Tag Archives: Meaning

The Meaning of Life

Humans act all the time, which implies that they have preferences, i.e. persistent internal structures which say which choices they make in which situations. But humans aren’t usually very good at explaining their preferences. They instead find it hard to give a consistent abstract account that explains their choices. They can act, but can’t say what they want.

One of the things people sometimes say is that they make their choices to gain “meaning”. But they say many different conflicting things about what things actually give “meaning”, different not only between people but even within the same person. That is, people seem quite confused about the “meaning of life”.

If humans are at root pretty similar, then having any one person learn the meaning of their life would seem to be quite informative to everyone else about the meaning of their lives. And a substantial fraction of the many billions of humans who have ever lived have in fact tried to learn about the meaning of their lives. Furthermore, some of these people have claimed to have succeed in discovering this meaning.

Yet no one seem to have persuaded a substantial fraction of humanity to their view on this. Presented solutions to this key questions seem either overly vague or insufficiently supported by evidence in human behavior or words. What can we conclude from this key fact? Let us consider some possible explanations.

One possibility is that there is just no such thing. Human actions are induced by a complex mess of structures that is not reasonably summarized by any abstract coherent shared concept of “meaning”. When people have a feeling of having found “meaning”, that isn’t the result of their matching their lives to such a coherent pre-existing concept, but instead due to yet another complex mess of social and mental processes. We feel “meaning” when that seems to be useful to our minds, but there is no there there. We haven’t found it because it doesn’t exist.

A second possibility is that people have in fact discovered simple abstract expressible truths about the meaning of our lives. But these truths are mostly ugly, and thus not one they are eager to own and tell to others. And when they do tell others, their audiences mostly do not want to hear, and instead prefer to embrace the mistaken claims of those who do not actually know, but instead wishfully offer more aspirational accounts.

And a third possibility, is, what? My mind goes blank here. How could there be simple abstract truth on what gives us meaning, to explain our preferences, and yet either no one among the billions who have looked has ever found it, or when they all do find it they somehow can’t communicate it to others, even though to others this discovery would be quite unobjectionable and pleasing?

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Meaning is Easy to Find, Hard to Justify

One of the strangest questions I get when giving talks on Age of Em is a variation on this:

How can ems find enough meaning in their lives to get up and go to work everyday, instead of committing suicide?

As the vast majority of people in most every society do not commit suicide, and manage to get up for work on most workdays, why would anyone expect this to be a huge problem in a random new society?

Even stranger is that I mostly get this question from smart sincere college students who are doing well at school. And I also hear that such students often complain that they do not know how to motivate themselves to do many things that they “want” to do. I interpret this all as resulting from overly far thinking on meaning. Let me explain.

If we compare happiness to meaning, then happiness tends to be an evaluation of a more local situation, while meaning tends to be an evaluation of a more global situation. You are happy about this moment, but you have meaning regarding your life.

Now you can do either of these evaluations in a near or a far mode. That is, you can just ask yourself for your intuitions on how you feel about your life, within over-thinking it, or you can reason abstractly and idealistically about what sort of meaning you should have or can justify having. In that later more abstract mode, smart sincere people can be stumped. How can they justify having meaning in a world where there is so much randomness and suffering, and that is so far from being a heaven?

Of course in a sense, heaven is an incoherent concept. We have so many random idealistic constraints on what heaven should be like that it isn’t clear that anything can satisfy them all. For example, we may want to be the hero of a dramatic story, even if we know that characters in such stories wish that they could live in more peaceful worlds.

Idealistic young people have such problems in spades, because they haven’t lived long enough to see how unreasonable are their many idealistic demands. And smarter people can think up even more such demands.

But the basic fact is that most everyone in most every society does in fact find meaning in their lives, even if they don’t know how to justify it. Thus I can be pretty confident that ems also find meaning in their lives.

Here are some more random facts about meaning, drawn from my revised Age of Em, out next April.

Today, individuals who earn higher wages tend to have both more happiness and a stronger sense of purpose, and this sense of purpose seems to cause higher wages. People with a stronger sense of purpose also tend to live longer. Nations that are richer tend to have more happiness but less meaning in life, in part because they have less religion. .. Types of meaning that people get from work today include authenticity, agency, self-worth, purpose, belonging, and transcendence.

Happiness and meaning have different implications for behavior, and are sometimes at odds. That is, activities that raise happiness often lower meaning, and vice versa. For example, people with meaning think more about the future, while happy people focus on the here and now. People with meaning tend to be givers who help others, while happy people tend to be takers who are helped by others. Being a parent and spending time with loved ones gives meaning, but spending time with friends makes one happy.

Affirming one’s identity and expressing oneself increase meaning but not happiness. People with more struggles, problems, and stresses have more meaning, but are less happy. Happiness but not meaning predicts a satisfaction of desires, such as for health and money, and more frequent good relative to bad feelings. Older people gain meaning by giving advice to younger people. We gain more meaning when we follow our gut feelings rather than thinking abstractly about our situations.

My weak guess is that productivity tends to predict meaning more strongly than happiness. If this is correct, it suggests that, all else equal, ems will tend to think more about the future, more be givers who help others, spend more time with loved ones and less with friends, more affirm their identity and express themselves, give more advice, and follow gut feelings more. But they will also have more struggles and less often have their desires satisfied.

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Tarot Counselors

[Tarot card] readers claim to be able to describe a person’s life, his problems, hopes and fears, his personality and even his future. (more)

I recently watched a demonstration of Tarot card reading. The reader threw out various interpretations of the cards she placed, in terms of the subjects personality and life, and watched the subject carefully for reactions, moving the interpretation closer to options where the subject seemed more engaged. Though the subject was a skeptic, she admitted to finding the experience quite compelling.

Contrast such life readings to school career counselors. Economists have long been puzzled by the lack of student interest in career info. Career counselors usually refer to statistics about the income or graduation rates of broad categories of people given certain types of careers, colleges, or majors. Such advice may be evidence-based but it seems far less compelling to students. It is not connected to salient recent personal experiences of the subjects, or to outcomes in which subjects are very emotionally engaged. The advice is clear but uncertain, in contrast to the certainty and ambiguity of Tarot readings.

It seems obvious to me that many students would be more engaged by more Tarot-like career counseling. It also seems obvious that many parents and other citizens would loudly object, as this would be seen as unscientific and lower the status of this school, at least among elites. Even if the process just took on the appearance of Tarot readings but mainly had the usual career counseling content.

The high status of science seems to push many people to have less compelling and engaging stories of their lives, even if such stories are more accurate.

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