It’s been a while since my last post (over a year, in fact). Wondering about the why, it’s not so much that I have less to say, just less of a need to say it. I will keep writing these posts from time to time, but only when I think there’s a strong need. Hence today’s post – one that I’ve been mulling over for some time.
I’ve written a lot in the past around the idea of meaning. I’ve taken great pains to describe meaning as a human construct that can help us make sense of a confusing world.
In my view, there is no mystical woo to meaning. In fact, given my belief that meaning is actually an illusion, I don’t want to talk up the idea too much. Instead, let’s discuss the idea of meaning as a way of helping humans negotiate the challenging awkwardness of being a modern human, with a brain that evolved for a completely different set of problems (e.g., finding enough calories to survive the next bear attack) to the present day .
One of the big problems with a brain that evolved for survival is that it’s highly sensitive to pattens matching. Seeing patterns is great for noticing danger, but it’s also an issue for modern humans: your brain wants to see things that simply aren’t there (pareidolia is the term for seeing faces or shapes in features like clouds or cliffs). Our brains also want explanations for things they can’t immediately understand – they’re most comfortable with easily graspable, solvable problems. When faced with a more difficult or even intractable problem (like death), it likes to make up simpler stories in order to feel that it understands (e.g., the magical man in the sky who judges people and sends them to a Disneyland afterlife). When we combine an oversensitivity to pattern matching with a need to explain the world in simpler terms, we get a deeply embedded need for meaning.
Which means that meaning isn’t anything special, it’s the byproduct of some hardwired survival adaptations that compel us to see and seek out things that aren’t there. It gets worse when we combine our primate instincts for improved food and mating privileges – now meaning means doing something big and standing out in “the tribe”. But because that’s not a simple prospect anymore (like beating caveperson Ugg in a fight), it becomes a deeply held “feeling” that we should be doing something more with our lives.
In other words, our inbuilt drive for meaning (itself an amalgam of the brain’s evolved survival modules that aren’t consciously accessible) is a unicorn hunt. We’re driven to search for something that isn’t there and that can’t be found. And that genuinely sucks – it means a potential lifetime of searching for a sense of completeness and purpose that will (in all likelihood) never arrive.
It’s not enough, however, to just identify a misplaced process and be done with it. Dismissing our need for meaning as an aberrant aspect of evolution is like suggesting that despite anxiety being a normal evolutionary process (that helped us avoid danger), it isn’t a problem for modern humans. Knowing that we have built-in defaults doesn’t inoculate us from their effects, especially when those effects can be deeply upsetting. It’s much better to learn what to do in the presence of these inbuilt systems, so we can function better around them or even, potentially, use them to our advantage.
The desire for meaning is a powerful motivator. Unlike extrinsic motives (e.g., I want to lose weight because I’m frightened of social evaluation), meaning (or values)-based motives (otherwise known as intrinsic motives) are much more likely to last. Fear is a powerful, albeit temporary, motivator, but connecting with something that has meaning to us can motivate longer-term behavioural change a lot more effectively (e.g., I want to lose weight because I want to be a healthy person). But because our brains don’t do well with abstract or overcomplicated goals, searching for “unicorn meaning” is a lousy motivator – when we can’t really define what we’re aiming for, and can’t even determine when we’re moving toward it, we get overwhelmed and discouraged pretty quickly. Searching for unicorn meaning is an exercise is continual dissatisfaction: I feel the need to do more with my life and be someone, but I have no idea how (which probably means that I’m a failure)!
Instead of devoting ourselves to finding unicorns, we function a lot better when we’re able to find meaning in smaller, more achievable, measurable, and understandable chunks. This is actually easy than it feels, especially when we get over the idea that there is actually a unicorn to find. Accepting that there are no unicorns (despite the fact that it feels like there should be a unicorn if we just try hard enough) is tricky. It means noticing the desire to find that big, complete thing, acknowledging that the desire is there, and gently steering ourselves back to something more solvable. When we can identify the unicorn hunt as unnecessary, working on small, meaningful chunks (that we can actually achieve) is substantially more satisfying.
The timing of this post does coincide with the new year, and it’s a time of year when we’re most vulnerable to the desire to chase unicorns. This time round, how about being a little kinder to yourself. Unicorn hunting is tiring, unfulfilling and, ironically, meaningless. This year, how about identifying some of the things that you can actually do something about, coming up with a reasonable, achievable plan, and gently inserting the actions that stem from that plan into your life as often as possible. The end result is a lot more meaning (and fewer unicorns)…