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I think it’s now beyond dispute to claim the human race in general is experiencing a crisis of meaning.
Purpose, spirituality, happiness – whatever word you want to use for it – we seem to be missing something. We’re a species doomed to self-loathing and self-destruction through our obsession for materialistic ‘growth’, our addiction to instant gratifications, our divisive tribalism, and our unrelenting neediness for social approval.
Having conscious awareness comes with a price. We KNOW we are each going to die. This raises some terrifying dilemmas.
It seems to me that when people are faced with these intimidating questions, like “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” and “What’s the right thing to do?” they try to answer them in one of three ways primarily.
Science and atheism
The scientifically-minded look for patterns of cause and effect for meaning. Scientists are at heart deconstructionists – taking things apart to see how they work, breaking things down into ever smaller parts to understand the greater structure and supply-chain. Everything is explained by either determinism or randomness – there is no grand design.
Scientists and atheists derive their sense of meaning from understanding how things work, all the while trying to accept the atheistic premise regarding meaning and purpose, i.e. that there is none. They look for others who agree with them and take solace in knowing that we’re all going nowhere after we die.
Leaders in this perspective, like prominent scientist Richard Dawkins and renowned atheist Ricky Gervais, tend to claim that they find meaning in the amazing discoveries of science, yet most laymen seem intimidated by the constant revelation of randomness, and we hide behind our cellphones to avoid the bleak truth that it’s all objectively pointless.
Religion and spirituality
The religious look towards claims of the supernatural, towards the idea of a “higher power” or God or some kind, a creator/manager that gives us hope that this whole chaotic mess we call Life has a design, a structure, and a purpose: it’s all leading up to something. They take comfort even in not understanding this master plan, just knowing it exists and that each of us is part of it is enough to sleep at night.
They create communities that agree with their beliefs and take this as evidence that they’re onto something good. From churches and temples through to Flat Earth Society conferences and Burning Man, they surround themselves with the evidence of social proof, while also delighting in resistance from those outside the group.
Many of us believe that a good life comes from “success,” which is almost always defined as some variation of being rich and/or famous, usually as a result of being particularly skilled in something (including being good-looking) – though lately being skilled is becoming a less necessary part of the process. Materialistic people are obsessed with “more” – more likes, more money, more property, more love – and “better” – an upgrade to anything they already have.
They’re in this constant state of attempted improvement, where you’re never good enough and can always be better, and you’re always in competition with everyone around you. The winner claims all. Be the best and you’ll have a meaningful life – you’ve proven you are worth something. Fall short and you are a worthless failure.
Despite the overwhelming rates of suicide, drug abuse, depression and divorces among the rich and famous, we seem undeterred in our faith that success is the answer to our existential woes.
Where else is there to go?
We turn to materialism and end up stressed about our performance and cursed with an insatiable hunger for more. We turn to science and end up depressed about the bleak pointlessness of life and the ignorance of other human beings. Or we turn to religion and end up anxious about the afterlife and the approval of our peers.
All the while we are constantly fighting each other to prove that ‘our way’ is the right way.
Yet I feel excited, because in my lifetime I’ve been lucky enough to discover what I’d consider to be a fourth option. One that has reduced my chronic anxiety to almost zero. One that weaned me away from episodes of depression. One that has left me with no doubt about who I am or why I’m here, and yet is detached from any supernatural ideas, any pursuit of material possessions, any need for approval from others, and remains undimmed by science’s existential nihilism.
Before I share this, allow me to justify a little more clearly why I believe trying to find meaning these 3 other ways is a mistake.
The problem with science, atheism and humanism
We so often refer to science like it’s a single entity – “Science says it must be true.” But science is not a thing, it’s a body of work that shares an empirical process and set of guidelines. It’s a method of trying to establish what is accurately true.
Yet the way we refer to science treats it like a god. When someone says “According to science…” they imply that there is a god-like entity dictating wisdom to us all. While that may not be how scientists intended it to be received, many of us have come to the conclusion that if science says it’s so, it must be right.
The issue I have with using science to find meaning in life is specifically the weakest point in the scientific process: human opinion.
Science as an entity gives us no guidance on how to live. It’s the opinion of the scientists or commentators involved who interpret the results from whom guidance is issued. Science might tell us that medicine helps people live longer, but it’s only an opinion that says people should live longer. Maybe living longer isn’t what’s right, but science can only answer the questions we ask – it cannot tell us if they’re good questions.
When a study is conducted – no matter how empirical it is, how great the sample size, how carefully the double-blind control measures are implements, or how well it is peer-reviewed – in the end the opinions of the humans involved in the study or reporting on it are where the guidance comes from.
The choice to fund the study is based on opinion (usually one based on a capitalist model of profit). The reason for conducting this study is often based on someone’s subjective opinion that something is ‘bad’ and needs to be ‘fixed’. And the conclusions drawn about the results of the study are probably the most biased part, where a human decides what we’re supposed to do with this information.
And why does this matter for finding meaning in life?
Let me explain with an example. This study on depression compared various attempts to treat severe depression, from the use of SSRI’s through to CBT therapy and even electroshock therapy. Yet there is a glaring omission from the study. Can you see it?
Nobody consider the possibility that it might be good to have severe depression!
You might think this is obvious, that there’s no way it could be good to have depression, and therefore not worth considering. But where did you get that certainty from? Ancient philosophers often referred to phlegmatic moods as a time of reflection and learning. Where did you learn that depression was a disease that requires treatment?
Science never said depression was bad. Science told us it was painful, and we decided that means it’s bad. So we asked science how to treat it – which begs the question of that opinionated assumption. Science can only answer the question it was asked, and the answer will be biased in whatever way the question is biased.
Science, particularly in the fields of medicine and psychology, starts with a basic assumption that “pain is bad.” All studies are then extrapolated from this assumption. But if it turns out that pain is necessary for a meaningful life, pitiful few scientific studies will be able to help us.
We can see from recent findings regarding the ice-exposure techniques pioneered by Wim Hof – who started with the assumption that pain is helpful – that deliberately introducing pain into your life may have great benefits physically and psychologically. After his wife committed suicide, he sought out more pain rather than relief. Most scientific studies are based on finding relief, not more pain.
What if they’re all answering the wrong questions?
It’s safe to say that before the scientific revolution, humans generally accepted there would be hardship and suffering in their lives. I can only imagine, but I feel certain that they would not have complained about their circumstances with the same vigour to which we complain nowadays.
The Stoics in particular, along with the original Buddhists and Taoists, constantly discussed the need to accept that life doesn’t care about your feelings and that inner growth, resilience and confidence come from enduring painful experiences.
Furthermore, scientists have endless enthusiasm for finding out MORE and never are satisfied with an answer. This is the essential nature of science; there’s always another question for every answer found. The problem with this is that the meaningfulness and wonder of something can be destroyed by knowing too much about it.
I first noticed then when I started learning guitar.
Songs that were once magical were reduced by examination into just cords and notes. The tragedy of getting better at playing an instrument is it gets harder to find a musician who impresses you or blows your mind with the beauty or complexity of their music.
You can hear something the first time and think “Wow, it’s just so good!” only to find later that it was simply good because they followed a classic cord progression and combined that with a standard song structure, which any beginner musician could do.
Coldplay is a band that’s a great example of this – basically, all their songs follow one basic formula that most humans are psychologically incapable of disliking. It’s essentially an audible con.
I imagine the same tragedy occurs for aspiring magicians and painters. The impossible becomes possible, and then just plain ordinary, once you learn the rules and tactics.
Science turns the wonder of the proliferation of species on this planet into an evolution formula. It turns the chaotic thrill of emotions into neurochemicals and involuntary synaptic processes. It turns the glory of a sunrise into burning gas, light prisms, optical receptors and inherent colour preferences.
I’m more a scientist than I am a religious person, by far, yet both music and science has taught me that deconstructing something is not the path to finding meaning in life. Though it provides helpful insights, information and skills, meaning must be found elsewhere.
As Sam Harris himself says, he does not look at his daughter and think “Look at all these atoms giving rise to cuteness in my conscious awareness” (or words to that effect) – he finds the meaning of love for his daughter somewhere beyond deconstructing his relationship with her through the scientific method.
Scientific atheists like Stephen Pinker often relate meaning back to humanism, claiming morality and goodness can be derived from scientific exploration into what enhances quality of life for humans. But this is based on the assumption that humans should be doing well… I’m sure a few other species on this planet might raise objections with the growth of homo sapiens.
The problem with religion
As actor John Cleese put it recently, in an interview with the YouTube channel Rebel Wisdom, while Jesus was all about poverty and humility, the subsequent forming of the Catholic Church led to a distinct abandoning of these principles by his followers. This is the tragic pattern that religious and spiritual beliefs seem to invariably follow.
Christianity has become synonymous with child molestation and greedy evangelists; Islam has become synonymous with sexism, jihad and terrorism; and even the Buddhists somehow managed to find their way around to committing war crimes.
I myself recently visited the Vatican and was struck by the juxtaposition of seeing thousands of people lining up to spend at least €10 each to visit St Peter’s Basilica (during a single morning during the off-season), while homeless people begged right outside the gates. It seems the Vatican’s profits have had some difficulty spreading out to those in need. What would Jesus say about all that money staying in the temple? If I recall my childhood lessons, he apparently had some sort of beef with that.
The trouble with spiritual and supernatural beliefs, as a way to find meaning, is they inevitably become immersed with tribalism and profiteering. In the same way that science is incapable of acting independently from capitalism (who would fund the studies if not governments and corporations?), spirituality seems incapable of remaining independent from the formation of religious communities and unhealthy dogma.
Once you’re in any sort of community, biases in your brain automatically create an “in group” and an “out group”. Certain power-hungry people are always the most ambitious and so they rise to the top of the community’s hierarchy, leading to an overrepresentation of psychopaths and fanatics in executive positions. Rules are formed by the executive about who’s allowed to be “in” and how they must behave to remain in, and even worse, rules are formed about how to deal with who’s “out,” from attempted conversion or exclusion all the way through to genocide.
Even in the most loosely formed communities, things tend to go sour. A group of hippy-types might get together to form a commune that allows them to be in touch with the Great Mother Gaia or something, and within 12 months they’ve become a sex-cult that abuses children.
And the modern religion of today has got to be conspiracy theories. These seem to be cumulative – conspiracy enthusiasts collect theories like stamps. They might start with being anti-vaccinations, and within a few months they think planes are dropping mind-control chemicals and that aliens built the pyramids, all at the behest of our reptile Illuminati genetically-modified overlords.
The same process applies with conspiracy theories as with any religion. Communities are formed, leaders are elected (or self-appointed), rules are created, and enemies are identified and attacked. What starts as a lively conversation with a stoned friend about how the banks control everything, ends up with you cyber-bullying the crap out of some poor mother, just because she wants to take her sick child to the hospital instead of treating it with urine therapy and essential oils.
I’ve coached many clients who have ‘escaped’ a conservatively religious upbringing, and they invariably describe an echo-chamber community based on fear of ostracism, guilt and impossible standards. The search for God just ends up devolving into the worship of some random dude in a dress and a fancy hat telling you that you are a worthless sinner who was born dirty and must hate on other people to stay in the club.
Oh, and a mandatory donation too, because God is apparently a bit skint.
Show me any religion, any community with a common faith-based belief, and I’ll show you an example of how it has led to acts of hatred. I think it’s safe to say that hatred and a meaningful life are opposite ends of a spectrum.
Religion and spirituality may help you find a community that you can belong to, but believing in something for which there is no evidence is not the most effective path to creating a purposeful life because it will probably take you into hateful tribalism.
The problem with Materialism, success and approval
While many business leaders, capitalists and celebrities either directly or indirectly lay claim to the idea that being rich and well-loved will ensure you enjoy life, the statistics aren’t in their favour.
With money, studies typically agree that a certain amount of resources will correlate highly with your reported level of satisfaction with life. This, however, tends to peak for the general population at about $75k per year. After that, more money makes no significant difference. Your dreams of becoming a millionaire are shooting too highly.
It’s concluded that money is only associated with quality of life in terms of medical health and its ability to provide access to certain positive emotions (e.g. travel). Beyond these pleasures you need something else to find meaning.
It can be surmised, then, that should you find a way to manage your health and enjoy life without money, you actually don’t need much of it at all. There’s plenty of evidence that poorer people can find joy and meaning in their life despite their seemingly disadvantaged positions.
When it comes to using money to buy stuff – or being in a privileged position in which you come to possess things easily – again the science shows clearly that while you may enjoy temporary highs or delusional attachment to inanimate objects, possessions do not bring about a long-term meaning in life.
However, we can’t deny that one thing success and wealth can bring you is fame, love and approval. The most successful and rich amongst us often also enjoy far more positive attention than others.
So, does that make pursuing money worth it?
One clear fact to contend with is the shocking number of well-loved celebrities who have taken their own lives. Well over 100 recognised popular figures have taken their own lives since 2000, many of whom would also be considered wealthy, like Chester Bennington (Linkin Park), Robin Williams (actor comedian), and Dave Mirra (motorX superstar). While there are always exceptions to the rules, how could there be so many suicides if fame and being adored is truly the answer to a good life?
I would expect an area with the most meaning in life to boast the least number of suicides, wouldn’t you?
Capitalism has confused the pursuit of meaning with consumption, acquisition of wealth, and approval of the crowd. Yet this has proved to be a false-idol. The more we have, the more there is to lose, therefore the more there is to be anxious about. And the more people who love us, the more pressure we feel to live up to an impossible image.
The richer and more famous we are, the less sense it makes that we don’t enjoy life, and therefore an existential crisis overcomes one who has achieved fame and wealth yet feels no better for the experience.
As Andre Agassi says, about wealth and fame after winning Wimbledon for the first time in 1992:
“But I don’t feel that Wimbledon has changed me. I feel, in fact, as if I’ve been let in on a dirty little secret: winning changes nothing. Now that I’ve won a slam, I know something that very few people on earth are permitted to know. A win doesn’t feel as good as a loss feels bad, and the good feeling doesn’t last as long as the bad. Not even close…
I marvel at how unexciting it is to be famous, how mundane famous people are. They’re confused, uncertain, insecure, and often hate what they do. It’s something we always hear—like that old adage that money can’t buy happiness—but we never believe it until we see it for ourselves.”
Wealthy and popular people can quickly come to feel like there is no way to enjoy life.
But there is a way, as many former wealth and fame-obsessed public figures have discovered – like Jim Carrey, Derren Brown and Bill and Melany Gates.
The 4th option: value-based philosophy
In essence, science is objective – facts without guidance. Science can tell us what happens and roughly why it happens, but it cannot tell us what we need to do with this information. And it can only answer the questions we feel urged to ask (or are funded to ask), not tell us which questions we should be asking.
Religion is subjective – guidance without facts. Religion can tell us what we need to do but cannot provide good reasoning, logic or evidence to back up the claim that this is the right way to live. It cannot seem to function without restrictive rules and blind obedience to social structures that are all to often exploited by opportunistic narcissists, leading to division and hatred.
And materialism is rewards without guidance – we can win and lose without knowing if either winning or losing is essentially good for us, or whether we should be competing in the first place.
All three have the crucial flaw: someone else interprets the meaning of life for you.
As I personally delved into materialism, science and religion over time, I was struck by this recurring theme. It was scientists who told me depression was bad and rationality was good. It was priests who told me stealing was bad and faith was good. It was capitalists that told me that being artistic was bad and chasing money was good.
But no-one was asking me what I thought was good or bad. I wasn’t even asking myself.
Funnily enough, the breakthrough for this dilemma came without me even looking for it.
It all began with being a Probation Officer.
Criminals teach me morality
We were constantly given ‘tools’ to use with criminal offenders, helping them with a range of psychological and behavioural issues, like anger management, drug addiction, and choosing better peers to be influenced by. These tools all had varying levels of success.
But eventually I was exposed to a piece of work that started to have a phenomenal effect on the offenders I was trying to rehabilitate. It was an exercise simply called “Valued Living.”
Based on a rudimentary combination of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), the Valued Living exercise was all about identifying what was important to the offender himself.
This was the first such piece of work like this I’d seen. Everything else was designed to manipulate the offender into being a better person by society’s standards – to make him conform to our standards so we’d be less hassled by him. This exercise was unique: it asked him what his own standards were.
At first, I was sceptical. What would a serial murderer with a penchant for rape and a love for being in a gang know about living in a valuable way? Well, after testing out the exercise dozens of times, I quickly learned the answer was actually: quite a lot.
I had guys who’d NEVER had a prosocial role-model or influence in their entire lives tell me that they valued honesty, love and respect.
Guys who spent a large portion of their time inflicting pain on others were telling me that it’s wrong to disrespect someone. Guys who spent their whole lives in prison away from their families were telling me it’s wrong to neglect your children. Guys who stole something every day of their lives were telling me it’s wrong to be dishonest.
They told me. I didn’t prompt them, lead them, or otherwise influence their decision-making.
Sure, some of them would have been trying to manipulate me. But you must understand I was working with guys who were already sentenced, there was usually nothing they could get from me that they didn’t already have.
I was left with a shocking realisation: these guys didn’t care about the law and hated authority yet they often knew that what they were doing was wrong… by their own standards.
If you’re unfamiliar with the criminal justice system, you can be forgiven for believing most offenders are without remorse. It’s simply not true. Many are wracked with guilt about their crimes, particularly for violence and sexual offending. And, with some gentle questioning to provoke empathy, even thieves and con-artists sometimes feel bad about what they’ve done.
What ancient Greeks and hardcore criminals have in common
What’s weird about this is that these same people were raised and encouraged to commit these crimes. A White Power member, for example, will often come from a racist family and have exclusively racist friends, yet years later feel remorse for hurting people based on ethnicity. He’ll often come to this conclusion on his own, driven simply by his own guilt.
Years after I had these insights, I was then introduced to the philosophy of Stoicism, through Ryan Holiday’s books (and to a lesser extent Tim Ferriss).
It turns out that thousands of years ago, before capitalism, science and organised religion really came into coherent being, a bunch of old Greek dudes would get together and chat about what it meant to live the “right” way. They talked about virtues, about Socratic examination of one’s life, about facing the fact of death, and about living in a way that aligned with fate and nature.
Many of these conversations were written down so we can read them today. They often would begin with someone “not knowing” what was right or wrong, and then coming to a firm conclusion simply from being asked naïve questions. He was not told, he was asked.
And his answers might often go against what he was taught or what society demanded.
When you ask someone about right vs wrong, they will nearly always have an answer. Science would try to explain where that answer came from. Religion would try to judge the answer as correct or incorrect compared with accepted dogma (with appropriate rewards and punishments). Materialism would check to see how likely that answer would be to achieve a certain outcome.
But the Stoics would simply ask “How do you know for sure?” and a discussion would ensue.
Turning the focus around
Eventually, I applied the Valued Living exercise to myself. This immediately made me realise two key things: firstly, I already had a clear idea about what I though was good and bad, and secondly, I was not living according to this in many important situations.
I knew it was cowardly to avoid fear, yet I would binge-drink when socialising to overcome my anxiety. I knew it was dishonest to show a false presentation of myself, yet I would pretend to agree with my intimidating boss, just to avoid a hassle. I knew it was disrespectful to objectify women, yet I’d wear dark sunglasses so I could secretly perve on them when I was at the beach.
I already knew. Even when everyone else around me was doing it too, I still knew when it was wrong.
And you do, too.
Science overthinks right vs wrong, because all it can do is aim to disprove things by deconstructing them until anomalies are found and patterns lose consistency. Religion is the opposite, and barely ever reconsiders previously drawn conclusions, preferring blind following of rules over sceptical analysis. And materialism is very dogmatic on right vs wrong – if it makes you rich and popular it’s right, everything else is wrong.
But you know if what you did in the last week was right, wrong or neutral, without needing scientific enquiry, religious commandments, or materialistic goals. Your difficulty is in separating what you know from the influence of these external manipulators.
Your thoughts and emotions are already telling you what you need to know (at least to get started).
- If you don’t like being lied to and feel relieved when someone comes clean with you, then you value honesty.
- If you feel bad about missing an opportunity just because you were afraid and feel proud of yourself when you overcome a fear, then you value courage.
- If you feel a sense of peace when you stop trying to control things and annoyance when you can’t let go of something outside of your control, then you value acceptance.
- If you feel angry about seeing someone get bullied and feel good about someone reciprocating what you’ve done for them, then you value respect.
- If you’re annoyed by people complaining instead of solving problems, then you value responsibility.
- If you feel sad about homeless children and neediness when you’re lonely or sick, then you value compassion.
You know what you stand for – what your standards or principles are. And here’s the secret: the meaning in life comes from living by these standards. Not the Church’s, not your parent’s, not society’s – yours.
If you hate it when someone won’t let you into the right lane during peak traffic, then make sure you let people in when they’re in the same dilemma instead of being petty and blocking them. Choose kindness over revenge.
If you feel grateful when someone was thoughtful enough to text you asking how you are after your surgery, then put more effort into reaching out to your friends and making sure they’re doing OK. Refocus on what matters rather than getting busy with pointless distractions.
If you’re outraged by President Trump constantly telling lies and squashing the media, then stop telling white lies yourself just to avoid uncomfortable confrontations. Make sure no-one could ever blackmail you by revealing everything you’re scared to show.
Your lack of meaning comes from not living by your values. It comes from wasting time following other people’s rules or just filling the space of meaningless with materialism and approval-seeking.
You already know it feels good to do the right thing, so make that the focus of your day. You don’t need to deconstruct it, you don’t need to “win” something from doing it, and you don’t need others to agree with you. While you should definitely review each attempt to live more by your values, just note whatever lesson needs to be learned and move onto the next action.
This is how you create a meaningful life.