Posts tagged meaning
I have written previously about four major goals that one pursues in life: to recap they are Happiness, Success, Meaning and Morality. I have increasingly come to regard them as forming a stage wise progression- one moves from Happiness to Success to Meaning to Morality.
Its important to clarify here that by Happiness I mean here pleasure or the Pleasant life, as contrasted with the Successful life, the Meaningful life or the Virtuous life. Refer the Life Orientation Profile by Paul TP Wong.
One can even say that initially as a child/ adolescent, one is primarily driven by pleasant life; then in early adulthood the focus is on achieving success; in late adulthood the focus shifts to helping others and connecting to a bigger whole (meaning) and finally in old age the focus is entirely on being moral/spiritual.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that thousands of years earlier, Aristotle too had delineated four kinds of happiness worth striving for, I am mixing that with the three levels of happiness as elaborated by Nettle in his book Happiness: the science behind your smile.
- Laetus: Happiness derived from material objects; this is the domain of material and sensual pleasures; its also the domain of felt emotions on a day to day basis. The idea is to maximize positive emotions and minimize negative emotions. People primarily driven by this have the pleasant life orientation. These are momentary feelings of joy and pleasure as per Nettle. I refer to this as happiness in the colloquial sense.
- Felix: Happiness comes from ego gratification, being compared with others and coming out on top; this is the domain of achievement and competition. There is a lot of social comparison involved; you evaluate your life with reference to the life of others. Life satisfaction is a construct proper in this domain, where you implicitly compare yourselves with others and having more money can help you feel better here. People primarily driven by this have the successful life orientation. These are judgements or evaluations about feelings as per Nettle; your life satisfaction arises from how you perceive you are feeling relative to others. I refer to this as Success.
- Beatitudo: Happiness comes from helping others, and making the world a better place; this is the domain of altruism and co-operation. The orientation shifts from self to others. There is drive towards generativity, of living a meaningful life. People need to feel that their lives have meaning and they are contributing to a greater cause. People primarily driven by this have meaningful life orientation. These represent higher level of meaning as per Nettle. I refer to this as Meaning.
- Sublime Beatitudo: Happiness comes from being a moral person; experiencing moral joy of being a transcendent person whose nature is unconditional love. There is drive towards living life in harmony with ones deepest values. People primarily driven by this have a virtuous life orientation. I refer to this as morality/ Integrity.
What is interesting is that one can find tantalizing neural and chemical correlates of above four kinds of happiness, I am extending the FTI model of Helen Fisher to happiness domain:
- Pleasant life: Material pleasure is associated with Dopamine system. All sorts of pleasure or rewards are associated with dopamine. Thus pleasure= dopamine. On the flip side, endorphins that are anti-pain may also be associated with this system. The focus is squarely on maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. Helen fisher also calls this the curious/energetic temperament.
- Successful life: Achievement and competitiveness are strongly associated with Testosterone system. All sorts of aggression and active competition can be traced to high testosterone. On the flip side, when the other party is too strong (say a predator), then if one wants to do something other than passive freezing, then flight or fight system kicks in and adrenaline (epinephrine) calls the shots. The focus is on winning/ fighting and succeeding. Helen Fisher calls this analytical/ tough-minded temperament.
- Meaningful life: Helping others and cooperation are strongly related to estrogen/Oxytocin system. All sorts of cuddling, bonding and trusting happens as a result of oxytocin and vasoprassin. On the flip side, I speculate that excessive self-centredeness may result in endocannaboid release and may also be part of this system. Helen Fisher calls this pro-social/ empathetic temperament.
- Virtuous life: Morality and integrity are associated with Serotonin. Serotonin is involved in both preventing harm and ensuring fairness- the two major dimensions of moral behavior. Religion and traditionalism would also be valid associates here. On the flip side, I see anti-anxiety GABA playing a role here. Helen Fisher calls this the cautious/ social norm compliant temperament.
To me the fact that one can come to the four kinds of happiness from multiple sources, vouches for their validity and utility; and the fact that we have some tantalizing candidates of ‘happy chemicals’ that can be mapped to the four kinds of happiness is another converging evidence.
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.
People sometimes ask what is the purpose of life? Why should we exist or chose to continue existing? To them I typically pose a counter question, what purpose would *you* like to have for life and can you live your life ‘as if’ that is the purpose of life? See an example answer I provide here about the meaning/ purpose of life.
However, this post is not about such philosophical questions. Instead it builds on my previous posts about 4 major goals in life worth striving for. To recap the four major goals are 1) Happiness 2) Success 3) Morality 4) Meaning.
Sometimes you come across a blog toward which you feel a natural affinity and know where the blogger is coming from. I recently came across the blog Qualia Computing and was fascinated by some advanced common understanding about psychological issues that the blog author shows. For example, in this post the author asserts that purpose of life is
To Understand the Universe
To be Happy, and Make Others Happy
Also, later, the author asserts that any experience is valuable to the extent that it answers in affirmative to one or more of these questions:
Does it feel good? (happy, loving, pleasant)
Does it make you productive (in a good way)?
Does it make you ethical?
Taken together with the earlier formulation about the purpose of life, one can add a fourth question 4) does it lead to better understanding (of the world) ?
Thus, imho, all actions should be guided by answers to the questions ‘would it make me happy, make me productive , would make me a good person or would make me understand things a bit more clearly? ‘
So how does all this relate to psychological concepts? For starters, there is a big debate in psychology about the difference between happiness and meaningfulness and also as to which one is a legitimate aim to strive for? While some would like us to believe that happiness is the ultimate currency, new research suggests that Meaningfulness in life has its own importance and that both are valuable outcomes in themselves and predict other valued outcomes.
Moving beyond a narrow focus on oneself- whether to be happy or lead a meaningful life; one is also hounded by the desire to make a positive difference or contribution to the world around us. Some of us want to put a ding in the universe and leave our marks, while others are much more OK living a mediocre life , that is, content creating and leaving some small ripples around them.
The desire to create an impact leads us to the interpersonal sphere- where traits of competence and warmth are important. If someone needs our help we can either provide them practical help (similar to problem focused coping) based on our competence, or just be there for them (similar to emotion focused coping) based on our warmth and again create small ripples of kindness around us. Or we can also create a big impact by being outstanding in our field using our competence or becoming a paragon of a character strength by using our warmth.
In either case, one purpose of life may be to increase productivity to become more and more successful (in helping others) and the other may be to become more and more ‘good’ or moral and doing the small, everyday right things that make a difference. This is the contrast between being great and being good. This is also the contrast between being characterized mostly by doings or by beings.
In the happiness literature itself, there is a contrast between feeling happy (measured by presence of positive affect and absence of negative affect) and knowing that you are happy (life satisfaction etc), so the point being that there is also a contrast between feeling and knowing just like there is a contrast between doing and being.
In sum, the following four are the purposes of life:
- to be happy by feeling preponderance of positive emotions
- to be successful by doing a lot with a lot less (being productive)
- to be moral by being good and caring about others
- to be purposeful by knowing that what you do has value/ meaning
If we keep these four goals top of our minds, it is much more likely that our lives will turn out to be beautiful lives and we will feel less the need to ask the purpose of our lives!!
I wrote about the four major goals in life on my psychology today blog quite some time back and want to revisit it today in the light of reading Susan Wolf‘s ‘Meaning in life and why it matters’ which is a very accessible and engaging, as well as a short, read.
Susan Wolf claims that there are two usual suspects when it comes to explaining our major striving and actions. The reason why we do something may be to enhance our self-interest (the egoistic principle) or the reasons may lie in ethical and moral considerations (the altruistic principle). In the former case we are driven by an overarching goal of maximizing happiness (for ourselves) and in the latter case we are driven by moral principles that are impartial and do not lace any special emphasis on our own interests. For example, if we are utilitarian in our ethics, we may be driven by the moral imperative of maximizing happiness(utility) of maximum people/ entities.
Thus, happiness and morality are two important goals/ value systems and the corresponding reliance on self-interest or impartial moral imperatives, respectively, makes us decide on our course of action. However, she also claims that this picture is far from complete. Not all our reasons are reasons of self-interest or morality, but some are reasons of love.
To illustrate by way of an example, consider the fact that I may care for my wife when she is sick. Now, this act is neither purely due to self-interest nor can it be considered purely a moral act- there may be better ways of acting morally- maybe some other sick man deserves my help more. But I care for her out of love. And caring for her provides and adds meaning to my life.
Thus, Susan introduces a third phenomena in the mix – meaningfulness. When people act out of reasons of love they make their life meaningful. Now as per Susan this acting out of reasons of love could be love directed towards a person or towards an activity. Thus I may be passionate about psychology or blogging and may devote my life to such an activity and as that activity provides me fulfillment and also adds value to the world, it is meaningful. Her definition of meaningfulness is where subjective attraction meet objective value- you find something or some person worthy of your love (attractive) and are drawn towards it such that you engage in such a way as to make a positive contribution/ difference.
Meaning as per Susan is due to reasons of love -either for a person or an activity -she doesn’t distinguish between the two, and in my opinion causes some confusion. IMHO, its important to make a distinction between acting out of love for a person and acting out of love of an activity. Also she mentions two conceptualization of meaning- one driven by feelings of fulfillment and the other by getting involved in something bigger than oneself.
How does all this relate to the four major goals I have talked about previously? To recap, the goals are:
- Happiness (maximizing pleasure and ‘self’ focus)
- Morality/Integrity (living morally and ‘group’/community focus)
- Meaning (living authentically and ‘other’/ family focus)
- Success (making an impact and ‘task’/ work focus)
Susan has already delineated how happiness and morality are the two primary reasons for our actions, and she introduced meaning as the third major one; however, imho meaning (living authentically in accordance with ones values ) needs to be differentiated from living successfully or making an impact in the world. Meaning is intimately tied to others- our lives can never be meaningful out of context- they are meaningful only in relation to others appraisal of them as such and also our appraisal of them as such. Meaning is inter-subjective. It lies in between. If happiness can be deemed more or less subjective (only you can know if you are truly happy) and success as more or less objective (there can be objective criteria on which to measure the success of a life) , meaning is more about a common inter-subjective appraisal (whether both parties found the interaction meaningful). I caring for my wife is meaningful both to me and to my wife and its power lies in that inter-subjectivity. Morality on the other hand can be said to be neither objective nor subjective but transcending all.
Thus, while happiness can only be known from a first person perspective, and success judged accurately only from third person perspective, perhaps meaning can be formulated best from a second person perspective – that of the other!
Interestingly, while happiness is more about living in the present, and success more about what you have already achieved in the past, Meaning in my view is directed towards the future- if I am engrossed in meaningful relationship or project, I am looking forward to how the relationship or the project grows. For example, to sensitize my clients to the importance of meaningfulness, I ask them to think about their epithet or what they would like to be written on their tombstone- this exercise inevitably makes them reflect on what is actually meaningful to pursue (relationships) and what can be ignored or de-emphasized (workaholism) .
in summary, we are driven by four types of reasons or motivations – reasons of self-interest, reasons of morality/altruism, reasons of love for individuals and reasons of engrossment in activities/ projects. Thus the four major goals of life worth striving for Happiness, Morality, Meaning and Success!
PS: you may also like my Times of India blog post about differentiating happiness from meaning.