Roy Baumiester, has written about the four needs for meaning that all humans have and I find that a useful framework. He believes, and I concur, that all four needs need to be satisfied to a reasonable degree, if a person has to live well. Even if one need is thwarted, one would be forced to search for meaning in that part of his or her life.
These four needs are as follows:
- Need for purpose (self-concordance?): We need to interpret events that happen to us and around us as leading to some goals or fulfillment. We cannot be doing random stuff, nor random stuff can happen to us; everything has to have some purpose or meaning. We need to conceptualize ourselves as goal driven, either acting the way we are due to external goals or due to intrinsic fulfillment.
- Need for values and justification (self-righteousness?_: We need to justify our acts (and inaction) by resorting to moral values that guide what we do and what we don’t do. We simply cannot be seen as acting capriciously, in our own eyes, and need a moral yardstick to act and justify the act. We need some consistency of behavior and that consistency has to come from a good point- that as a moral person this is what I am and this is what I do.
- Need for (self) efficacy: We also need some control over our life and and need to believe that we can achieve our goals/fulfillment or realize our values. We need to believe that one can make a difference by one’s own actions. Even if we don’t have any real control, we need to have an illusory sense of control.
- Need for Self-worth: We need to feel good about ourselves; normally this is driven by a need to perceive one as superior to others due to either one’s achievements, attitudes or belonging to an elite social group. By one mean or another, we want to assert that we are worthy human beings, and possibly worthier that the average joe.
I would now extend this analysis of four needs for meaning and link it to the four major existential concerns. Existential concerns like death, when activated experimentally using say mortality salience paradigms, can lead to search for meaning.
So here is what I think the linkage looks like:
- Death: Existential reality of death reminds us that we are biological animals that will perish one day; however there is a strong drive to transcend death; as a result whenever concerns about death are activated, we search for methods to enhance self-worth and stick closer to our cultural worldview. Both of these results are widely supported by the terror management theory. From a biological animal we want to become a cultural animal that has self-worth.
- Isolation: Existential reality of being social individuals who are still never able to get under the skin of the Other, and the deep drive on the other hand to reach out, leads us to look for deep existential connections and relations with others perhaps the whole of humanity as our brothers and sisters. We need to believe that by our actions we can forge connections and create ripples of meaningful difference to others. From an isolated social individual we want to become a part of connected and related humanity and this we do by exercising our self-efficacy/ control.
- Freedom: Existential reality of being free to make choices without there being any adequate grounds for making a choice, and the deep desire to make meaningful and responsible choices leads us towards moral values and guidelines that can provide a yardstick on which to make choices. As willful agents, we do not want to make random choices and we also don’t want to be governed/ determined by external constraints/rewards and so the need arises to have an internal compass or moral guideline- choosing our values and then living life in accordance with that. From mere willful agents, we want to become moral and responsible agents.
- Meaning: Existential reality of living in world that is inherently meaningless, combined with a deep rooted desire to find meaning in everything we do, leads us to turn to purpose- we want to lead purposeful lives and expect the world to be a purposeful and meaningful place. We cannot just observe events dispassionately, we need to interpret and imbue them with meaning. From impartial objective observers of the world, we want to become meaning-making, actively-constructive observers.
It is my firm belief that until and unless one has confronted the existential realities full-on and come to grips with them, one would not be able to satisfactorily find the four meanings in life and would continue living an impoverished life.