as a sense of meaning. How do we go about finding a meaningful life, not just a happy one?

Roy F Baumeister is Professor of Psychology at Florida State University in Tallahassee. His latest book is Willpower (2010), co-authored with John Tierney.

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Parents often say: ‘I just want my children to be happy.’ It is unusual to hear: ‘I just want my children’s lives to be meaningful,’ yet that’s what most of us seem to want for ourselves. We fear meaninglessness. We fret about the ‘nihilism’ of this or that aspect of our culture. When we lose a sense of meaning, we get depressed. What is this thing we call meaning, and why might we need it so badly?

Let’s start with the last question. To be sure, happiness and meaningfulness frequently overlap. Perhaps some degree of meaning is a prerequisite for happiness, a necessary but insufficient condition. If that were the case, people might pursue meaning for purely instrumental reasons, as a step on the road towards happiness. But then, is there any reason to want meaning for its own sake? And if there isn’t, why would people ever choose lives that are more meaningful than happy, as they sometimes do?

The difference between meaningfulness and happiness was the focus of an investigation I worked on with my fellow social psychologists Kathleen Vohs, Jennifer Aaker and Emily Garbinsky, published in the Journal of Positive Psychology this August. We carried out a survey of nearly 400 US citizens, ranging in age from 18 to 78. The survey posed questions about the extent to which people thought their lives were happy and the extent to which they thought they were meaningful. We did not supply a definition of happiness or meaning, so our subjects responded using their own understanding of those words. By asking a large number of other questions, we were able to see which factors went with happiness and which went with meaningfulness.

As you might expect, the two states turned out to overlap substantially. Almost half of the variation in meaningfulness was explained by happiness, and vice versa. Nevertheless, using statistical controls we were able to tease two apart, isolating the ‘pure’ effects of each one that were not based on the other. We narrowed our search to look for factors that had opposite effects on happiness and meaning, or at least, factors that had a positive correlation with one and not even a hint of a positive correlation with the other (negative or zero correlations were fine). Using this method, we found five sets of major differences between happiness and meaningfulness, five areas where different versions of the good life parted company.

The first had to do with getting what you want and need. Not surprisingly, satisfaction of desires was a reliable source of happiness. But it had nothing — maybe even less than nothing ­— to add to a sense of meaning. People are happier to the extent that they find their lives easy rather than difficult. Happy people say they have enough money to buy the things they want and the things they need. Good health is a factor that contributes to happiness but not to meaningfulness. Healthy people are happier than sick people, but the lives of sick people do not lack meaning. The more often people feel good — a feeling that can arise from getting what one wants or needs — the happier they are. The less often they feel bad, the happier they are. But the frequency of good and bad feelings turns out to be irrelevant to meaning, which can flourish even in very forbidding conditions.

The second set of differences involved time frame. Meaning and happiness are apparently experienced quite differently in time. Happiness is about the present; meaning is about the future, or, more precisely, about linking past, present and future. The more time people spent thinking about the future or the past, the more meaningful, and less happy, their lives were. Time spent imagining the future was linked especially strongly to higher meaningfulness and lower happiness (as was worry, which I’ll come to later). Conversely, the more time people spent thinking about the here and now, the happier they were. Misery is often focused on the present, too, but people are happy more often than they are miserable. If you want to maximise your happiness, it looks like good advice to focus on the present, especially if your needs are being satisfied. Meaning, on the other hand, seems to come from assembling past, present and future into some kind of coherent story.

This begins to suggest a theory for why it is we care so much about meaning. Perhaps the idea is to make happiness last. Happiness seems present-focused and fleeting, whereas meaning extends into the future and the past and looks fairly stable. For this reason, people might think that pursuing a meaningful life helps them to stay happy in the long run. They might even be right — though, in empirical fact, happiness is often fairly consistent over time. Those of us who are happy today are also likely to be happy months or even years from now, and those who are unhappy about something today commonly turn out to be unhappy about other things in the distant future. It feels as though happiness comes from outside, but the weight of evidence suggests that a big part of it comes from inside. Despite these realities, people experience happiness as something that is felt here and now, and that cannot be counted on to last. By contrast, meaning is seen as lasting, and so people might think they can establish a basis for a more lasting kind of happiness by cultivating meaning.

Social life was the locus of our third set of differences. As you might expect, connections to other people turned out to be important both for meaning and for happiness. Being alone in the world is linked to low levels of happiness and meaningfulness, as is feeling lonely. Nevertheless, it was the particular character of one’s social connections that determined which state they helped to bring about. Simply put, meaningfulness comes from contributing to other people, whereas happiness comes from what they contribute to you. This runs counter to some conventional wisdom: it is widely assumed that helping other people makes you happy. Well, to the extent that it does, the effect depends entirely on the overlap between meaning and happiness. Helping others had a big positive contribution to meaningfulness independent of happiness, but there was no sign that it boosted happiness independently of meaning. If anything, the effect was in the opposite direction: once we correct for the boost it gives to meaning, helping others can actually detract from one’s own happiness.

We found echoes of this phenomenon when we asked our subjects how much time they spent taking care of children. For non-parents, childcare contributed nothing to happiness or meaningfulness. Taking care of other people’s children is apparently neither very pleasant nor very unpleasant, and it doesn’t feel meaningful either. For parents, on the other hand, caring for children was a substantial source of meaning, though it still seemed irrelevant to happiness, probably because children are sometimes delightful and sometimes stressful and annoying, so it balances out.

Our survey had people rate themselves as ‘givers’ or as ‘takers’. Regarding oneself as a giving person strongly predicted more meaningfulness and less happiness. The effects for being a taker were weaker, possibly because people are reluctant to admit that they are takers. Even so, it was fairly clear that being a taker (or at least, considering oneself to be one) boosted happiness but reduced meaning.

The depth of social ties can also make a difference in how social life contributes to happiness and meaning. Spending time with friends was linked to higher happiness but it was irrelevant to meaning. Having a few beers with buddies or enjoying a nice lunch conversation with friends might be a source of pleasure but, on the whole, it appears not to be very important to a meaningful life. By comparison, spending more time with loved ones was linked to higher meaning and was irrelevant to happiness. The difference, presumably, is in the depth of the relationship. Time with friends is often devoted to simple pleasures, without much at stake, so it may foster good feelings while doing little to increase meaning. If your friends are grumpy or tiresome, you can just move on. Time with loved ones is not so uniformly pleasant. Sometimes one has to pay bills, deal with illnesses or repairs, and do other unsatisfying chores. And of course, loved ones can be difficult too, in which case you generally have to work on the relationship and hash it out. It is probably no coincidence that arguing was itself associated with more meaning and less happiness.

If happiness is about getting what you want, it appears that meaningfulness is about doing things that express yourself

A fourth category of differences had to do with struggles, problems, stresses and the like. In general, these went with lower happiness and higher meaningfulness. We asked how many positive and negative events people had recently experienced. Having lots of good things happen turned out to be helpful for both meaning and happiness. No surprise there. But bad things were a different story. Highly meaningful lives encounter plenty of negative events, which of course reduce happiness. Indeed, stress and negative life events were two powerful blows to happiness, despite their significant positive association with a meaningful life. We begin to get a sense of what the happy but not very meaningful life would be like. Stress, problems, worrying, arguing, reflecting on challenges and struggles — all these are notably low or absent from the lives of purely happy people, but they seem to be part and parcel of a highly meaningful life. The transition to retirement illustrates this difference: with the cessation of work demands and stresses, happiness goes up but meaningfulness drops.

Do people go out looking for stress in order to add meaning to their lives? It seems more likely that they seek meaning by pursuing projects that are difficult and uncertain. One tries to accomplish things in the world: this brings both ups and downs, so the net gain to happiness might be small, but the process contributes to meaningfulness either way. To use an example close to home, conducting research adds immensely to the sense of a meaningful life (what could be meaningful than working to increase the store of human knowledge?), but projects rarely go exactly as planned, and the many failures and frustrations along the way can suck some of the joy out of the process.

The final category of differences had to do with the self and personal identity. Activities that express the self are an important source of meaning but are mostly irrelevant to happiness. Of the 37 items on our list that asked people to rate whether some activity (such as working, exercising or meditating) was an expression or reflection of the self, 25 yielded significant positive correlations with a meaningful life and none was negative. Only two of the 37 items (socialising, and partying without alcohol) were positively linked to happiness, and some even had a significant negative relationship. The worst was worry: if you think of yourself as a worrier, that seems to be quite a downer.

If happiness is about getting what you want, it appears that meaningfulness is about doing things that express yourself. Even just caring about issues of personal identity and self-definition was associated with more meaning, though it was irrelevant, if not outright detrimental, to happiness. This might seem almost paradoxical: happiness is selfish, in the sense that it is about getting what you want and having other people do things that benefit you, and yet the self is more tied to meaning than happiness. Expressing yourself, defining yourself, building a good reputation and other self-oriented activities are more about meaning than happiness.

Does all of this really tell us anything about the meaning of life? A ‘yes’ answer depends on some debatable assumptions, not least the idea that people will tell the truth about whether their lives are meaningful. Another assumption is that we are even capable of giving a true answer. Can we know whether our lives are meaningful? Wouldn’t we have to be able to say exactly what that meaning is? Recall that my colleagues and I did not give our study respondents a definition of meaning, and we didn’t ask them to define it themselves. We just asked them to rate their level of agreement with statements such as: ‘In general, I consider my life to be meaningful.’ To look deeper into the meaning of life, it might help to clarify some basic principles.

First of all, what is life? One answer supplies the title to A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (2013), Anthony Marra’s moving novel about Chechnya following the two recent wars. A character is stranded in her apartment with nothing to do and starts reading her sister’s Soviet-era medical dictionary. It offers her little in the way of useful or even comprehensible information — except for its definition of life, which she circles in red: ‘Life: a constellation of vital phenomena — organisation, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.’ That, in a sense, is what ‘life’ means. I should add that we now know it is a special kind of physical process: not atoms or chemicals themselves, but the highly organised dance they perform. The chemicals in a body are pretty much the same from the moment before death to the moment after. Death doesn’t alter this or that substance: the entire dynamic state of the system changes. Nonetheless, life is a purely physical reality.

The meaning of ‘meaning’ is more complicated. Words and sentences have meaning, as do lives. Is it the same kind of thing in both cases? In one sense, the ‘meaning’ of ‘life’ could be a simple dictionary definition, something like the one I gave in the previous paragraph. But that’s not what people want when they ask about the meaning of life, any more than it would help someone who was suffering from an identity crisis to read the name on their driver’s licence. One important difference between linguistic meaning and what I’ll call the meaningfulness of a human life is that the second seems to entail a value judgment, or a cluster of them, which in turn implies a certain kind of emotion. Your mathematics homework is full of meaning in the sense that it consists entirely of a network of concepts — meanings, in other words. But in most cases there is not much emotion linked to doing sums, and so people tend not to regard it as very meaningful in the sense in which we are interested. (In fact, some people loathe doing mathematics, or have anxiety about it, but those reactions hardly seem conducive to viewing the subject as a source of meaning in life.)

Questions about life’s meaning are really about meaningfulness. We don’t simply want to know the dictionary definition of our lives, if they have such a thing. We want our lives to have value, to fit into some kind of intelligible context. Yet these existential concerns do seem to touch on the merely linguistic sense of the word ‘meaning’ because they invoke understanding and mental associations. It is remarkable how many synonyms for meaningfulness also refer to merely verbal content: we talk, for instance, about the point of life, or its significance, or whether or not it makes sense. If we want to understand the meaning of life, it seems as though we need to grapple with the nature of meaning in this less exalted sense.

A bear can walk down the hill and get a drink, as can a person, but only a person thinks the words ‘I’m going to go down and get a drink’

Linguistic meaning is a kind of non-physical connection. Two things can be connected physically, for example when they are nailed together, or when one of them exerts a gravitational or magnetic pull on the other. But they can also be connected symbolically. The connection between a flag and the country it represents is not a physical connection, molecule to molecule. It remains the same even if the country and the flag are on opposite sides of the planet, making direct physical connection impossible.

The human mind has evolved to use meaning to understand things. This is part of the human way of being social: we talk about what we do and experience. Most of what we know we learn from others, not from direct experience. Our very survival depends on learning language, co-operating with others, following moral and legal rules and so on. Language is the tool with which humans manipulate meaning. Anthropologists love to find exceptions to any rule, but so far they have failed to find any culture that dispenses with language. It is a human universal. But there’s an important distinction to make here. Although language as a whole is universal, particular languages are invented: they vary by culture. Meaning is universal, too, but we don’t invent it. It is discovered. Think back to the maths homework: the symbols are arbitrary human inventions, but the idea expressed by 5 x 8 = 43 is inherently false and that’s not something that human beings made up or can change.

The neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, professor of psychology at the University of California Santa Barbara, coined the term ‘left-brain interpreter’ to refer to a section in one side of the brain that seems almost entirely dedicated to verbalising everything that happens to it. The left-brain interpreter’s account is not always correct, as Gazzaniga has demonstrated. People quickly devise an explanation for whatever they do or experience, fudging the details to fit their story. Their mistakes have led Gazzaniga to question whether this process has any value at all, but perhaps his disappointment is coloured by the scientist’s natural assumption that the purpose of thinking is to figure out the truth (this, after all, is what scientists themselves supposedly do). On the contrary, I suggest that a big part of the purpose of thinking is to help one talk to other people. Minds make mistakes but, when we talk about them, other people can spot the errors and correct them. By and large, humankind approaches the truth collectively, by discussing and arguing, rather than by thinking things through alone.

Many writers, especially those with experience of meditation and Zen, remark on how the human mind seems to prattle on all day. When you try to meditate, your mind overflows with thoughts, sometimes called the ‘inner monologue’. Why does it do this? William James, author of The Principles of Psychology (1890), said that thinking is for doing, but in fact a lot of thinking seems irrelevant to doing. Putting our thoughts into words is, however, vital preparation for communicating those thoughts to other people. Talking is important: it is how the human creature connects to its group and participates in it — and that is how we solve the eternal biological problems of survival and reproduction. Humans evolved minds that chatter all day because chattering aloud is how we survive. Talking requires people to take what they do and put it into words. A bear can walk down the hill and get a drink, as can a person, but only a person thinks the words ‘I’m going to go down and get a drink.’ In fact, the human might not just think those words but also say them aloud, and then others can come along for the trip — or perhaps offer a warning not to go after all, because someone saw a bear at the waterside. By talking, the human being shares information and connects with others, which is what we as a species are all about.

Studies on children support the idea that the human mind is naturally programmed to put things into words. Children go through stages of saying aloud the names of everything they encounter and of wanting to bestow names on all sorts of individual things, such as shirts, animals, even their own bowel movements. (For a time, our little daughter was naming hers after various relatives, seemingly without any animosity or disrespect, though we encouraged her not to inform the namesakes.) This kind of talk is not directly useful for solving problems or any of the familiar pragmatic uses of thinking, but it does help to translate the physical events of one’s life into speech so that they can be shared and discussed with others. The human mind evolved to join the collective discourse, the social narrative. Our relentless efforts to make sense of things start small, with individual items and events. Very gradually, we work towards bigger, more integrated frameworks. In a sense, we climb the ladder of meaning — from single words and concepts to simple combinations (sentences), and then on to the grand narrative, sweeping visions, or cosmic theories.

Democracy provides a revealing example of how we use meaning. It does not exist in nature. Every year, countless human groups conduct elections, but so far nobody has observed even a single one in any other species. Was democracy invented or discovered? It probably emerged independently in many different places, but the underlying similarities suggest that the idea was out there, ready to be found. The specific practices for implementing it (how votes are taken, for example) are invented. All the same, it seems as though the idea of democracy was just waiting for people to stumble upon it and put it to use.

Wondering about the meaning of life indicates that one has climbed a long way up the ladder. To understand the meaning of some newly encountered item, people might ask why it was made, how it got there or what it is useful for. When they come to the question of life’s meaning, similar questions arise: why or for what purpose was life created? How did this life get here? What is the right or best way to make use of it? It is natural to expect and assume that these questions have answers. A child learns what a banana is: it comes from the store and, before that, from a tree. It’s good to eat, which you do by (very important) first removing the outer peel to get at the soft, sweet inside. It’s natural to assume that life could be understood in the same way. Just figure out (or learn from others) what it’s about and what to do with it. Go to school, get a job, get married, have kids? Sure thing. There is, moreover, a good reason to want to get all this straight. If you had a banana and failed to understand it, you might not get the benefit of eating it. In the same way, if your life had a purpose and you didn’t know it, you might end up wasting it. How sad to miss out on the meaning of life, if there is one.

Marriage is a good example of how meaning pins down the world and increases stability

We begin to see how the notion of a meaning of life puts two quite different things together. Life is a physical and chemical process. Meaning is non-physical connection, something that exists in networks of symbols and contexts. Because it is not purely physical, it can leap across great distances to connect through space and time. Remember our findings about the different time frames of happiness and meaning. Happiness can be close to physical reality, because it occurs right here in the present. In an important sense, animals can probably be happy without much in the way of meaning. Meaning, by contrast, links past, present and future in ways that go beyond physical connection. When modern Jews celebrate Passover, or when Christians celebrate communion by symbolically drinking the blood and eating the flesh of their god, their actions are guided by symbolic connections to events in the distant past (indeed, events whose very reality is disputed). The link from the past to the present is not a physical one, the way a row of dominoes falls, but rather a mental connection that leaps across the centuries.

Questions about life’s meaning are prompted by more than mere idle curiosity or fear of missing out. Meaning is a powerful tool in human life. To understand what that tool is used for, it helps to appreciate something else about life as a process of ongoing change. A living thing might always be in flux, but life cannot be at peace with endless change. Living things yearn for stability, seeking to establish harmonious relationships with their environment. They want to know how to get food, water, shelter and the like. They find or create places where they can rest and be safe. They might keep the same home for years. Life, in other words, is change accompanied by a constant striving to slow or stop the process of change, which leads ultimately to death. If only change could stop, especially at some perfect point: that was the theme of the profound story of Faust’s bet with the devil. Faust lost his soul because he could not resist the wish that a wonderful moment would last forever. Such dreams are futile. Life cannot stop changing until it ends. But living things work hard to establish some degree of stability, reducing the chaos of constant change to a somewhat stable status quo.

By contrast, meaning is largely fixed. Language is possible only insofar as words have the same meaning for everyone, and the same meaning tomorrow as today. (Languages do change, but slowly and somewhat reluctantly, relative stability being essential to their function.) Meaning therefore presents itself as an important tool by which the human animal might impose stability on its world. By recognising the steady rotation of the seasons, people can plan for future years. By establishing enduring property rights, we can develop farms to grow food.

Crucially, the human being works with others to impose its meanings. Language has to be shared, for private languages are not real languages. By communicating and working together, we create a predictable, reliable, trustworthy world, one in which you can take the bus or plane to get somewhere, trust that food can be purchased next Tuesday, know you won’t have to sleep out in the rain or snow but can count on a warm dry bed, and so forth.

Marriage is a good example of how meaning pins down the world and increases stability. Most animals mate, and some do so for long periods or even for life, but only humans marry. My colleagues who study close relationships will tell you that relationships continue to evolve and change, even after many years of marriage. However, the fact of marriage is constant. You are either married or not, and that does not fluctuate from day to day, even though your feelings and actions toward your spouse might change considerably. Marriage smooths out these bumps and helps to stabilise the relationship. That’s one reason that people are more likely to stay together if they are married than if not. Tracking all your feelings toward your romantic partner over time would be difficult, complicated and probably always incomplete. But knowing when you made the transition from not married to married is easy, as it occurred on a precise occasion that was officially recorded. Meaning is more stable than emotion, and so living things use meaning as part of their never-ending quest to achieve stability.

The Austrian psychoanalytic thinker Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) tried to update Freudian theory by adding a universal desire for meaningfulness to Freud’s other drives. He emphasised a sense of purpose, which is undoubtedly one aspect but perhaps not the full story. My own efforts to understand how people find meaning in life eventually settled on a list of four ‘needs for meaning’, and in the subsequent years that list has held up reasonably well.

The point of this list is that you will find life meaningful to the extent that you have something that addresses each of these four needs. Conversely, people who fail to satisfy one or more of these needs are likely to find life less than adequately meaningful. Changes with regard to any of these needs should also affect how meaningful the person finds his or her life.

The first need is, indeed, for purpose. Frankl was right: without purpose, life lacks meaning. A purpose is a future event or state that lends structure to the present, thus linking different times into a single story. Purposes can be sorted into two broad categories. One might strive toward a particular goal (to win a championship, become vice president or raise healthy children) or toward a condition of fulfilment (happiness, spiritual salvation, financial security, wisdom).

People ask what is the meaning of life, as if there is a single answer

Life goals come from three sources, so in a sense every human life has three basic sources of purpose. One is nature. It built you for a particular purpose, which is to sustain life by surviving and reproducing. Nature doesn’t care whether you’re happy, much as people wish to be happy. We are descended from people who were good at reproducing and at surviving long enough to do so. Nature’s purpose for you is not all-encompassing. It doesn’t care what you do on a Sunday afternoon as long as you manage to survive and, sooner or later, reproduce.

The second source of purpose is culture. Culture tells you what is valuable and important. Some cultures tell you exactly what you are supposed to do: they mark you out for a particular slot (farmer, soldier, mother etc). Others offer a much wider range of options and put less pressure on you to adopt a particular one, though they certainly reward some choices more than others.

That brings us to the third source of goals: your own choices. In modern Western countries in particular, society presents you with a broad range of paths and you decide which one to take. For whatever reason — inclination, talent, inertia, high pay, good benefits — you choose one set of goals for yourself (your occupation, for example). You create the meaning of your life, fleshing out the sketch that nature and culture provided. You can even choose to defy it: many people choose not to reproduce, and some even choose not to survive. Many others resist and rebel at what their culture has chosen for them.

The second need for meaning is value. This means having a basis for knowing what is right and wrong, good and bad. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ are among the first words children learn. They are some of the earliest and most culturally universal concepts, and among the few words that house pets sometimes acquire. In terms of brain reactions, the feeling that something is good or bad comes very fast, almost immediately after you recognise what it is. Solitary creatures judge good and bad by how they feel upon encountering something (does it reward them or punish them?). Humans, as social beings, can understand good and bad in loftier ways, such as their moral quality.

In practice, when it comes to making life meaningful, people need to find values that cast their lives in positive ways, justifying who they are and what they do. Justification is ultimately subject to social, consensual judgment, so one needs to have explanations that will satisfy other people in the society (especially the people who enforce the laws). Again, nature makes some values, and culture adds a truckload of additional ones. It’s not clear whether people can invent their own values, but some do originate from inside the self and become elaborated. People have strong inner desires that shape their reactions.

The third need is for efficacy. It’s not very satisfying to have goals and values if you can’t do anything about them. People like to feel that they can make a difference. Their values have to find expression in their life and work. Or, to look at it the other way around, people have to be able steer events towards positive outcomes (by their lights) and away from negative ones.

The last need is for self-worth. People with meaningful lives typically have some basis for thinking that they are good people, maybe even a little better than certain other people. At a minimum, people want to believe that they are better than they might have been had they chosen or behaved or performed badly. They have earned some degree of respect.

The meaningful life, then, has four properties. It has purposes that guide actions from present and past into the future, lending it direction. It has values that enable us to judge what is good and bad; and, in particular, that allow us to justify our actions and strivings as good. It is marked by efficacy, in which our actions make a positive contribution towards realising our goals and values. And it provides a basis for regarding ourselves in a positive light, as good and worthy people.

People ask what is the meaning of life, as if there is a single answer. There is no one answer: there are thousands of different ones. A life will be meaningful if it finds responses to the four questions of purpose, value, efficacy, and self-worth. It is these questions, not the answers, that endure and unify.

Read more essays on general psychology, meaning and the good life and wellbeing


  • ooddiss

    First of all Roy, thank you for a stimulating article.

    Life, for me, so far seems to have been like a lengthy sunrise. Year after year, I shed light onto new aspects of meaning in my life. I feel myself change from the person I was constantly. Luckily, always for the better. Yet, as you have mentioned the dichotomy between happiness and meaningfulness is very much present. I don't feel myself becoming happier per say. Yes there are moments, that seem joyous. But these are islands, in the ocean of purpose.

    Finding purpose in life for me seems like the challenge I have to face. What are the goals that define my purpose? Is it really something I can be good at? How will I motivate myself to meet the purposeful actions that I have to make?

    Questions like this, give me a sense of self reflection. Finding meaning isn't the easiest or happiest path to travel, as you have eloquently mentioned. But, there is something fulfilling about the process. A feeling that I can't really describe by the word happy.

    • BB

      There seems an awful lot of 'I' in this post.

  • Archies_Boy

    I think that being useful and being appreciated lead to being "happy" as the natural consequence. Part of happiness is the feeling that things are pretty much going right. To paraphrase Mae West, "I've been happy and I've been sad. Happy's better."

  • Oleg

    Interesting, and a great commission.

    To me Baumeister's piece illustrates the 'meaning gap' and how psychology struggles to bridge it, obliged as it is to be descriptive rather than prescriptive (ie dealing with empirical facts rather than values). We've had Frankel, Seligman and now Baumeister all say words to the effect of 'the meaning of life is to find meaning', or 'the purpose of life is to find a purpose'. It ends up in tautology.

    We need philosophy to help us discriminate between a good purpose and a bad purpose, good values and bad values, good achievements and worthless achievements. It's strange he doesn't mention a single philosopher or religious thinker in an article on meaning! It's as if his historical awareness begins in 1900 with William James, and is entirely confined to other social scientists.

    Baumeister assumes we all share a materialist perspective throughout the article (life is the end, nature doesn't care about us, culture is best understood in Darwinian terms as part of the struggle for survival) and that this perspective is somehow factually proved and unquestionable, which is also fairly strange in an article on meaning.

    His evolutionary functionalism leads to rather flat sentences like this: 'Meaning therefore presents itself as an important tool by which the human animal might impose stability on its world....By establishing enduring property rights, we can develop farms to grow food.' Wow, is that it? Meaning is a tool to establish property rights? Not a very inspiring definition.

    A more widely read social scientist, like Max Weber, would know that many of our meanings are attempts to deal with death, which as Tolstoy points out seems to render a lot of what we do meaningless. Every meaning-construction we have somehow has to come to terms with death and probably three quarters of the meaning-constructions humans have come up with involve some idea of spirit and of God. But coming as he does from the secular bubble of social scientific academia, Baumeister doesn't mention God once!

    I think he's factually wrong in the last paragraph: ' A life will be meaningful if it finds responses to the four questions of purpose, value, efficacy, and self-worth. It is these questions, not the answers, that endure and unify.'

    How do these questions unify us? Surely we unify with other people around answers to these questions, not around the questions themselves. Look at, say, the sociological work of Durkheim, Jonathan Haidt or Robert Putnam - communities coalesce round shared ideas of the transcendent, shared meanings. Social science can tell us that people need shared meanings around which to unify, but it's less good at telling us what meanings to unify around.

    • stevenharp

      Can we have meaning in a universe that is meaningless?

      • Roy Niles

        Why are you so sure that life itself did not evolve to serve a universal purpose?

      • Mihai Vieru

        Why do you think it's meaningless? Are you sure of that?

      • thefermiparadox

        I think so. Big emphasis on think. As Oleg said our meaning constructions have to come to terms with death. To me shared meaning to deal with deal with be framing the present for future humans. Emphasis on long term thinking and future human civilization. Other things like the search for life in the Universe and Transhuman goals.

      • Serge

        See: Existentialism

      • idBeiYin

        Question: Can we have meaning in a universe that is meaningless?

        BeiYin: You are right with your question in so far, as 'meaning' is commonly seen as one's 'understanding' and that is limited to the mind and the established mindset, in general the social one and individually that of one's personality. So then it is logical, that one can not grasp the 'meaning' of something that goes beyond one's own dimension and that has the state of one's personal growth. All the 'meaning' one can find for one's personality, might serve for the moment to survive with one's self image, to be able to continue, - but there will come the moment, when it becomes clear that all given 'meaning' is FAKE, due to the erroneous interpretation since beginning of humankind. Seeing this clearly, then indeed nothing makes 'sense' anymore and critical questions might show up. That tells, that this individual is in *transition* within one's individual *growing* process. The until now so tight identification with one's properties, as body, mind and emotions, is loosening up. That creates insecurity, the feeling of being 'lost' and being 'meaningless'. Out of this condition there might show up some essential questions...
        Question: How can one find 'meaning' that goes beyond one's established mindset?

        BeiYin: Is there anybody interested here and some where else, to get a creative answer?
        The usual reaction is and that is a just a normal defense reaction, to protect one's 'personality', to ignore anything that disturbs one's state of being. Another defense would be, to update one's belief system with one of the new high pitched spiritual concepts. There are quite a number of more tricks available...
        So one must have gone through all these survival tricks and then being extremely tired of all, to come to a really essential question...
        Then finding the answer NOT through one's 'mind', but through the realization of a new state of *being*, that then is *real* because it is the result of one's *growing*!

      • G

        Your question is a logical contradiction.

        Meaning exists in human minds, human minds exist in the universe, therefore meaning exists in the universe. The fact that human minds have no mass is immaterial (heh), as mass is not a necessary prerequisite for existence (see also neutrinos). The fact that human minds are an infinitesimal part of the universe is also immaterial since the key distinction here is between the existence or nonexistence of something, rather than its quantity relative to something else.

        As we are beginning to discover, the conditions favorable to life are widespread even in the tiny portion of our galaxy that we have surveyed thus far. It is not unreasonable to infer that the universe is infested with life and teeming with intelligence. As the properties elucidated by the physical sciences are uniform throughout the observable universe, we can reasonably expect that other intelligent species will be intelligent by virtue of having complex bodily organs for processing information, using both electrical and chemical means of computation (across both the classical and quantum scales, per Penrose et. al.) (in other words, brains of one kind or another).

        Thus if intelligent species throughout the universe have brains, and the brains use chemicals as part of their computational system, and chemicals mediate emotional states, then we have the basis to say that other intelligent species will also have the material substrates for developing a sense of meaning. (And before jumping to any conclusions that I'm anthropomorphizing the proverbial Grays, read very carefully the choices of words I used to reason this out.)

        So the bottom line is, yes, the universe has meaning, just as it has particles and waves and spacetime, and chemistry and biology and intelligence. We don't even need to invoke a hypothetical deity to state that "the universe has intelligence," in the obvious sense of having intelligent organisms.

        This is not to say that meaning is uniform or convergent in any sense; merely that it exists. And in human experience, it's up to each individual to discover meaning for themselves, in whatever more or less unique way it may occur in their lives.

        We can't have meaning in a universe that is meaningless, any more than we can have elements that can't exist on the periodic table.

        We can have meaning in a universe that is meaningful, as we can have hydrogen and helium etc. up through uranium and the transuranic elements. The fact that the more extreme transuranics only exist as creations in the lab, does not deny their existence as a part of nature at-large.

        The fact that we have meaning demonstrates that the universe has meaning in it.

        • Allis Woen

          I agree with your last sentence. I have read some material from which takes a really neat view on the reason why there is even a universe to have meaning in.

    • thefermiparadox

      I agree that probably three-quarters of meaning-constructions involve the idea of spirit and God. I'm not so sure they are still successful in the current modern scientific academia world we live in. I think they were but are no longer. This is why we need new meaning-constructions that still come to terms with death but are more grounded in reality as I listed below. Allen Tough wrote a couple papers worth pondering.
      Jason Silva is another person.

    • G

      William James' most well-known work is _The Varieties of Religious Experience_.

      For that matter one might criticize the lack of reference to the hard sciences as sources of meaning, but the author is not involved in the physical sciences and his sense of meaning might not be linked to them, as it is for some of us even if we are not working scientists.

      But overall, this is a valuable framework at least as one point of reference among many for considering one's sense of meaning.

    • tom_merle

      Each individual, taking some meanings from the various groups like family that fate has plopped each of us in, arrives at different answers. So the questions do endure pointing to a methodology that can be shared (unify). The anwers are mostly fleeting, and they aren't certainly always transcendent in the usual 'meaning' of the word.-- going beyond the experiential, the empirical. For most of us on this forum, god has no place in the answers even if this supernatural being does for most Regular People studied by Putnam and Haidt (don't know enought about Durkheim)

  • Lester

    Doesn't all this presuppose a particular worldview.

    There is a difference between the immediate awareness aspect of existence, call it the awareness of being, and the egocentric social construction called the "I" where a lot of the "meaning" of life is negotiated.

    And not all meaning is of the same value. The meaning of a mathematical equation is only ever applicable to certain aspects of the life/reality interface. It has nothing to do with the meaning of compassion within shared values. The mathematical "truth" appears solid because it can only be applied where mathematical equations are relevant, meaning that the judge and the advocate use the same logic. But meaning on a human scale is vastly more complex that meaning within closed systems.

    The same with the language thing - not all words do have shared meaning. In a very basic way they do within a single language (different languages create different linguistic landscapes which create different meanings), but even with a single language, on the level of meaning, the word "cup" and the word "tolerance" and the way they can be applied or the way they create tributaries of understanding are very different.

    And, going back to the first point, the "endless prattle" of the mind is where the immediate awareness of being is filtered up through the egocentric "I", but that may not produce meaning in itself. The eventual meaning is a shared creation of a social environment which can settle on any value or meaning. There isn't, as materialists love to assume, an underlying truth just waiting to be discovered. There are negotiated truths waiting to be agreed upon. And there are insights waiting to make meaning "seem" truer or more false in the light of the agreed upon truths.

    And, we cannot know where the negotiation is taking place. Isn't the subconscious much more responsible for so much more of our lives than we used to imagine? So when a person says "I'm going down the hill to get a drink of water" are they actively creating that desire or are they reacting to a deeper desire but claiming ownership of it in the rational mind - I just decided something rather than I am reacting to a decision as if it were "my" own.

    So, it might well be that what we experience as happiness or purposefulness are not fixed but dependent on the social environment, dependent on the shared agreement of happiness and purposefulness in the first place. Meaning that there is no fixed place to discover but rather a relatively fluid place that is dependent on the interactions of the participants themselves to create it. So ironically even the concept of meaningfulness in life if a fluid and ever changing one reliant on the social arena in which it can even be asked.

  • rameshraghuvanshi

    Nietzsche rightly wrote "If life is worth living only if there are goals inspiring one to live"These goals decided by our destiny.Everyman is unique so his goals are unique.We are all different to know our goals is first step for hardworking to fulfill that goals.Some people take time some find out goal in early childhood.Mozart know what to do in early childhood. Gandhi spend half life to search his goals.One cartia of search goals is in which field we tremendously enjoy fully emerge loss our soul in that work I think that one is our goals we must wholeheartedly devote our life to do that we are really live happy life

    • mike

      “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”
      ― Albert Camus

      • Rameshraghuvanshi

        Deep deep assignments run through all our lives ,there is no coincidences.Except your destiny,love it and follow that you will be happy

  • Shaniqua

    'Everybody has a plan...until they get punched in the face." - Mike Tyson

  • Byard Pidgeon

    After reading this essay, I find myself questioning all that I've thought about both happiness and meaning, a crisis precipitated by what may have been a throwaway example by the author, but that demolished the foundation of my being: "...the idea expressed by 5 x 8 = 43 is inherently false and that's not something that human beings made up or can change."

  • bacondoyle

    Get comfortable with your inner nihilist, Relax. If you continue to need a meaningful life (whatever that is), consider all the many lives and events widely said to be meaningful which are meaningless to you and apply that reasoning - someone, perhaps many, will find your life meaningful no matter how much you may disagree.

    • Serge

      True, and how rude of someone to do so. I surely would have offed myself long were it not for these stubborn others who insist on the meaningfulness of my life.

  • Flora

    mark...have't finished reading yet...but seem like this is a very interesting topic...the point with meaningfulness extends to the future and appears more stable is extremely well-made

  • thefermiparadox

    Great piece. Spot on and well done.

  • geckobob

    I'm okay with the majority of all this, but there is an aspect that is not mentioned. That is the affect of one's meaningfulness on other's lives, whether the others are humans or other animals. On average, we all go about our lives seeking to fulfil our needs by various actions. Some follow so called cultural rules and guidelines, while others, for the sake of their own self-determined meaning/happiness, couldn't care less about difficulties others must endure for the sake of their own success. The person in question trampling on others for meaningful fulfilment is quite within the realm of the author's attempt to frame all this in for our understanding. So, was senior Coreleone in "The Godfather" fulfilling meaning in his life when he made an offer that couldn't be refused?

    There are still some murky areas here to worked out. As much as I enjoyed the piece, there's more work to do. And thank you for the effort.


    A happy and meaningful life is to fully acknowledge this extraordinary "Opportunity To Exist"...The Spiritual Journalist

  • djanick

    Terrific article, but one detail is erroneous and should not be left uncorrected. Baumeister asserts, with no evidence, that "Democracy ... does not exist in nature" and occurs only among humans. Not so. When flocks of birds are assessing where to go next for the best food sources, scouts check out possible directions and give reports, and there is a non-verbal "discussion" of the options until a consensus emerges. Even bees, when they have to swarm as a colony to a new location, will have scouts bring back reports, communicated through dances, about possible new homes, which the bees then "discuss" through movement behaviors. Each bee ultimately "votes" by lining up with one or another scout. There can be a lot of back-and-forth. When one scout gets a clear majority the other side(s) give in and the whole colony goes to the winning scout's chosen location.

  • David Pfaff

    Sounds like you've got it all figured out. I might add I have never named or associated one of my turds as impressive as they might have been.

  • Matthew McCarthy

    Thank you, Roy

  • Rose Marylove

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  • SaintMarx

    "...we now know [life] is a special kind of physical process:not atoms or chemicals themselves, but the highly organised dance they is a purely physical reality."

    We do not know this at all. Either this equation of life with a purely physical reality is a stipulative definition of life (which certainly leaves out too much, such as consciousness), or pure speculation. Life may include physical aspects beyond our capacities for measurement or even imagination, and may as well include non-physical purely spiritual foundations.

    • Napo Martin

      That sentence, accepting pure materialism as an accepted fact, also called for criticism in my mind - regardless if it is featured with spiritual foundations or not.

  • idBeiYin

    This article stays within the range of the established social mindset and so doesn't give any *real* information. It just feeds people's self image, but doesn't go beyond.

  • Jesus christ

    The answer is selfless love.

  • jon

    What a waste of time reading that long ass boring article only to discover you have no fucking clue!!! dickheads!

  • Haris

    Golden Principles of Living a happy life. Just check this.

  • simon

    Fantastic article, Roy, thank you. I consider myself a thinker / philosopher and I will be going back to this again and again.

  • Scar

    Wow! Thank you so much for writing this! And thank you even more for putting it out here for anyone to read. This helps me with a lot of questions that I have asked about life.

  • John Stewart

    All you need is love. So, meaning comes from our relationships with others. And if you have avoided those, then you have no meaning.

    • mike

      People ask what is the meaning of life, as if there is a single answer. There is no one answer: there are thousands of different ones.

  • Shirley0401

    Great article. And great comments.
    I found it interesting was that all of the data discussed was drawn from 400 self-reports, without anything resembling a set definition of either happiness or meaning. While I get that we all define those for ourselves, I wonder how much that affected the results.
    Personally, I would love to have seen more of a focus on how both happiness and meaning are changing as society (at least in industrialized, "1st world" countries) moves into a post-manufacturing age, and how work (such a big part of life) is offering different ways of relating to one another. For my part, as interesting/stimulating as online "conversations" can be, I think they are fundamentally different from all of the in-person experiences they are slowly displacing. But that's a lot to ask of a single article.
    Either way, it clearly got people thinking about these questions, and sharing, which is wonderful.

  • james

    The meaning of life is simply to reproduce and anything further is made up.

    • skanik

      James, James, James,

      There is no meaning in reproducing - at the time of implantation you
      have no idea if there will be a conception and even less of idea of
      whether the child born is yours.

      Hardly any meaning there.

  • skanik

    When people ask what the "Meaning of Life" is the answer is:

    Whatever meaning you give to it.

    • JJ

      Yes, this is it in a nutshell. "Meaning" is only significant as far as how each individual feels about themselves and their lives. To feel meaningful, one only needs a purpose. To find a purpose, one only needs to have a goal. Fulfilling the goal is the purpose. That is all that one needs to feel their liife is meaningful. Doesn't matter what the goal is or what philosophers think about it.

  • tom_merle

    I think the essay, and some of the comments, get into trouble by conflating meaning with meaningfulness. Linguistically, the former for me 'means' (=expresses. a lesser definition) the significance, implication(s), value of data i.e., from information to knowledge to wisdom (Paidea). We need to displace ignorance and confusion with insight to be happy as well educated people. Meaningful 'means' having a serious, important, or useful quality or purpose. This too contributes to happiness but has little connection to meaning in the sense I used it.

  • Bill Van Eron

    I was very fortunate to have worked in HP back when Bill & Dave ran the show. They created a blueprint for social responsibility and meaningful work that I wish HP knew how to continue. I do and I left and after 9 years running Headwaters Marketing and helping entrepreneurs, I took a year off as a sabbatical to revisit vital needs, changing business and personal trends. I strengthened my own purpose and abilities to see where I could challenge conventional approaches to things like education, entrepreneur support. I also realized how marketing can become that trusted guidance system it always had the potential to be, but greed and intrusive methods drove it elsewhere. I am amazed at how far I got into rich solutions that have evaded most others but some require more funding than I can muster despite their outstanding value. So determined to have fun applying creative and systems thinking to defining and doing meaningful work (both concepts at play) I am continuing in my pursuit of a better marketing approach and to create something that many can benefit by. Good friend and author Alex Pattakos ' The OPA Way! talks to attention to others, purpose and attitude as most important. I will add making a living but (reasonably decent) money follows passion and value creation. Bernie Solis and Dan Pink articulate nicely about the changes underway and why right-brain people will play a stronger role now and in the future after decades of being devalued by left brain hierarchies. It's gonna be fun to shake up a system that is no longer tenable. Good luck to all of you. I do believe you can have fun and do meaningful work. Bill

  • Overleaf

    The universe is meaningless and statistically deterministic. Why would living things made out of bio-molecules and chemical-electrical reactions be different? They are not. The brain is adapted to give you a sense of self, consciousness, free will, and intelligence. Some of our capabilities are epiphenomena. In this context to push words like Happiness and Meaningfulness into a vastly complex universe with its own structure and rules is not very honest. These are language constructs and when discussing them we are playing with language more than we are reflecting reality and arriving at the truth. This article is more psychology and social-psychology and less science. No wonder the field of psychology has garnered such an unsavory reputation which hopefully should get corrected through neuroscience. Just because we can invent subjective concepts out of thin air (the H and the M), does not mean we should dwell on them or that they have any particular preference. We should deconstruct reifies such as Happiness and Meaning.

    If we did not have a sense of purpose, meaning, and happiness, we would not be here. The line of our species would have terminated a long time ago. If homo-sapiens didn't have a sense of happiness (and sex), and our intelligence was not protected by Meaning and we were in eternal existential depression, we would not have reached here. So Happiness and Meaning in the larger picture are byproducts INVENTED to keep us going as a species. You can achieve instant happiness and bliss by taking certain drugs. Therefore, dwelling on them is like when analyzing an airplane, we dwell on the noise or its capability to taxi, and ignore aerodynamics and control.

    In short, we put too much meaning in the meaning of life, and that does not make us a better specimen. Objective truth must come first even at the cost of existential depression - and we have to prove that our intelligence can subsume and overcome nature and rise above it - and hey if you insist on the existential construct Meaning, there you have it.

  • CrankyFranky

    2yo article - but hey I just found it again - so

    I've read the longest lasting source of happiness come from helping others - so - like I said to a neighbour this morning whose partner appears to be approaching death's door - 'don't worry - we'll look after you !' - she laughed as she walked away - that's what I plan to do - making others happy - makes me happy - thank you very much.