I hear a lot of different stories about how meaning should fit into one's life

"What's all this meaning bullshit? Just focus on doing your job well and providing for your family."

^my grandparents

"Wanting meaning is wanting a simple narrative to your life, no simple narrative can possibly be true which means you should forgo the impulse for meaning in favor of the truth."

^some rationalists I know now

"Sure you can have meaning, but base it off of something real like 'pushing the bounds of human knowledge' instead of some ancient conception of a deity."

^some other rationalists I know now

"Without meaning you might still be able to have an okay life, but you're missing out on one of the most important/enjoyable/most-human parts of being a human."

^my parents

"Without meaning, you and your society will slowly degrade and fall apart and it is imperative that you find a narrative that works, otherwise game over."

^Jordan Peterson maybe(?)

Question: Do you personally feel a need/desire/impulse to have something like meaning in your life? How do you feel when you have it? How do your feel when you don't? If you do experience a need for meaning, how do you feel about having that need?

If you feel a need for meaning, what sorts of things feel meaningful? If you don't feel a need for meaning, what is that like? If you feel a need for meaning but don't endorse it, why is that the case?

Alternative Question (If your answer is something along the lines of "I don't really care about meaning much, I mostly just try to spend time on things I care about"): Are you readily able to discern what you care about? Do you think and decide what to care about? Have you ever had the experience of caring about ABC for a long time, then some event cause you to no longer care about ABC? What does life feel like when you're doing stuff you care about? What does it feel like when you aren't?

This is an open ended and fuzzy topic, and I'm am looking for any and all personal experience data points you can provide.

Edit/Clarification: My main motive for asking is that I was planning to write some posts about meaning, and wanted to check if the views I was responding to were ones other people held, or just straw men. Again, I'm interested in either personal details of how you experience meaning, but also find useful hearing about people's explicit models of "what is the thing in the brain that is meaning?" (I would conceivable ask for models as a related question, but I'm not sure how that feature works and don't know what it looks like when used)


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As far as I can tell, meaning is a feeling, something like a passive sense that you’re on the right track. The feeling is generated when you are working on something that you personally enjoy and care about, and when you are socializing sufficiently often with people you enjoy and care about. “Friends and hobbies are the meaning of life” is how I might phrase it.

Note that the activity that you spend your time on could be collecting all the stars in Mario64, as long as you actually care about completing the task. However, you tend to find it harder to care about things that don’t involve winning status or helping people, especially as you get older.

I think some people get themselves into psychological trouble by deciding that all of the things that they enjoy aren’t “important” and interacting with people they care about is a “distraction”. They paint themselves into a corner where the only thing they allow themselves to consider doing is something for which they feel no emotional attraction. They feel like they should enjoy it because they’ve decided it’s important, but they don’t, and then they feel guilty about that. The solution to this is to recognize the kind of animal you are and try to feed the needs that you have rather than the ones you wish you had.

Thanks! Some questions on what caring about stuff feels like for you:

  • Do you immediately/readily tell whether or not you care about something, or do you think about and "decide" what things you care about?
  • Have you had any things that you cared about for some time, then something happened that made you not care about it anymore? If so, what did that feel like?
To point one, if I feel an excitement and eagerness about the thing, and if I expect I would feel sad if the thing were suddenly taken away, then I can be pretty sure that it’s important to me. But — and this relates to point two — it’s hard to care about the same thing for weeks or months or years at a time with the same intensity. Some projects of mine have oscillated between providing deep meaning and being a major drag, depending on contingent factors. This might manifest as a sense of ugh arising around certain facets of the activity. Usually the ugh goes away eventually. Sometimes it doesn’t, and you either accept that the unpleasantness is part and parcel with the fun, or you decide it’s not worth it.

I fall most closely into the first take. I have problems even understanding what people mean when they talk about meaning. The term seems to be used to imply an appeal to an external meaning - an outside authority - which is either religious or quasi-religious. The necessary prerequisite is buying into the claim of authority. I don’t.

In an internal framework, by contrast, “do a good job, make a decent living, and take care of your family” is a completely acceptable goal. As would be almost any other goal. But it’s the goal most within my control.

It also matches “the meaning of life” in its most literal form. Every living entity is designed by evolution to survive and reproduce. One might expect to find satisfaction in fulfilling one’s function.

It may not surprise you to learn that philosophically I tend to align with Epicurus.

I think that when most people say "meaning", they mean "motivation". It's the feeling that there's something for you to do that's worth doing.

Dr. Zhivago talks about how Russian intellectuals who six months before had been political philosophers were, for a winter, completely and meaningfully engaged with questions of firewood. Danger, hunger, and fear are all fully motivating. It's only when you've run out of motivating goals to achieve that questions of meaning arise. I think questions of meaning are generally a sign of success.

This question is better informed by the works of Martin Seligman and his happiness/wellbeing department of psychology, Jordan Peterson's early book "Maps of meaning", and Victor Frankl.

Seligman suggests that meaning is one of the big things required to live a fulfilling and happy life.

Jordan Peterson proposed that meaning is narrative based and you can write your own meaning by journaling about your past/present/future.

Victor Frankl (post holocaust book - "man's search for meaning") invented logotherapy, suggesting that people need a reason and a purpose to exist. Described that while surviving the camps he was propelled by the desire to be able to one day tell his story. V also describes his patients and some of the ways he reflects back a cognitively meaningful conclusion to their struggles (man who died before his wife, was suggested that it was to save his wife from dying first and suffering without the man).

Buddhist meditators realise that meaning is subjective. because meaning is located in the brain, we can change it, we can manipulate it and we can make it work differently. I can do things like discount how much I value something, whenever I notice a motivation I can examine it's parts and find it's impermanence, I can notice how meaning does not satisfy and is just some chemistry in my brain. I can notice the self is an illusion and my own meaning is made up to satisfy something like an "ego" (ego is a word being butchered by many definitions).

Post rationalists can approach the problem like a game. What's the meaning at the end of the game? Okay, why don't I just stop playing the game and just do that. I call this the "just stop playing the game" game, and I've wanted to do it for as long as I was a rationalist. Only to realise that, the "just stop playing the game" game, is just another fancier game. Seeing the game, playing the game anyway, and realising it's a game, or seeing the game and not playing the game, starts looking like the same thing. A prison I can't escape. knowing these details, from the PR perspective, how do I play the game of my own choosing, my own meaning, while knowing I'm still in a game.

There's also the theory of spiral dynamics which describes how different people find meaning from different broad structures in a sociologically predictable and mapped out fashion. I will write an article about it at some point and have several drafts half written.

It's important to separate meaning from meaningful and the reasoning around meaning from the core meaningful thing. The difference between, "I really like sweet deserts" and "I like ice-cream" (but for meaning, X matters, Y are the reasons why it matters).

personal front:

Meaning is subjective, I accidentally made myself miserable by wanting things I could not have, then I accidentally made myself very disappointed by never wanting anything. It's been a meditative challenge to find the balance where I can want something and not be sad if I don't get it, and also not want something too hard that I feel meaningless being unable to get it, or meaningless once I do get it.

I explore what matters to other people, and that's been fun and interesting. There's a deep world of what matters to other people and why, and it's worth sharing and enjoying.

There's a complexity of validation for my own meaning, or some 1st person subjective desires never go away.

One thing I would like to acquire is the ability to have an enjoyable subjective experience almost all of the time.

It's difficult to understand what people mean when they say "meaning", because they're always so mysterious and vague around the term.

It seems to me that most of the time, when people talk about "meaning", they mean the dopamine hit you get when you move towards something that will elevate your social status, e.g. helping others, or sacrificing yourself for the well-being of the tribe/superorganism, or whatever else can be used as a virtue signal. (So, for example, making money for the sake of making money doesn't feel as meaningful as making money under the veil of "fulfilling a mission" and "having impact" and "making a dent in the universe", exactly in proportion to how much less status/prestige you'd be awarded by your tribe for the former. But, I mean, depends on your tribe; there are tribes where cynical money generation is cool (e.g. crypto traders), you're awarded status for it, and you'll find a corresponding sense of meaning in it.)

This is to distinguish meaning from the dopamine kick you get from moving towards other (notably short-term) goals, like food or sex. I don't think people call that one "meaning".

NB: The "meaning" circuit can be apparently hacked by superstimuli, like every other motivation-related part of the brain, hence videogames feeling "meaningful".

There are other phenomena that people sometimes call "meaning", but I think this is the most common one. (E.g. I usually use the term to mean literally meaning, in the semiotics sense, i.e. how dense the symbol web in your life is, i.e. minimum meaning = suññatā, maximum meaning = schizophrenia.)

I suspect this topic is going to have a lot of variance among individuals, and that variance will be rather heavily correlated with personality traits, emotional affect, and cultural upbringing. It's also VERY difficult to separate actual beliefs from signaling (for status of the advice-giver or to manipulate the advice-receiver into more social/cooperative behaviors).

Many people claim that "meaning" is important to their happiness, and many claim that it's universal. They're probably right, but they may also be trying to convince you that they have found meaning and are therefore praise-worthy, or to convince you that you should seek meaning (preferably one they support) so you'll be more useful to them.

For myself, I don't seem to have actual final terminal goals (as in, a state of the universe that I consider complete and perfect). I have only relative preferences (more of X or less of Y, differences from status quo). When those preferences are fairly large in scale and it appears that my actions have moved the universe toward them, I feel satisfaction. I don't know if that's what other people call "meaning", and I'm not even sure if I like it for intrinsic reasons or if I like it because it correlates with what my monkey-brain thinks should increase my status in a peer group.

Thanks! Noting your concern with conversations about meaning being about signaling: do you think that the "[...] and therefor are praise-worthy" comes from the fact that most people have a lack of meaning and do consider it important? Or do you think it's just a signal that is no longer attached to the reality it was once (if ever) grounded in?

I can't speak for most people. I tend to classify "search for meaning" in the same bucket as religion, in that there is an absolute majority of humans who claim it's the most important thing, a tiny minority who ACT like it's even a little bit important, and I don't personally experience it very often.

I think a number of the example answers are mystifying meaning. In my view, meaning is simply the answer to the question "why is life worth living?". It is thus a very personal thing, what is meaningful for one mind may be utterly meaningless to another.

Yet as we are all humans, some significant overlap in the sorts of things that provide a sense of reason or gladness to being alive exists.

I will quote my favorite song, "The Riddle" by Five for Fighting, which gives two answers: "there's a reason for the world, you and I" and "there's a reason for the world, who am I?"

I think these capture the two most common sources of meaning for people. Our interactions, love and care for others is one major aspect of what, for many, makes life worth living. And the other is looking inside oneself, finding the things you cherish for their own sake and the moments of flow and joy you are able to find in the world.

I don't know what people mean by "meaning" in this context. The concept that seems to me to be being pointed to is one that I would call "purpose". That is, having large goals for what you want to accomplish in your life. Is this the thing that is being discussed?

Well, I can't help having some story about myself, and I do feel happier when it's a positive story. I'd be surprised if there are people who don't feel that way. But at the same time, I know from experience that the stories I tell myself are mostly made up, and whenever they become counterproductive, I can just rewrite them with no hard feelings. Does that makes sense?

Thanks! I'm pretty sure I understand the broad strokes you've given about how you think/feel on this, and I'd be interested about prying into the details.

  • Are these rewrites little corrective tweaks that you do fairly quickly, or are they more drawn out processes that you need to devote time to?
  • Were there any particular experiences that hammered in "these stories are mostly made up"?
  • I'm guessing from what you've said that it doesn't bother you that your stories are made up. Can you talk about why that doesn't bot
... (read more)
I guess I simply noticed that when I spend a lot of time and attention on something, it becomes important to me. For example, as a Russian person living abroad, I can choose every day to either read Russian domestic news or abstain. If I spend a few days reading news, they start feeling important to my life and kinda unpleasant. Then I stop and it fades away again. So more generally, when something "meaningful" is making me miserable, I can spend time on something else, knowing that soon enough it will be the new "meaningful" thing. Sometimes it's hard, if I'm very locked in to the old thing, but I've been in that situation many times (miserable about something that feels super important in the moment) and it does get a bit easier with experience.

Meaning making is a skill and you have to invest in it before you can come up with stuff that is as satisfying to you as the most popular mass market competitors. The mass market competitors are unsatisfying if you aren't their target market.

My life was definitely changed by reading Luke's How to be Happy.

But that's not a direct answer to the question. Here's my take: If you try to find the True Meaning of life and then fulfil it, you will find nothing. It frames the problem in terms of a universal essence that never existed. But if you try to do what's right and good, you can do it.

Growing up I had a narrative of being a a scrappy protagonist in a fantasy YA novel, with a duel theoretical backing of "god exists and is nice" and "I read that people who think too much on the meaning of life go crazy, so I'll just not do that".

I've had one huge meltdown that was a culmination of previous structures of meaning collapsing in my life (my uncanny valley of rationality). The strong fallout lasted 3 months, strong background unpleasantness lasted for 2 years, and various lingering small threads are still being dealt with today (3.5 years later).

Once a week(ish) I have a some small to medium sense of listlessness.

Every other month or so I get a one-three day funk of feeling like the things I'm doing aren't interesting/don't matter any more.

I do feel a need for meaning and endorse that need for it. I often feel my life is most meaningful when I can work on a project the provides a decent amount of flow + clear indicators of progress, and when I get to spend lots of time with people I like.

Short answers here I think:

1. Yes

2. Happy (happier...less sad/melancholy)

3. Sad, listless. Why get up today... Why try...

4. Pretty much the same way I feel about being me -- or needing to breath a gas with oxygen.

I think most approaches to this question end up confused because seeing clearly where meaning lies is not easy because it's a subtle thing that, without training and considerable experience, is very hard to see directly. Even our term for this things, "meaning", is wrapped up in a web of connotations that suggests it is something other than what it is.

Most people tend to approach meaning as if it were either a thing (or at least a reification) or an essence that things have. I think all of your quotes have interpretations that show something of this, though some more or less than others, and all contain a hint of what I propose is properly meaning without all the extra confusion.

So where is the confusion and how do we pull it back? The confusion arises from trying to understand meaning as something more ontologically complex than it is, i.e. to understand it at the level of words and, less often, feelings, than at the level of perceptions. If we pull back and ask not "where is meaning?" or "what is meaningful?" but "how do I see meaning?" we can begin to approach an answer, which I'll skip over a lot of explanation because it would take longer than I care to explain in this answer and just give you the conclusion I've drawn: it's reduction of confusion. Yes, I'm saying the meaning of life, as you experience meaning, is ultimately about becoming less confused.

If you've payed attention to things like Friston's free energy and procedural control theory, this probably doesn't come as a surprise and you already have some idea of how this adequately explains many observed behaviors we might classify as "seeking meaning", although often only after multiple layers of complex interactions, but no more complex than the way the simple mechanisms of evolution explain speciation even though if you told someone "speciation is genes trying to maximize reproduction" you'd naively be dissatisfied without the gaps being filled in.

So I give this answer knowing full well I failed to fill in those gaps, but you may find it useful and, for what it's worth, I believe it's grounded in millennia of investigation into meaning.

To clarify, what you've outlined is your current guess at the mechanism in human minds that is the root of humans experiencing a thing we call meaning? (as opposed to "I've found meaning in my life via becoming less confused")

If so, thanks, and do you know if anyone else has written about this? Separately, I'd also be interested in knowing more about how you personally experience meaning. Given that you've put explicit thought into the mechanisms behind meaning, has that changed how you experience it?

2G Gordon Worley III4y
Right, this is my current model of what meaning is and where the feeling of meaning comes from. This framing does have some power to help restore a sense of meaning that often arises after seeing the emptiness of the world and the meaning nihilism that often arises from that, but it doesn't much create any particular meaning so much as just argue that meaning is possible and makes sense in some way, but you are still left to work out what feels meaningful to you right now and see how that evolves over time. Most of my thinking on this comes from a combination of Buddhist philosophy (specifically the Madhyamaka school founded by Nagarjuna), especially the notions of emptiness and dependent origination, perceptual control theory, the transcendental idealism of Husserl (and some related philosophers like Heidegger, Sartre, Schopenhauer, and, of course, Hegel), and my own investigations which lead me to those sources as my thinking converged toward what had already been worked out. Alas there is no simple place to link you that really explains this; maybe I'll write someone one day, although there's a good deal of my background for this way of thinking about meaning laid out in a sequence of post I made in 2017 ending with this one [https://mapandterritory.org/introduction-to-noematology-fac7ae7d805d]). As for my personal experience of meaning, it's a little hard to explain because it's undergoing transition towards being depersonalized (held as object), but right now I am very much subject to it (it's internalized as part of my sense of self and can't be easily investigated directly, although I can experience what I believe to be its effects), and both of those being opposed to the dissociated way most people deal with meaning that I'm contrasting with in my answer above (the way meaning is thought of as something external and reducible rather than inter-ternal and dependent/transcendental/irreducible (mondaic?)). But I make sense of my personal experience of meaning

I agree with Gordon, though I'm not entirely satisfied with his articulation. This topic is notoriously difficult to talk about given how the referents are entirely mental and phenomenological.

John Vervaeke's ongoing lecture series, Awakening from the Meaning Crisis, seems to be getting at this. We'll see where it goes.

2G Gordon Worley III4y
Thanks. I am still working out how to explain this myself, as this is written very much from the edge of my understanding. I don't really have a persistent understanding of what I'm talking about above; much of it comes from memories of peak moments of understanding and trying to reconstruct what was going on. Maybe in the future I'll have a better grasp that will allow me to explain it.
procedural control theory

Perceptual control theory?

2G Gordon Worley III4y
Yes, sorry, typo.

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