Plenty of reason for doubt, anger and sadness

All of us — whatever our natural serotonin level — look around us and see plenty of reason for doubt, anger and sadness. A child dies, a woman is abused, a schoolyard becomes a killing field, a typhoon sweeps away the innocent. If we knew or felt the whole of human suffering, we would drown in despair. By all objective evidence, we are arrogant animals, headed for the extinction that is the way of all things. We imagine that we are like gods, and still drop dead like flies on the windowsill.

The answer to the temptation of nihilism is not an argument — though philosophy can clear away a lot of intellectual foolishness. It is the experience of transcendence we cannot explain, or explain away. It is the fragments of love and meaning that arrive out of the blue — in beauty that leaves a lump in your throat, in the peace and ordered complexity of nature, in the shadow and shimmer of a cathedral, in the unexplained wonder of existence itself. 

Michael Gerson, published in the Washington Post 

a world without meaning

We labor for our children and our children's children, but someday, in the remote future or, even sooner, as a result of man's fearful capacity to destroy himself, there will be no more children. That our earth will one day be wholly unfit for the continuation of our enterprise is as certain as any of our predictions can be.

Some day, if our present judgments are at all correct, the works of man will be as though they had never been. An earth as cold and lifeless as the moon will revolve around a dying sun.

What difference will it then make whether the Hungarians were courageous in the face of cruel invasion and whether hungry men, in concentration camps, shared their poor food with still hungrier and sicker prisoners?

What difference will it then make whether we now try to be intellectually honest, to face the negative evidence along with the positive, and whether we strive to make our world a scene of just peace?

Duty and love will be meaningless when there is no one to love and none to remember.

Elton Trueblood, Philosophy of Religion

the limits of science

The Ten Commandments of the Old Testament and the two great commandments (to love God, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself), according to Freud, come from human experience, not from revelation. The scientific method, he writes, is our only source of knowledge.

(CS) Lewis strongly disagrees. The scientific method is simply cannot answer all questions, cannot possibly be the source of all knowledge. He says the job of science- a very important and necessary job – is to experiment and observe and report how things behave or react. He writes, “But why anything comes to be there at all and whether there is anything behind the things science observes.. this is not a scientific question.”

Armand Nicholi, The Question of God

Your #1 (Psychological) Priority

To determine your #1 priority ask yourself, “What am I trying to avoid?”

What you are trying to avoid: Stress

#1 priority: comfort

How Others May feel: irritated or annoyed

The price you pay: reduced productivity

What you are trying to avoid: Rejection

#1 priority: pleasing

How Others May feel: accepting

The price you pay: stunted growth

What you are trying to avoid: Unexpected Humiliation

#1 priority: control

How Others May feel: challenged

The price you pay: social distance, reduced spontaneity

What you are trying to avoid: Meaninglessness

#1 priority: superiority

How Others May feel: inadequate

The price you pay: overburdened or over responsible

What you are trying to avoid: Pride

#1 priority: humility

How Others May feel: blessed

The price you pay: die to self

Love and Death

Love is a reminder of our own mortality. When a friend or member of our family dies, we are vividly impressed by the fact that life is evanescent and irretrievable. But there is also a deeper sense of its meaningful possibilities and an impetus to risk ourselves in taking the leap. Some -perhaps most - human beings never know deep love until they experience, at someone's death, the preciousness of friendship, devotion, loyalty. Abraham Maslow is profoundly right when he wonders whether we could love passionately if we knew we'd never die

Rollo May, Love and Will

Video Game Design

Good game designers know how to draw us in by catering to some very basic emotional needs. (Researcher Jane McGonigal) notes that the best games have four elements: clear goals that allow us to feel a sense of purpose; rules that make the task harder and thereby challenge our creativity; rapid feedback to chart our progress; and an experience that is voluntary.

Wouldn't it be nice if work was more like a video game? Your boss would articulate a clear mission and set of milestones you were expected to meet. You would go into the office every day and receive ongoing feedback about your progress so you could see the impact you are having.

The truth, of course, is that reality is messy. Our goals are fuzzy, our progress unclear. Video games, the majority of which now focus on getting us to cooperate rather than compete, offer a more fulfilling existence, McGonigal argues.

"We all want to find more meaning in what we do, like we're part of something bigger," McGonigal said. "Games give us a place to feel that, to cooperate and do something that is more satisfying."

Stop and consider the astonishing amount of time that people are now spending on games. In the U.S. alone, there are 183 million active gamers out of a population just under 310 million. Each day in "World of Warcraft" alone, people spend more than 30 million hours playing. And that's just one game. If we redirected even a fraction of that time into making schools better, the result could be an epic win for all of us.

Chris O'Brien, Mercury News Columnist

getting the big picture

Without some grasp of the meaning of their relationship to the whole, it is not easy for individuals to retain a vivid sense of their own capacity to act as individuals, a sure sense of their own dignity and an awareness of their roles and responsibilities. They tend to accept the spectator role and to sink into passivity.

John Gardner, Self-Renewal

givers and takers

"Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others," explained Kathleen Vohs, one of the authors of a study to be published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, in a recent presentation at the University of Pennsylvania.

In other words, meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants. People who have high meaning in their lives are more likely to help others in need. "If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need," the researchers write. What sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans, according to Roy Baumeister, the lead researcher of the study and author, with John Tierney, of the recent book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Baumeister, a social psychologists at Florida State University, was named an ISI highly cited scientific researcher in 2003.

The study participants reported deriving meaning from giving a part of themselves away to others and making a sacrifice on behalf of the overall group. In the words of Martin E. P. Seligman, one of the leading psychological scientists alive today, in the meaningful life "you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self."

For instance, having more meaning in one's life was associated with activities like buying presents for others, taking care of kids, and arguing. People whose lives have high levels of meaning often actively seek meaning out even when they know it will come at the expense of happiness. Because they have invested themselves in something bigger than themselves, they also worry more and have higher levels of stress and anxiety in their lives than happy people. Having children, for example, is associated with the meaningful life and requires self-sacrifice, but it has been famously associated with low happiness among parents, including the ones in this study.


Emily Esfahani Smith writing in The Atlantic

Frankl’s Decision: Meaning or Happiness

By 1941, Viktor Frankl’s theories had received international attention and he was working as the chief of neurology at Vienna's Rothschild Hospital, where he risked his life and career by making false diagnoses of mentally ill patients so that they would not, per Nazi orders, be euthanized.

That was the same year when he had a decision to make, a decision that would change his life. With his career on the rise and the threat of the Nazis looming over him, Frankl had applied for a visa to America, which he was granted in 1941. By then, the Nazis had already started rounding up the Jews and taking them away to concentration camps, focusing on the elderly first. Frankl knew that it would only be time before the Nazis came to take his parents away. He also knew that once they did, he had a responsibility to be there with his parents to help them through the trauma of adjusting to camp life. On the other hand, as a newly married man with his visa in hand, he was tempted to leave for America and flee to safety, where he could distinguish himself even further in his field.

As Anna S. Redsand recounts in her biography of Frankl, he was at a loss for what to do, so he set out for St. Stephan's Cathedral in Vienna to clear his head. Listening to the organ music, he repeatedly asked himself, "Should I leave my parents behind?... Should I say goodbye and leave them to their fate?" Where did his responsibility lie? He was looking for a "hint from heaven."

When he returned home, he found it. A piece of marble was lying on the table. His father explained that it was from the rubble of one of the nearby synagogues that the Nazis had destroyed. The marble contained the fragment of one of the Ten Commandments -- the one about honoring your father and your mother. With that, Frankl decided to stay in Vienna and forgo whatever opportunities for safety and career advancement awaited him in the United States. He decided to put aside his individual pursuits to serve his family and, later, other inmates in the camps.

The wisdom that Frankl derived from his experiences there, in the middle of unimaginable human suffering, is just as relevant now as it was then: “Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is.” 

Emily Esfahani Smith writing in The Atlantic

Meaning in suffering

Having negative events happen to you decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life, according to a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology. Another study from 2011 confirmed this, finding that people who have meaning in their lives, in the form of a clearly defined purpose, rate their satisfaction with life higher even when they were feeling bad than those who did not have a clearly defined purpose. "If there is meaning in life at all," Frankl wrote, "then there must be meaning in suffering." 

Emily Esfahani Smith Writing in The Atlantic

Transcending the Present

Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment -- which is perhaps the most important finding of a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology. While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning.

Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. "Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life," the researchers write. "Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future." That is, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.

Emily Esfahani Smith writing in The Atlantic

Knowing the Why

Viktor Frankl worked as a therapist in the Nazi concentration camps, and in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he gives the example of two suicidal inmates he encountered there. Like many others in the camps, these two men were hopeless and thought that there was nothing more to expect from life, nothing to live for. “In both cases,” Frankl writes, “it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them.” For one man, it was his young child, who was then living in a foreign country. For the other, a scientist, it was a series of books that he needed to finish. Frankl writes:

This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”

Emily Esfahani Smith writing in The Atlantic

Happiness without meaning

In a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, psychological scientists asked nearly 400 Americans aged 18 to 78 whether they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy. Examining their self-reported attitudes toward meaning, happiness, and many other variables -- like stress levels, spending patterns, and having children -- over a month-long period, the researchers found that a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different. Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a "taker" while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a "giver."   "Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided," the authors write.  

Emily Esfahani Smith writing in The Atlantic

the meaning of life

In September 1942, Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was arrested and transported to a Nazi concentration camp with his wife and parents. Three years later, when his camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had perished — but he, prisoner number 119104, had lived. In his bestselling 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to one thing: Meaning, an insight he came to early in life. When he was a high school student, one of his science teachers declared to the class, “Life is nothing more than a combustion process, a process of oxidation.” Frankl jumped out of his chair and responded, “Sir, if this is so, then what can be the meaning of life?”

Emily Esfahani Smith
Writing in The Atlantic