For The Soul
Searching For Meaning (with a capital ‘M’)
How our lives can be full of Meaning, even if we don’t know it
What people take to be meaningful can be very subjective. When someone says that they spend a lot of time doing X, and that X gives a lot of meaning to their lives, there is not anything anyone else can really say on the matter. This stands regardless of whether X is attaining success in business, giving to charity, exercising, or collecting buttons. What one person finds personally meaningful is similar to what one thinks tastes good; and in matters of taste, as they say, let there be no argument.
However, the fact that personal meaning is subjective doesn’t mean that there aren’t some reliable or common avenues to finding meaning, so says the famous psychologist and Auschwitz survivor Dr. Viktor Frankl. In “Man’s Search for Meaning” Frankl suggests that there are three main ways to create meaning for oneself:
- Falling in love (“experiencing” or “encountering” someone)
- Rising above oneself in the face of a challenge to grow, change, and turn personal tragedy into triumph
The last avenue to meaning was most important during his time in the German concentration camp, and it is, according to Frankl, an option that remains “even for the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change”.¹
Frankl’s insights are as profound today as they were last century, and for those looking to find personal meaning in their lives, these should not be overlooked.
But I’m here to talk about a different kind of meaning. More specifically, are there some ways in which we might say that life has meaning or is meaningful independent of an individual’s personal preferences or beliefs? What would ever make us say that Mr. Average Joe had a meaningful life — even if Joe might not agree or even care? What makes a life Meaningful with a capital ‘M’?
It’s not clear how someone’s life could have Meaning in the sense described above unless we appeal to something beyond or outside of ourselves. To step outside of our ourselves is to relinquish our personal predilections, goals, and opinions and subscribe to something bigger. Religious answers abound in this space, as they often claim to provide just such Meaning.
Without appealing to religious answers, though, I think that there is still something that gives our lives Meaning. The answer relates to morality. This is because it is the very nature of morality that it sits independently of individuals: morality holds regardless of what anyone happens to think. For example, if lying is (morally) wrong, then it is wrong regardless of what any particular person thinks, and it remains wrong even if no one ever lies, or even if there are no humans around to lie!
Being moral, then, would be a great way to have a Meaningful life. What counts as being moral is itself a perennial subject in philosophy, but according to the philosopher Karl Popper², the safe bet is on the alleviation or prevention of suffering. And I agree; it might not be the only thing relevant to morality, but it is a great place to start.
So to the extent that some sort of objective meaning (‘Meaning’) to life is even possible, I would submit that it involves the alleviation or prevention of suffering.
This seems to accord with experience: when we consider those people who work tirelessly to help feed, heal, clothe and protect others, we often say that their lives are full of meaning. And we don’t just mean that their actions must give them a sense of meaningfulness; we are indicating that they are actually doing something independently Meaningful. We accordingly offer our utmost respect and admiration to these kinds of modern-day saints.
This is good news for the rest of us (not-so-saintly) people, because it means we all may have Meaning in our lives, even if we aren’t exactly like the saints portrayed above.
Why? As I discuss in The Suffering Equation, preventing or alleviating suffering really depends on three fundamental factors: power (resources), knowledge, and kindness. You need all three to effectively reduce suffering.
Generating Meaning in one’s life, then, doesn’t require that you personally go around helping others all day. We need at least some people to do research to expand our knowledge, and we also need people to teach that knowledge to others. We definitely need people to generate economic resources so that we are able to deploy this knowledge for the benefit of others. And finally, we need as many people to foster kindness as possible, so that our knowledge and resources actually do get applied towards helping others.
What this means is that in the context of a reasonably benevolent society, anyone who directly or indirectly supports growing or sharing knowledge, or helps to generate power (resources, money, GDP) are acting Meaningfully.
Teachers, scientists, health care workers, bankers, construction workers and anybody who merely pays taxes is doing their part to alleviate suffering. Even those who may earn more than the rest of us are helping out, assuming either charitable donations or fair taxation also occur.³
And we can’t forget those who exhibit or foster the quality of kindness throughout society. Policy makers who direct funding to feed the hungry or provide affordable daycare are directly working towards alleviating suffering by exhibiting benevolence. The parent who conscientiously tries to raise kind children is likewise doing something extremely Meaningful since it bolsters the kindness of subsequent generations.
In fact, even the person who makes a point of smiling and holding doors for others is doing, in their own small way, something independently Meaningful via their acts of kindness.
All of this is to show that although some people may kindly sacrifice all their personal power and knowledge to help others, there is actually much other groundwork to be done as a society if we are to be effective in preventing suffering on a large scale. And to the extent we participate, we too have Meaning in our lives.
I take this as good news — and I intend it to be motivating and inspiring for those of you who have stuck with me to the end of this article. We all have a role to play, and we likely do play this role in many little ways day in and day out. I would find it very unlikely that any human has never done anything Meaningful at least once in their lives. In fact, it is much more likely that we are all acting Meaningfully on a daily basis.
We just need to know where to look.
¹ Frankl, V. (2006). Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press, p.146.
² Popper, K. (2011). The Open Society and Its Enemies. Abingdon: Routledge Classics.
³ To see how people try to do the most good by earning more money (a movement called “Effective Altruism,” I highly recommend reading “The Most Good You Can Do” by Peter Singer, 2015.