According to recent research, we need to rediscover the power of meaning. We find meaning when we view our lives as significant: when we can make sense of them, and when we are driven by a sense of purpose. At times, meaning and happiness can be at odds, but a sense of meaning gives us the ability to experience a happiness that isn’t just artificial or selfish.
In the introduction to her book The Power of Meaning, Emily Esfahni Smith notes the inner longing human beings have for a sense of purpose. Where once religious belief provided answers, secularization has led to a new era in the search for meaning, an era in which the answers do not come so easily. We’ve turned to the academy, and the prophets of modernity are social scientists, many of whom work in the field of positive psychology.
Smith notes that the initial work of these social scientists focused on the idea of happiness. The research on this exploded so that there were four thousand books published on happiness in the year 2008 (a drastic climb from the year 2000, which only saw fifty published on the subject). Where do we find meaning? For a while the answer was in the pursuit of happiness,
And yet, here is a major problem with the happiness frenzy: it has failed to deliver on its promise. Though the happiness industry continues to grow, as a society, we’re more miserable than ever. Indeed, social scientists have uncovered a sad irony – chasing happiness actually makes people unhappy. (The Power of Meaning, 10)
So where do we turn? According to recent research, including Smith, we need to rediscover the power of meaning. We find meaning when we view our lives as significant: when we can make sense of them, and when we are driven by a sense of purpose (The Power of Meaning, 14). At times, meaning and happiness can be at odds, but a sense of meaning gives us the ability to experience a happiness that isn’t just artificial or selfish.
Without getting into Smith’s suggestions for crafting a meaningful life, it’s important to consider whether or not this is even possible in a Darwinian world. Richard Dawkins writes,
If the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies… are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind… The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. (River Out of Eden, 132-133)