The Human Need for Meaning

The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung once remarked that human beings could withstand almost any amount suffering so long as they felt the suffering possessed meaning. And this need for meaning is as fundamental as the need for shelter, food, and companionship.


Of course, philosophers have long been interested in meaning. Many, like Aristotle and Nietzsche, have argued that self-growth is the purpose and ultimate meaning of life. Aristotle, for example, developed what is known as a ‘teleological’ view of existence. In other words, he believed that everything is seeking to fulfil its potential. An acorn exists to become an oak tree, a puppy to become a full-grown wolf. Life is goal-directed. But what is the ‘telos’, or ‘goal’, of a human being? Aristotle defined human beings as “rational animals” who must use their reason to find happiness and fulfilment. But happiness and fulfilment are not selfish goals; they are social. Aristotle saw human happiness not as a state of private, inner bliss but as something to be derived from engagement with the world – the richer and more civilized the world was, the happier you would feel. It is active, not passive. To put it simply, a human being self-realizes, according to Aristotle, when he uses his reason to do good and experiences happiness as a result.

Others have developed their own version of this idea. In his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde puts his theories into the mouth of a young English aristocrat named ‘Lord Henry.’ Henry tells Dorian Gray that “the aim of life is self-development. To realize one’s nature perfectly – that is what each of us is here for.” And Wilde returns to this in his essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism, in which he argues that the dreadful thing about poverty is not the lack of possessions but the way it prevents people from developing. In a Utopia, Wilde argues, in which machines did the work, people would no longer be stunted by mindless toil. Instead, they would be free to explore their own nature, to develop their minds and personalities to the limit. Wilde, of course, was an aesthete who hoped for a society in which everyone would become an artist. Even if they could not paint or compose poetry, their own life would be turned into art; the more one intensifies one’s individuality, the more one becomes an artist. This self-development, argued Wilde, would also bring with it an expansion of sympathy, or empathy. People would learn to cherish and value the self-development of others, to empathise not only with their failure and pain but with their triumph and joy.

The obvious objection to self-development is that not everyone has a soul worth developing. What about a psychopath or a sadist? For him, self-realization would mean inflicting torment on the innocent. What about those with perverse sexual desires? Perhaps their self-realization could only be attained at the expense of a child.

Contemplation and Wonder

One of the oldest and most profound of questions is, why there is something rather than nothing? As Wittgenstein put it, “it is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists“. More extraordinary is the fact that evolution has produced a species capable of asking and, to some extent, answering, such questions. Even if it were proved that life had no ultimate meaning, human beings could still live in a state of wonder. George Orwell captures this in his novel Coming Up for Air. A stressed, middle-aged salesman named George Bowling stops his car somewhere in the English countryside. It is the first warm, sunny day of spring. He switches off the engine, steps out, and wanders into a field, staring in disbelief at how beautiful everything is. This is the late 1930s, and he knows another war is coming. As he stands there, he wonders out loud, “why don’t people, instead of the idiocies they do spend their time on, just walk round looking at things?”

The truth is that some do. Many scientists find all the meaning and joy they need from the simple contemplation of nature. Physicists in particular seem at times to derive an almost mystic ecstasy when observing the cosmos and the laws that govern it. Art lovers find their meaning in the contemplation of beauty. Fortunately, you don’t need to be an actual scientist or artist to share in this wonder.

A critic might point out that this too is an unsatisfactory solution to the need for meaning. It is far too passive and withdrawn. Surely, they would say, meaning demands engagement with the world.

Love and the Relief of Suffering

Love is another strong contender for the meaning of life. But, as the ancient Greeks well knew, there are many forms of love. The intoxicating passion of romantic love may satisfy some, but many find it painful, frustrating, and often illusory. The Greeks distinguished this from what they named ‘agape’, meaning love as a sort of affectionate good-will. A British member of Parliament was once asked what he considered the meaning or purpose of his life. He replied, “to leave the world a fractionally less dreadful place than I found it.” That is what the Greeks meant by agape.

Certainly the world is hard, and suffering, both human and non-human, surround us all. But if this kind of love is to provide someone with meaning, it must be authentic. Lots of people use charity as a way of escaping their own pain and loneliness. Others involve themselves in the world’s troubles to impress their friends, fulfil religious duties, or satisfy their curiosity. Of course, a homeless man doesn’t care what motivates someone to give him soup and a blanket. So far as meaning itself goes, however, a sanctimonious pose is not good enough.

Ultimately, there are as many meanings as there are people. Ideally, you should try to combine the ideas set out above: to make love, kindness, and charity a part of your own self-growth and self-development. After all, no one is fully-rounded if they feel no pity for the suffering of others. And anyone so engaged and involved in the world should find no difficulty in experiencing wonder. If they did not, self-growth and love would in themselves be pointless.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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