Must Reads, Philosophy, Psychology, Recommended

Meaning Matters

Everyone seems to be talking about meaning at the moment. Many appreciate that our lives need some kind of existential structure—cultural worldviews, social roles, and goals that give us purpose. Some speculate that we are suffering a crisis of meaning in the modern Western world for a variety of reasons including increased social alienation, automation, and the decline of religion. Others believe that meaning comes from within the individual, that we can abandon traditional beliefs, duties, and attachments and fashion our own existential framework. Some argue that meaning isn’t really that important at all and that we should instead focus solely on practical concerns such as physical health, economics, education, and the environment. As a behavioral scientist who has spent nearly two decades conducting research in existential psychology, I have some thoughts on why we should care about meaning and how modern life challenges our search for it.

First, meaning is important. Perceptions of meaning in life influence a wide range of life outcomes. People who have a strong sense of meaning in life, compared to those who lack meaning, are less vulnerable to mental health problems, more responsive to treatment when they do face mental health problems, better able to cope with trauma and loss, less inclined to abuse drugs and alcohol, less likely to desire, attempt, or die by suicide, less hostile and aggressive towards others, physically healthier, and live longer.

Meaning likely contributes to many of these outcomes because of its motivational power. When people feel meaningful, they are inspired, energized, and optimistic. In addition, life is full of temptations and distractions. It is easy to privilege immediate preference and pleasure over the longer term pursuits that promote physical, mental, and social health, particularly if these pursuits are difficult or unpleasant. In such situations, meaning is a vital psychological resource. It helps people regulate their behavior in constructive ways. For instance, a recent study.1 of physically inactive adults who had the intention to increase physical activity found that they were more likely to visit fitness centers and exercise for longer periods of time if they had meaning on their minds.

As another way to examine the potential motivational power of meaning, my colleagues and I have been conducting studies on how mentally revisiting meaningful past experiences (nostalgic reflection) influences motivation and goal pursuit using diverse empirical methods involving self-report, behavioral, observational, and neuroscientific measures. We find that when people mentally revisit cherished life experiences—meaningful memories—they subsequently feel more motivated to actively pursue life goals, especially if those goals are focused on friendship, family, and community.2 They also generally feel more inspired3 and display patterns of neuro-electrical activity4 consistent with a motivational model of meaning.

This brings us to the idea that we are facing or approaching a crisis of meaning in the modern Western world. Some have argued that the secularization of society has created a great existential vulnerability for Westerners. Religion offers a particularly powerful existential framework; a large body of research makes clear that the devoutly religious are less vulnerable to feelings of meaninglessness and related anxieties. However, religion’s influence in the West is diminishing. The United States is often thought of as an especially religious Western nation but in surveys asking Americans what gives their lives meaning, few mention religion, faith, or spirituality. Regardless of what one thinks about religion, understanding what meaning is really about and why the devoutly religious experience the highest levels of it can help us better understand the existential challenges of our time.

Meaning is deeply social. The more people feel strongly connected to others, the more they perceive life as meaningful. Social exclusion, ostracism, and loneliness all lead to feelings of meaninglessness. And people’s most cherished and meaning-affirming nostalgic memories typically involve close relationships. Religion is a powerful source of meaning, in part, because it shepherds people toward each other.

Critically, it is insufficient to describe meaning as simply the result of being socially accepted or even loved. Research indicates that meaning is ultimately about mattering, feeling socially significant.5 It hinges on the belief that one’s actions make a difference. In other words, humans don’t simply need social connections. We long to feel truly valued and needed by others. People can feel meaningless even if they know others care deeply about them. Having social relationships is necessary but not sufficient. People need to matter. In fact, the opposite of feeling like one matters is feeling like a burden, which is a major risk factor for suicide, in part, because it leads to meaninglessness.6

Religion isn’t just like any organization or group that affords people the opportunity to socialize. Religion promotes a deeper feeling of mattering by teaching adherents that they have social duties to family, friends, and even strangers. Religious faith is an invisible thread that weaves individuals together into moral communities.

The spiritual and supernatural dimensions of religion are also very much focused on mattering. Many believers view their lives as having teleological meaning, a purpose devised by God. Afterlife beliefs are also ultimately social beliefs regarding meaningful relationships that transcend the limits of material existence. Even among the religious who don’t believe or have doubts about an afterlife or the validity of specific religious stories, the family and community life that religion helps foster and the knowledge that they are part of a social and cultural institution that existed before and will continue to exist after their brief mortal lives help provide a sense of mattering.

I’m not suggesting religion doesn’t also contribute to social problems. It is a complex concept that is shaped by both bottom-up cognitive processes within individual brains and top-down socio-cultural and economic forces. However, even critics of religion should be able to acknowledge the existential roles it plays for our species and see that many who have rejected the old faiths are seeking secular substitutes.

Understanding the psychology of religion and the changing religious social landscape is important but the decline of religion is just one part of a larger story about the decline of the traditional social and cultural structures that have long sustained meaning by giving people that vital feeling that they matter. I propose that the rise of liberalism, and more specifically, individualism, is at the heart of this story.

Liberalism is an existential paradox. By unshackling humans from traditional cultural and social structures, it has freed us to pursue aspirations and experiences based on our own personal interests. This liberation has allowed many to explore a wider range of paths to meaning but it has also unrooted many from the most reliable sources of meaning. It has ushered in an era of individualism. The more people privilege an individual self (a self defined by personal attributes and interests) over an interdependent self (a self defined by cultural roles and duties), the more vulnerable they are to feeling like they don’t matter, that they lack social significance.

This may help explain not just why religious people perceive life as more meaningful than those who are less religious but also why conservatives across Europe, Canada, and the United States perceive life as more meaningful than liberals in these countries.7 Importantly, this relationship between conservatism and meaning remains even when accounting for differences in religiosity, is tied more to social conservatism than economic conservatism, and becomes particularly strong at higher levels conservatism. In general, the more people are rooted in traditional social and cultural structures, the more they view life as meaningful.

As automation expands, marriage declines, and people have fewer or no children, the opportunities to feel like one matters narrow. In their recent article, The Twilight of Liberalism, psychologists Bo and Ben Winegard articulate how the elite class are best equipped to navigate the modern world that was fashioned by liberalism. Perhaps the elite are also better able to find meaning in the modern world to the extent they can maintain the belief that their work still matters or can use their economic advantages to attract mates and form families. (Despite the fact that past generations had families in much harsher and uncertain conditions, in our liberal individualistic society, many young adults are convinced that they shouldn’t form families at all or unless the timing and conditions feel ideal for them.)

Still, even the most educationally and economically privileged among us cannot fully evade the existential cost of individualism and may be especially vulnerable to certain existential threats. In fact, though people in rich countries report higher life satisfaction than those in poor countries, those in poor countries report greater meaning in life, and have lower rates of suicide.8

The Western liberal elite champion cultural diversity and travel the world to sample other cultures, all while imagining they don’t need one, as if they are gods, not mere mortal cultural animals. But we are all cultural animals. And it is those who have done everything they can to reject and dismantle traditional cultural structures who are often the most existentially anxious and desperately searching for meaning, which makes them especially susceptible to extreme ideologies. Regardless of the underlying causes of our modern existential struggles, the success of efforts to solve them will depend on the extent to which these efforts offer people a way to play a significant role in a meaningful cultural drama. Without meaning, people won’t be motivated to solve the other challenges our species faces.


Clay Routledge is a Quillette columnist and professor of psychology at North Dakota State University. You can follow him on Twitter @clayroutledge

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash


1 Hooker, S. A., & Masters, K. S. (2018). Daily meaning salience and physical activity in previously inactive exercise initiates. Health Psychology, 37, 344-354.
2 Abeyta, A. A., Routledge, C., & Juhl, J. (2015). Looking back to move forward: Nostalgia as a psychological resource for promoting relationship aspirations and overcoming relationship challenges. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109, 1029-1044.
3 Stephan, E., Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T., Cheung, W., Routledge, C. & Arndt, J. (2015). Nostalgia-evoked inspiration: Mediating mechanisms and motivational implications. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41, 1395-1410.
4 Bocincova, A., Nelson. T. A., Johnson, J., & Routledge, C. (in press). Experimentally induced nostalgia reduces the amplitude of the event-related negativity. Social Neuroscience.
5 Costin, V. & Vignoles, V. L. (2019). Meaning is about mattering: Evaluating coherence, purpose, and existential mattering as precursors of meaning in life judgments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000225
6 Kleiman, E. M. & Beaver, J. K. (2013). A meaningful life is a life worth living: Meaning in life as a suicide resiliency factor. Psychiatry Research, 210, 934-39.
7 Newman, D. B., Schwarz, N., Graham, J., & Stone, A. A. (2019). Conservatives Report Greater Meaning in Life Than Liberals. Social Psychological and Personality Science10, 494–503.
8 Oishi, Shigehiro & Diener, Ed. (2013). Residents of poor nations have a greater sense of meaning in life than residents of wealthy nations. Psychological Science, 25, 422-430.


  1. Etiamsi omnes says

    I gather the ancient Greeks didn’t expect much from their own gods ; in Homer, more often than not, they are portrayed in a rather unflattering light. The Greeks of Antiquity held an overall pessimistic view of life, with not much expectation of a reward — or of anything for that matter — at the end of it. Yet their outlook on it seems to have been everything but nihilstic, or cynical. Quite the opposite: they seemed to have loved life with a passion. With a passion — and at the same time with sobriety. They probably were more fun to be around than the Hebrews, with their own somber, perpetually irate god… That (that v e r y little) being said, I’m not a very learned or scholarly person, so I’m waiting to read the others’ comments before I go on ranting.

    • V 2.0 says

      Good comment. You notice how often those pointing out the valid need for some sort of ‘religious’ structure always seem to imply a return to Christianity, and more specifically, a kind of 1950’s, nuclear family, church going kind of Christianity? Not that there’s anything wrong with that but it seems a rather small and often unsatisfying place to look for meaning for a lot of us. I like the attitude of the ancient Greeks. Life is short. Enjoy the ride (somewhat responsibly). Be the best you can be. Nothing wrong with that

      • Etiamsi omnes says

        I observe Muslims around me: they certainly seem, even the more moderate ones, to lead lives infused with a great deal of meaning and purpose. Just contemplating our divorce rates, single-parent households and general lack of solidarity revulses them. But there is indeed a high price to pay in terms of loss of individual freedom if you want to be “one of ours”. Not to mention the closing of your mind tight… That’s probably why you’re never given much of a chance to think twice: if you don’t convert, you die. If you’re already a Muslim and you apostasize, you die there too.

        • Stephanie says

          Etiamsi, considering women initiate most divorces, and Muslim women have no power in their marriages, their lower divorce rates make a lot of sense.

          • Etiamsi omnes says

            It makes a lot of sense anything notwithstanding, doesn’t it? From a child-rearing perspective, I mean.

          • Etiamsi omnes says

            Besides: “Muslim women have no power in their marriages” – Who cares? Do I care? Do I LOOK like I care?

      • derek says

        The Greek philosophers were the idle rich, with slaves to look after all the menial tasks. I wonder what their slaves thought about the lives than their masters lived and if they found comfort in their philosophical musings.

        • Etiamsi omnes says

          Most if not all ancient civilization’s relied heavily on slave labor at some point. And their women had not much of a say. Etc… So surely nothing is to be gained from reading their musings Let’s wait till the perfect society (to come someday) secretes the kind of culture even someone as preoccupied with social justice as virtuous you will embrace.

        • Etiamsi omnes says

          Goodness! I thought I was just not articulate enough to comment in this section and now it is made manifest that I am also not righteous enough…

          • derek says

            The religion of the Greek philosophers reflect the life they led. Their gods are conquerors, neurotics who fall in love with their mothers or can ponder flying. What and how they worshipped gives an indication of their lives, as other places what and how they worshipped was responsive to what they faced in their lives.

            The christianity of the black slaves in the US south was different from the christianity of the slave owners.

            If your place of residence is cursed to be placed where north bound or south bound armies traverse in their travels, your religion will be somewhat sombre.

            We are subject to the random events that come upon us. Our minds are pattern matching devices par excellence. One of the patterns we do is trying to find some kind of meaning or order in the winds that buffet us. The slave of the philosopher has a far different experience than the philosopher.

          • Stephanie says

            It’s difficult to compare the meaning-infusing effects of ancient Greek religions and modern Christianity because society was drastically different. It was easier to have a meaningful life during ancient times, because nearly everyone had to work hard to survive, couldn’t really choose to put off children, and lived in small communities where interdependence and trust were mandatory.

            Greek mythology reflects that the forces of nature and life are unfair and sometimes even seemingly malicious. However, Christianity supplanted these pagan ideologies because it reframed the suffering inherent to life as part of a noble purpose that not even God is above. It spent less time glorifying Gods with dubious morals and more time exaulting the poor and weak, enfranchising more people.

        • Etiamsi omnes says

          Oh, yeah, suffering is part of “noble purpose”. Let us all pitch in. If even God isn’t above it, imagine the fun!

    • “I gather the ancient Greeks didn’t expect much from their own gods ; in Homer, more often than not, they are portrayed in a rather unflattering light.”

      I think the author’s point is that religion, while providing context and meaning (certainly after a certain matured age), is created by human need and culture and speaks necessarily through analogy (Plato’s cave — Plato nailed it). Religion does that. That’s what it’s about. Escaping religion doesn’t equate to creating meaning.

      We’re stuck with our human categoricals and there’s no escaping them. Greek gods (both Titan and Olympic) are created through them (we say we’re created in God’s image but it’s a reflection that gods are created in our image, which is the beginning of meaning). When you move from multiple gods to just one, as did the Hebrews, those images still have to be addressed (anthropomorphized as Satan). Myths aren’t fiction. They’re essential truths analogized for us.

      BTW: the core tenent of Christianity is not fun or perfection. It’s redemption.

      • Etiamsi omnes says

        Slaughtering substitute victims was characteristic of all the religions of Antiquity. If the tenet of a religion is that you need to be ”bought back”, which is the meaning of the latin redemptio (“caveat emptor” = let the buyer beware) through bloody sacrifice, I leave it to those who revel in that macabre scenario. A lot of good may it do to you.

        • Etiamsi omnes says

          And btw: the idea that religion and “fun”, or the joy of living, ought to be estranged is a very peculiarly WASPish outlook…”Sink your head low and plod along, making a long face; for you can never be sure whether you’ll be “saved” or not.”

    • Bob Johnson says

      Greek belief systems did not value charity to the poor, sick, and weak, which is one of Christianity’s highest values. They also practiced slavery, whereas western abolitionism was thoroughly Christians (see St Chrysostom and William Wilberforce)

      • Etiamsi omnes says

        Oh, indeed, it was so very Christ–like to abolish cotton-picking slavery once it had outlived its usefulness… Pharisees – does that ring a bell?

        • That’s a very inaccurate statement. Cotton was very profitable in the 1860s when slavery was abolished and it continued to be hand picked into the 20th century.

          • Etiamsi omnes says

            So then slavery had REALLY outlived its purpose…

      • Etiamsi omnes says

        And once those slaves are free, if they persist in stubbornly refusing affluence, wellness and empowerment – along with the rest of Protestant hypocritical ethics – well then y’all got yer poor, sick and weak to encumber with yer charities and good works. Le beurre et l’argent du beurre.

      • Etiamsi omnes says

        Morale de l’histoire : on Quillette, if you happen to play the meek, self-effacing card by advertisinging yourself as “not particularly learned or scholarly”, then all manner of well-meaning and – oh! so superior minds, as well as saintly souls – rush in to straighten you out and enlighten you with a grace totally undeserved.

  2. E. Olson says

    Good essay. I suspect the decline of the church in the West is also directly linked to the rise of the welfare state, and the welfare state provides very little meaning in life to anyone. The church has historically been responsible for charity and helping the needy, and church staff and congregation members who volunteered found meaning in using their time and money to help others, which was even more meaningful because it was most often people they knew from the local community. This local help also provided meaning because the helpers were motivated to uplift the needy and could see the positive results of their efforts, while the needy got some sense that someone they knew actually cared about them and wanted them to get out of their unfortunate situation. But as the welfare state has risen, the importance and meaning of such religious based charitable activities has been reduced.

    In contrast, the welfare state is “professionally” run by bureaucrats whose main motivation is most often keeping and expanding their job, which means they are less interested in actually solving the problems of the unfortunate whom they rarely know personally. Similarly, the unfortunate are unlikely to feel any personal connection with the often far away bureaucracy, while the citizens who fund the system are even more distant because they have no say beyond voting in how their tax money is utilized by the bureaucracy. Thus the welfare system does not provide much meaning to the bureaucrats, the needy, or taxpayers.

    The fall of religion and rise of the welfare state has also coincided with the decline in marriage and fertility, which has brought personal and economic freedoms to women, but at the cost of reduced meaning in life coming from family and children. Women in particular seem to be unhappier than ever despite their greater freedoms and opportunities, which suggests that “careers”, social justice activism, or welfare dependency do not provide the same quality or quantity of meaning in their lives as caring for a husband and children (or volunteering at church). Jordan Peterson has made his career in large part by highlighting the lack of meaning/purpose in young men’s lives as the welfare state has meant they are no longer required/expected to be successful breadwinners and role models for their families, which has led to increased drug abuse and suicides. Similarly, the welfare state has replaced family as caregivers to senior citizens, and adult children lose the meaning that comes from caring for elderly parents.

    It is therefore not surprising that religious people and conservatives, who are more likely to believe and continue to participate in private charity and community building efforts, also generally perceive more meaning and happiness in their lives than Leftists who think the government should fix everything.

  3. codadmin says

    What has ‘increased automation’ got to do with the existential crisis facing the West?

    I’m not saying I disagree, but the idea needs fleshing out because it’s not self evident.

    • E. Olson says

      codadmin – I would assume increased automation leads to increased unemployment, and since jobs/careers are what give many people their meaning in life, unemployment leads to the existential crisis.

    • derek says

      Work gives meaning to many. Both as a social hub, as well as accomplishing something that benefits others.

      People who are self directed both in thinking for themselves and able to respond to market situations aren’t affected by automation. They find something to do and don’t need the tight social network and structures that a job can provide to provide structure and meaning in their lives.

      Automation makes a good number of people redundant and with no productive place in the economy. They can’t train to become programmers because they don’t have the cognitive ability. The jobs available don’t pay enough to look after a family.

      • codadmin says

        @E.Olson & Derek

        Most polls show people are either ‘not satisfied’ or outright ’hate’ their jobs.

        No doubt a strong majority of people would quit their jobs if they won the lottery, and so the link between work and fulfilment doesn’t exist.

        Automation is the great emancipator of humanity. Machines, increasingly, now do the work for us…so, why would this freedom from physical ( and maybe even mental in future ) slavery make miserable?

        • E. Olson says

          codadmin – I have no doubt that many people hate their jobs, but the question is whether there is anything else that would give them meaning if they didn’t have a job (due to automation or otherwise). Another question is whether the job gives their life meaning indirectly, such as being able to provide for their family or fund a hobby or travel. Studies find that people who retire early (often because they hate their jobs) also die early, probably because they don’t have anything better to do (see link). Less intelligent people (who often hate their menial jobs) are less likely to have productive outlets for free time since they don’t have interest/ability to read, take courses, or other intellectual pursuits, and often resort to destructive behaviors. This suggest that automation has the greatest potential to be a great emancipator of humanity at the higher end of the intellectual distribution, but this is also where most people love their work and are least likely to be replaced by a machine.

          • codadmin says


            The key word there is ‘indirect’. Whatever meaning people derive from work, is separate from the work itself.

            That’s not to say people can’t enjoy their work, but it would be better to liberate people from the necessity of work, so they have a choice about what they want to do.

            So much has already been automated, fully or partially, which has saved literally trillions of hours of pointless human labour over the last 150 years.

            Despite teething problems, I can’t think of a single thing that shouldn’t be fully automated.

          • When you take pride in your work, when you put all of yourself into it, even as a janitor, then the result is a source of pride, of meaning, even if it’s only a clean floor. This is because it makes manifest some essential part of you: your dedication, your skills, your application to thoroughness, etc. All these values that define you, you may see them in the product of your labour, even in a clean floor.

            If automation takes over a tedious task, then it may alleviate your tedium. But if the product of that task embodies the things about you that you felt good, felt proud, then you are stripped of this means of expressing yourself into the world. Then it is demeaning.

            Work is not the only way to manifest your values, skills, beliefs and self. You can do so by raising a child, through writing or artistic expression, even through gardening. However, it will never come from being a spectator, from disengaging yourself. That kills it.

    • bumble bee says

      There was a time before automation where craftsman could take say a piece of wood and make anything from it. The same could be said for anything currently being automated. There is great pride is creating something with your own hands, your own sweat, your own skills. That has pretty much disappeared. Even Ford took away peoples sense of accomplishment when he revamped and “streamlined” the production line for his cars where each person now did one task that created the whole.

      Automation as we see it today, takes the full place of some jobs, or in others the job has been reduced to just pushing a button. Where is the sense of using all your talents when all that is needed is to push a button. Automation was initially branded as doing the heavy work, making dangerous work safer, easing the punishing labor that took its toll on the body. Now its taken the job.

      It has become a spiraling effect on jobs, wages, people and has made owners and investors richer. People want to feel valued, that they are using their talents and hard work and it is providing something to others. Even now with the creation of 3D printing, those who build houses may be out of a job. Automation which was design to ease overly hard work has now as a byproduct destroyed the ability to find satisfaction in a job, and eventually with the advent of robotics and AI humanity is going to find that there is nothing worth doing, not to mention survive on zero income because there are no longer any jobs up to and including highly skilled jobs.

      • E. Olson says

        BB – craftsmen jobs requiring great training and skill were always for a relatively small minority of fairly high status people with the necessary mental and physical talent and ability. The Ford assembly line was more efficient than using craftsmen to hand build cars, but the other reason car assembly was deskilled was because it was too difficult to find a sufficient number of craftsmen to meet the expanding market demand for cars. Yet craft jobs didn’t disappear, they were just transferred from building the car to building and maintaining the machines that build the car, which was and still is done by tool and dye craftsmen.

        3D printing is taking far longer to catch on that many were predicting a few years ago, and I suspect the same will be true with AI and robotic automation. Skilled humans are harder to replace than most futurists assume.

        • bumble bee says


          Yes there were master craftsman, but there was also apprenticeships where people learned their craft. There was also the prospect of working ones way up from the newbie grunt to something better. If one had the talent, they could strike out on their own or look for better positions in a competing company. They did not need a college education, or higher learning they just needed to be taught in many cases.

          If one was to use as an example the furniture business, there was the ability to understand wood, how to plane it down, how to cut it to make dovetails and other joints, hard carving and inlay work. It fed the mind, the body and the soul. Furniture today as been reduced to plywood cut by machines and glued together to get them out to the stores. We can see the difference in quality, durability, and of course price. Rather than get a table that will last generations even if one needed to save for it, today it’s throwaway sometimes even right out of the box. Wages put a damper on this continuing, but automation has just mass produced crap with fewer employees who wouldn’t even know how to cut a 2×4.

      • codadmin says

        @bumble bee

        Even if everything was automated, people could still take wood and make things with it.

        The dream of automation is for everyone to have a vocation, and not a job.

        • Serenity says

          codadmin, “for everyone to have a vocation”?

          From 2006 to 2016 the Aboriginal population in Canada has grown by 42.5%—more than four times the growth rate of the non-Aboriginal population over the same period, the percentage of Canadian First Nations people on reserve who had a job fell to 35.4% in 2011. With sky-high unemployment rates, high incarceration rate, family violence, alcohol and drug abuse among indigenous people in Canada — suicide and self-inflicted injury is the leading cause of death in First Nation youth ages 15-24.

          According to study of 381 shootings, gun violence at US schools and universities peaks during periods of high unemployment.

    • David of Kirkland says

      It suggests tools are more valuable than you are as a person. A long life in which you can’t compete must be miserable.

  4. Farris says

    One of the problems I believe many have is the realization that; there will never be a statue or monument dedicated to them, they will not walk the red carpet, be interviewed on television or just be renown. Most of us are just cogs. Most no longer recognize the value in simply being a honest hard working, contributing member of society. Today many seek recognition and value from UTube, Facebook or Instagram. Many define themselves in terms of number of “likes” and dream of creating a viral video. Theses types of recognition proves fleeting. The continual search for victims or victimhood allows one to feel special as savior or oppressed.
    In my opinion other than religion of the best sources of meaning is children. There is no better realization that someone looks up to and relies upon you. You are responsible for that person’s well being. And though that can be stressful, it gives one purpose. Those children will hopefully live on as your legacy. Children will probably not make you famous, noteworthy or even feel appreciated but they can still be a meaningful reward.

    • Steve says

      But those children will grow up and not have meaning. Unless they have children and find meaning in that. Then those children are still stuck with the lack of meaning, ad infinitum. The problem remains unsolved.

  5. This article is an especially offensive to me. Mr Routledge does not speak about meaning from his experience of it, but from his abstraction away from it, as a distant observer. Being a distant observer is the anti-thesis of the immersion necessary to give your life meaning. It is about as far away as you should be to comment on it.

    “Meaning likely contributes to many of these outcomes because of its motivational power.” Err: no. You have it backwards, Mr Routledge. Meaning is a product of our actions, not its motivation.

    To me, meaning comes from my engagement with the world. By engagement, I mean connecting to the world with my mind, my body, my heart and my spirit. It means not remaining indifferent to the plight of the world, but to feel its suffering and respond to it. It means throwing myself wholly to resist its causes with my body, mind, heart and soul.

    My mind means all its attributes, qualities and short-comings, as it does for my body, heart and spirit. It means that my engagement is a unique contribution, reflecting the uniqueness of my being. Its product – my child, my business, my writing, any of my creative work, even this note of mine – manifests my own attributes, qualities and short-comings, along with what I’ve learned and experienced. Meaning is drawn from this connection between who I am and what I’ve accomplished in this world, with the imprint I leave in this world. This, you cannot do by abstracting yourself away, as a distant observer. You may study it, but you cannot possibly understand it this way.

    It is a spectacular failing of academics that they chose to abstract themselves from the world around and exist as peripheral, ostensibly impartial, observers. This avoids them the messiness of ever proving themselves or testing their notions against reality, substituting statistics for the experience of being. I am not arguing against scholarship. On the contrary, I depend on it for my livelihood. However, scholarship cannot flow only in the direction of theory. It must always return back to practice, to be tested against our experience and be incorporated in it. Our lives gain meaning when we travel in this world through this entire trajectory, not when we surf overtop of it.

    • Peter from Oz says

      Is “offensive” really the right word? It sounds like the usual whine of the SJW who is just looking for a reason to complain so to get his or her jollies. But the rest of your comment showed that in fact you disagreed with the article in a cogent and logical manner. So why start with the asinine idea that you were offended by the article? Since when is a piece of writing offensive just because you disagree with it?

      • Peter, I’ll try to reply again, but this web site swallows my responses into a black hole, and my 30 minute efforts instantly disappear. Here’s my third attempt, my abridged response.

        To me, this is not a simple disagreement with aspects of the argument. I reject the author’s entire premise, the core of his argument. You can’t surf over the topic when it demands immersion. Moreover, what felt offensive was the author’s claim of authority: for having studied the subject, and then discussing it as a distant observer, which is its anti-thesis. I don’t mind using the findings of inquiry to support an argument, but that argument cannot skirt over the surface of the subject; not when talking about meaning. You can’t claim authority, and then broadly display its absence.

      • Rhetorically: would you let a priest, who has been celibate for 40 years, be your marriage counselor? He may know scripture, he may understand the human condition, he may have know its contours, but has he experienced the day-to-day interactions, the thousand small joys, frustrations, compromises, moments of ineptness or contentment that it can entail? Does he understand the dynamics that develop around the inadequacies of each partner and how a mundane mishap can metastasize into a raging argument because of it?

        Me, I would choose someone who has lived it fully.

  6. bumble bee says

    I personally have given up on finding meaning in what I do in any job. To me it is nothing more than a paycheck. Not that I do not do my best, but I no longer associate what I do as who I am. I find meaning in what gives me life, fulfillment, joy. There is no career that will provide me with those qualities. I teach myself, or seek out others to learn how to do something that either needs to be done, like home improvements, or learn a new hobby, helping others when I am able.

    People need to find what gives them fulfillment. They need to explore subjects that they are interested in and learn about them. They will find others who share that interest. I do not need to feel however, like I am saving the world, or need to have accolades given to me either. My ego and sense of self worth is based on how I live up to my own standards, and those ethics/morals that I have developed through, faith, friends, family. Caring about others, helping out when needed, giving of oneself brings me meaning.

  7. Steve says

    Excellent article. It seems that the harder survival is the more one needs meaning, and is easily found in one’s tribe’s religion(path of least resistance). Why else go on with the hard struggle. Also, people in the rich West become more religious as they near death, again harder to survive and handle old age, so a need for meaning manifests itself. Meaning in life may be a survival instinct that our archaic ancestors also needed in their harsh struggle to survive, without it our species may have gone extinct, why bother with the continued suffering with no purpose to it. Our ancestors assigned one to it out of biological necessity. We inherited the desire-for-meaning instinct. Ancient Religions have been chipped away by the enlightenment, corruption, scandals, the West’s re-evaluation of moral codes(slavery abolition, equal status for women, acceptance of gays…) So the supernatural seems more of a wrongheaded fantasy than a truth. The industrial revolution and science has made it much easier for billions to survive, but the instinct remains. Consumerism hasn’t filled the vacuum dying religions left. And science tells us what is, not what should be, and certainly not WHY we exist.
    So, many of us are searching for meaning and aren’t finding it in the old or the new.
    If meaning is an instinct in every individual then the search must also be within every individual. Because of our individual distinctiveness there will certainly not be a universal meaning that applies to all. It must be a singular individual’s religion, a religion for just one. And it’s hard to make a religion, it’s a lot of work, thousands of words, dozens of books, and it has to make sense with all of the knowledge accumulated over 10,000 years of civilization. So no wonder many are searching and not finding.
    I’m waiting for a miracle, but not expecting one.

  8. Ing Res says

    Humans are religious beings by default, regardless of why traditional structures are falling, the key is to choose well what to substitute them with. In my country the new religion is soccer and things are not going too well, if you are going to choose a sport then it should be the one you are better at.

  9. doug deeper says

    Excellent scholarly article. I grew up in Los Angeles in the ’50s and ’60s. It often seems to me that we threw the baby out with the bathwater in our culture. Many young people growing up today are without the benefit of clear gender ID, the passion of romantic love, Judeo-Christian values, religious community warmth, a “can-do” spirit, appreciation for what America gives them, much less any love of country. The list of the lost “cultural structures” that historically have given humans passion, happiness & meaning is very long. They have been replaced with a bitterly antagonistic attitude toward these “traditional cultural structures.” This new way of framing society and their own lives is reinforced by everything they hear and see in the world as it is now preached by virtually every institution in the US. And it is given the intellectual and rhetorical firepower from the intellectual “giants” of our time populating every university faculty. This seems to correlate with the accelerating anxiety, depression and suicide rates.

    Thus, while many young people want to save the world, it is imperative to many that they must destroy it first. A version of this phenomenon has destroyed from within virtually every successful culture in human history.

    Yet I hold out a great deal of hope that many of the values that built the US will regain a foothold again – this time without the bathwater of racism, homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, etc. From all I see of the emerging traditional value movements, this is precisely how they are growing.

    I am hopeful that the IDW, TPUSA, Prager U, Mike Rowe, many millennial Christian churches and organizations, the WalkAway movement, Blexit, Jexit, our military families and eventually JP’s Humanities U will seed an army of young people with a strength through their wonderful values that will lead the US to regain its cultural strength. Then perhaps the US will be that rare society that does not collapse due to its rejection of the “traditional cultural structures” that brought them vitality and eventually enlightened values.

  10. Lightning Rose says

    Nothing makes you feel wanted, needed, and relevant faster than getting up in the morning to a whole yard full of demanding, needy beasts who want their breakfast–and depend on your care giving for their very lives. Even better if you also make a living at it.

    If relying on emotional support from Other People is handing you a bummer, get a pet or three. I guarantee they’re a hedge against “meaninglessness.” I know a lady who outlived both her and her daughter’s generations, but got up at 6 every day until she died with her boots on at 103 “Because SOME one has to walk the DOG!!” (Who was a mean little ankle-biting bastard).

  11. VinceS says

    Like a lot of conservatives, he is myopic insofar as he sees clearly the problems with liberalism but can’t see the problems with conservatism which led to liberalism in the first place. It would be one thing if he bemoaned the weakening of social structures which helped people find meaning for themselves, but in his worldview these structures GAVE people meaning without them doing the internal hard work of finding it for themselves. That can and was often quite suffocating if one’s internal meaning didn’t align with those of the structures (e.g. an abolitionist in the antebellum South). All the more so since, for him, who a human is in relation to others is much more important than who he is in himself, and to claim otherwise is a dangerous “individualism”. And that even assumes all this meaning was true and worthy, which is unfortunately not the case. Indeed, for a group of people convinced a hostile invasion of earth by aliens is imminent, because their religious leaders tell them this is the consequence of the “wrath of God”, and it is up to them to save the planet, certainly their lives and actions have “meaning”. At least until they figure out they are being lied to and manipulated.

    • Lydia says

      Ha! An abolitionist in the South was more likely to become a Republican. You have bought into the rewritten history narrative. As a daughter of the South I can promise you the ku Klux Klan were all Democrats.

      • VinceS says

        This is quite a knee-jerk response, I must say. Nowhere in my post did I mention anything about political party, nor does political party have anything to do with the point of my post.

  12. S.Cheung says

    “Meaning” is but a less precise way of articulating the process of having goals, engendering self-motivation, and deriving purpose. When couched in those less nebulous terms, it is easy to see why “meaning” in all its forms is important in life…and needn’t be some vague black box or quasi-supernatural construct.

    No doubt, religion gives one meaning. It’s literally encoded in the base message. The question really should be: is that a practical, useful, and correct meaning? And is it the only conduit to one? The first question is really best answered on a personal basis. As for the second, as the author also notes his intro, I think it is more than adequate to look within. And the 2 research examples the author specifically cites seem to corroborate with such a “looking within” perspective.

    “As automation expands, marriage declines, and people have fewer or no children, the opportunities to feel like one matters narrow.”
    — I think what is narrowing is the author’s capacity to grasp what can be meaningful.

    • E. Olson says

      SC – I think the important point is that the church and family have traditionally been two key areas that almost everyone found meaning from, because nearly everyone was involved with one or both for substantial portions of their lives whether they were 80 IQ and cleaning out barns, a 100 IQ housewife, or 130 IQ and a college professor. Careers and pride in one’s work and accomplishment can also give meaning to some, and fewer still might get meaning from hobbies or travel, but is finding such career or hobby related meaning is more likely to come to those with the most intelligence, ability, and competitive instincts that make them among the best or noteworthy for their talent.

      Thus the problem is that nothing has replaced the church and family as meaning makers for the vast majority of people who are not highly intelligent and not highly talented or skilled or motivated by their work or hobby. An 80 IQ former barn cleaner or 100 IQ housewife with no religious beliefs/affiliation or family obligations, and automated out of any possible career, is not likely to find great meaning in taking courses (for what purpose if they don’t enjoy learning and can’t use them to find a job?) or reading great books (which they likely won’t understand and find boring), and most won’t have the talent or interest to become skilled woodworkers, artists, or writers. So what are they to do to find meaning, and what does society do with the 50 to 75% of the population who are useless in an automated, childless world? That is a great question of the future.

      • S.Cheung says

        as I intimated, far be it for me to prescribe to someone else what they may find to be meaningful, engaging, worthy, purposeful, and/or motivating. And no doubt that religion fits that bill for many. But I think the author (and sometimes you) imply that religion is the only feasible or effective source, and I don’t think that need be the case.

        You mention “church and family” together. I think “family” can suffice, with or without church. In a literal sense, and as you’ve mentioned often, western society birthrates are below replacement…however, what is the rate of actually childless couples? Where some may need a brood, others may derive the same with one. But what we can all do more of, is to conceive of family in a less literal sense, to encompass neighbors, and community. And so too that religion does this well, but again it need not be the only such conduit.

        Also, it’s not as if the church is going away. For those who literally have no other means of deriving some meaning, they always have a fallback option. But for those who do have options, and who are capable of utilizing them, those options liberate the breadth and depth of what meaning can be.

        • Lydia says

          Religion in America has changed in many ways. I am old enough to remember that there were Catholic, Methodist, Jewish and Baptist Hospitals in my city. they were built and maintained without massive government money up until around the 60’s. Some of them even had excellent nursing schools. Their boards consisted of business people who volunteered. we are not Catholic but my dad was on the board of a Catholic hospital in the 50’s to 60’s. No one cared about your religious affiliation unless you wanted a visit from a religious leader.

          There are other ways that religious groups helped communities thrive but that one stands out to me.

    • Joana George says

      Personally, I found some insight into this topic in a very unlikely book: Elmer, the patchwork elephant.

      In the main book of the series, the multi colored elephant paints himself gray and the other animals no longer refer to him as “Elmer”, but as “elephant”; also while all the other elephants are generally quite cherry when he’s around, they are all sad and bored without Elmer there.

      I get that the point was to transmit a positive message about individuality and being yourself, but with how the gray elephants were presented, who the hell would want to grow up and be one?

      I think this silly elephant thing is indicative of the bigger picture. For example, “You don’t need to have kids to have a meaningful life.” is a fair (even obvious) statement and a positive message. The following are more likely statements to come across:

      “Having kids is selfish and means you don’t care about the planet.”
      “Maternal instinct is just a social construct. People who have kids are brainwashed.”
      “Having kids is the consolation price you go for when you realize you can’t have a real impact on the world.”
      “Having kids is for sheep.”
      “Stupid breeders and their animal existence, I want more out of life than to procreate.”

      This extends to most other values. There is a prevailing sense that being like everybody else is something to be ashamed of. The main message out there doesn’t seem to be that you can find meaning outside of social norms, it is that you can ONLY find meaning outside of social norms and the meaning found in religion/family/community is not “correct”. I think that’s where the narrowing of opportunities comes from.

      All the grey elephants were sad and lost without Elmer. He was the only one that mattered because he was different.

      • E. Olson says

        JG – you raise a very important point about how the “elites” constantly belittle the things that have historically provided so much meaning to so many people, which is likely due to the insecurities and lack of meaning of the elites. As you correctly note, parenthood and motherhood are denigrated and belittled by the elites, and so are religious beliefs (at least Christian-Judeo beliefs) as in “bitterly clinging to their Bibles”, and patriotism (constantly associated with Nazis and racism by the Left).

        I have no problem with people who choose to stay single or childless, and heaven knows a lot of people are not personally suited to be good marriage partners or parents, and a personal awareness of this would certainly prevent a lot of pain and suffering for everyone who would otherwise be involved. Similarly, anyone who finds organized religion to be “unbelievable” or too personally restricting should be free to live a religion free life. The problem is that such “independent” people all too often feel it is their mission in life to protest and belittle the majorities or major pluralities of people who find meaning and happiness from being married and raising children, attending church and 4th of July parades, or joining the military.

        • Peter from Oz says

          Your last paragraph is a vert good summary of the issue.
          In essence, the “deviants” have come to the fore and have taken over the public discourse to such an extent that it seems that we can now talk of nothing else but the invented problems of the professional grievance mongers. They are not the elites, but a small portion of them who talk a lot and produce little of value.
          From what I can the real problem lies in the fact that activists have found an easy way to fame and fortune, and thus rely on the insecurity of their constituents. Homosexualists can’t just be tolerated, they need to ensure that everyone acknowledges their difference constantly and accepts everything they do as “normal”. So they want to be different and the same from the rest of us at the same time. The same can be said of all the other victim group leaders and their followers.
          It is because Western society became too tolerant of the whiners. I often question why these people get a platform at all. I think it’s because they make good stories for the media which is starving for controversy.
          But the interesting thing is that the deviants and their allies are not trying to make it so there are no rules, but are trying to impose a new Puritanism in which the code of the deviants and whiners of society is enforced far more rigidly than any Victorian would ever have thought possible.
          We need to fight back for freedom, but insulting and beating down the deviant activists whilst making it clear that we have no problem with the rank and file deviants. Too many of us seem to think that we can somehow hold on to our culture by sitting back and letting these activists run over us.
          The first thing that needs to happen is that we have to get people out there to cut through the deviant activists’ absurd rhetoric. Thus we have to ensure that logic is applied to their statements and their ridiculous conclusions are challenged and shown to be false. When an activist dares to cal you racist because you criticised a person of a different race, you must immediately call that activist out by informing him that he is a moron who cannot telly the difference between ideas and people.
          But most of all you must hone your attacks so that you make it clear that it is the activists and their bad ideas that you are attacking, not the people they claim to represent.
          You must also attack with the utmost vigour the idea that we cannot be proud of our culture without “hating” the deviants.
          But most of all, we have to point out that the deviants are a minority who cannot be allowed to change the culture to suit themselves. If they want to be different, then be different and stop whining about it.
          Lastly, these activists are of course the real bigots. They project their own nastiness onto the rest of us. We have to point that out at every opportunity.
          We need to get back to living and stop these activists and the media from taking over the public sphere.
          The fact that someone is gay, black, disable, queer, transsexual or whatever should always be the least important thing about them. Anyone who thinks any different is really a moron who should be shunned and dismissed from the public square with a good raspberry.

          • E. Olson says

            Good comment and observation Peter as usual. I hope you are right that the majority of Leftist elites are not the same people as the minority of victim activists, but as long as the politicians and media give the activists a platform and campaign to protect them from the “oppressive” mainstream culture the problem will continue.

  13. AntonyG says

    Liberalism is not an individualistic worldview. Think about it. The first two hundred years after the Enlightenment i.e. the golden age of classical liberalism virtually nobody lived as an individual. The founding Fathers & other leading classical liberal thinkers espoused a way of thinking that strongly valued the concepts of family & community which are both bottom-up collectivist social structures. Individualism as we know it today didn’t arrive until the 20th century when the forces of Marxism & neo-Marxism began to atomize.

    The Great Wave of Uniformity & The Cult of the Individual: The Founding Fathers and other leading classical liberal thinkers were clearly against any form of top-down power structure but there is no evidence that they were supportive of individualism or any type of individualistic world view. The cult of the individual is very much a modern phenomenon which the pioneers of the Enlightenment would have found quite bizarre.

    Classical liberalism has universally become known as a world view which celebrates the importance of the individual. The high level of individualism in the West today is largely praised or blamed on classical liberalism and the Enlightenment. Only one major world view is widely considered to have come out of the West in the 18th century meaning that the heightened individualism that we see today is automatically blamed on the Enlightenment and classical liberalism. In reality, there were two fundamentally opposing collectivist world views which emerged during that time period—top-down collectivism and bottom-up collectivism.

    The two centuries following the Enlightenment was a period when bottom-up collectivism ruled in much of the West. Uniformity dominated all aspects of life—uniform ways of dressing, uniform ways of teaching, a uniform way of living and a uniform way of being. This is quite evident when we look back at the type of institutions and practices which came out of that period. But this was bottom-up collectivism with the power structure and the decision making being largely in the hands of civic leaders and families members.

    Armies in brightly coloured uniforms were mown down in huge uniformed groups. Large classes of children wearing uniforms sitting in straight uniformed rows being taught highly uniformed curricular. Chanting-out the times tables like good disciplined ordered children. A zeitgeist that almost certainly reflected the impact of the Industrial Revolution which was almost Borg-like.

    Anyone living their life as an individual during this time was widely considered to be odd, wayward and even subversive. Being a successful member of a family and of your community was seen as being of paramount importance. Family and community are both collectivist social structures which means that classical liberalism can accurately be described as a form of bottom-up collectivism. This explains why almost nobody lived their lives as an individual during the golden era of classical liberalism which lasted for over two centuries.

    The concept of individualism as we know it today didn’t arrive until the 20th century ironically as a result of the rise to power of top-down collectivism which intentionally and unintentionally atomized society to such an extent that a cult of the individual started to develop.

    Individualism is almost entirely a product of socialist policies like welfarism and the welfare state in addition to the highly subversive strategies, such as Critical Theory, which aimed to destroy institutions like the family and the concept of marriage. The political right has completely appropriated this manufactured individualism, and are literally consuming the fall out from the destruction caused by their ideological enemy.

    • Daniel V says

      I would have to disagree with the idea individualism is the result of Marxism or the welfare state. Radical individualism is an American cultural meme. It reached its height during the 80s with neoliberalism when politicians started governing from an economic perspective where everyone is seen as radical individuals working for their own self interest. It was Conservatives that led that charge.

    • Lydia says

      “Founding Fathers and other leading classical liberal thinkers were clearly against any form of top-down power structure but there is no evidence that they were supportive of individualism or any type of individualistic world view.”

      The Constitution is based on the concept of self-governing. I don’t understand why people view individualism as being alone or not interacting and cooperating with others as it benefits each individual.

  14. This is an excellent piece.

    “The more people privilege an individual self over an interdependent self the more vulnerable they are to feeling like they don’t matter, that they lack social significance.”

    This, I believe, is why we are failing to face up to the existential threat posed by our growing, collective, & ultimately fatal, impact on our finite, vulnerable & overpopulated planet (e.g. AGW).

    Evolution wired our brains to prioritise the well-being & long-term survival of our tribe over the personal self-interests & survival of the individual. The individual, we all known, is mortal, but our tribe has the potential, seemingly, to live forever.

    The state, having long ago done away with our original tribes & nations, & greatly assisted by the invention of money (power in its most versatile & corruptible form) perverts evolved human nature, so that instead of serving one’s tribe, it serves the personal self-interests of its elites & favoured clients at the expense of society at large & its long-term survival.

    Many environmental activists, like George Monbiot, & the current Extinction Rebellion movement, expect individuals to identity with all humanity as their tribe, but this doesn’t work, can’t work, because its cerebral & superficial, rather than deeply rooted in the subconscious, which requires a genuine tribe to identify with, which cannot be humanity at large, nor the state for that matter, although it insists on posing as such.

    It can be no coincidence that human tribalism is trivialised, ridiculed or demonised, rather than taken seriously by academics, despite it being so central to evolved human nature. It is where the inspiration, passion & motivation for nationalism & socialism comes from, both of which are now demonised, nationalism especially by the Left, socialism especially by the Right.

    Academic failure to adopt an evolutionary perspective when studying human nature & the societies it gives rise & shape to is by far the biggest obstacle to us solving humankind’s existential problems.

    We need to understand human tribal nature, instead of demonising it, so that we can learn to harness it for good, rather than for evil, as, for example, the Nazis did.

  15. the gardner says

    Nice piece.
    I am a regular church goer. I find meaning every Sunday in that the message centers me, reminds me of the good I need to pursue to be a good person. I am surrounded by people who are role models. They bear up under adversity with grace and can still be kind and generous to others. We need people like them to remind us how to be.

    My church has no shortage of opportunities to realize “it is better to give than to receive”. Whether it is baby supplies for the crisis pregnancy center in town, clothes for those at the safe house for mothers and kids from violent homes, Christmas Child boxes that go all over the world, or volunteering to visit those in the hospital or dropping by someone’s home to help them with a chore they can’t handle. Participating in these makes one realize how fortunate you are and how blessed it feels to help others. This gives real meaning to life.
    My church family is my big extended family. If needed, they would rally around me and husband. At a time when actual relatives live far away, it is comforting to know they are there for us.

  16. MjM says

    By focusing on our evolutionary nature, rogerahicks has hit the proverbial nail on the head. Meaning can be as simple as knowing that you are helping to perpetuate your kindred group.

    • David of Kirkland says

      Meaning is a self-delusion. If it helps you, go for it. Just like the placebo effect, most do well with self-delusion, though not if you go overboard to just delusion.
      Meaning is shown for its value ever time a person dies…that meaning ends, but presumably some new meaning occurs with each birth.

  17. Pingback: (Quillette) Clay Routledge–Meaning Matters | TitusOneNine

  18. David Doyal says

    Conceptual analysis tends to result in looking for some essential meaning….
    If one remembers that “words don’t mean….people mean with words”, we will be able to move on and ask the speaker how they are using the word. What do YOU mean when you say “There is meaning” ? Anything less is to look for a conventional definition…..or some imagined essential meaning that can be discovered. Perhaps contextualization of the sentence would be helpful. But, lacking full context…we can only ask the speaker what he means.

  19. Old Prof says

    That many people seem to express a lack of meaning in their lives is well documented but I wonder if the reference to earlier times, when most people had meaning in their lives is an historical fantasy.
    We know of the past mostly through the writings of the wealthy and powerful elite who wrote not only express their ideas but also, like politicians today, to manipulate their audience for favour and advancement. The majority of people lived lives of constant drudgery, and their lives were “nasty brutal and short”. Whether they truly believed or not, ordinary folk went to church because they needed the support of their community, and because they were punished if they did not. No one could afford to offend the lord of the manor, or his priest. The lord himself went happily off to rape and pillage elsewhere. We simply don’t know what ordinary people thought about meaning in their lives. We can get some idea from popular playwrights like Aristophanes or Shakespeare and they represent common folk as pretty cynical and irreverent.

    The enormous growth of wealth, and longevity has brought changes that have never been previously experienced in society. One of these is the extension of childhood into young adulthood, so that young people of today are still in school and dependent into their twenties or longer. In the past children began to take on the duties of adulthood at 15 or even earlier. As several commentators have implied, one source of meaning is mastery and control over one’s destiny, but in today’s world the opportunity is deferred until well into adulthood. It will be interesting to see if the meaning deprived generation of today is still missing meaning in 20 years.

  20. Doug Bancroft says

    I disagree with what I perceive to be Professor Routledge’s premise. I took his article to say that we need religion to give us meaning in our lives. I concur with one of the commenters above who felt this was an essentially Christian or Judeo-Christian religion that we need to give our lives meaning.

    No. Christian religion claims there is an all-powerful God. There is zero evidence for such a claim; and while I cannot disprove God’s existence, it’s ever so much more likely that there isn’t another power observing or exerting some influence in the world and universe. The idea that virgins can become pregnant is just false. Period. That sounds like a fairy tale on its face, and that’s because it’s an invention from many centuries ago. With greater understanding, truth ages well while a falsehood looks sillier as time goes by. A god-man coming back to life, who’d raised people from the dead–it’s all been claimed many times in pagan cultures that predate Christianity. From your experience in the world, have you ever heard of such a thing happening? Of course not. And it didn’t happen two thousand years ago.

    So, we should derive meaning from a somewhat embarrassing fairy tale? Humanism is the only position that accepts reason and logic where these types of claims are considered. Therefore, whence meaning in life?

    Being kind to other people, trying to make others’ lives a little easier and richer, and treating others well is the base upon which we should build this meaning. Each person can explore her own abilities and talents, learning and appreciating beauty wherever it can be found. Each individual can start down her own path, as long as the Golden Rule is his foundation.

  21. dmm says

    I really wish people would stop using the term “individualism” as if it were mutually exclusive of interdependence and social responsibility. Liberalism and individualism are completely positive concepts because by enhancing the freedom of the individual to explore one’s potential, it automatically does the same for society, which is just a bunch of individuals anyway. Just because some choose to isolate themselves does not detract from the ability to choose. If it were not for the nanny state, they would have a much more difficult time feeling useless or alone. People used to depend on their families, neighbors and local community, rather than a bunch of bureaucrats a thousand miles away.

    Please use “atomism” or some other more accurate term.

    • lydia says


      “I really wish people would stop using the term “individualism” as if it were mutually exclusive of interdependence and social responsibility”

      Thank you! This is one of my biggest pet peeves! I would much prefer to deal with individuals than a collective of political identity groups.

  22. John says

    Meanwhile the appearance of Donald Trump has blasted all of the traditional religious meanings to smithereens.
    Paradoxically many of his most ardent supporters claim to be traditional Christians.

    • Lydia says

      John, Nah. That’s just what the MSM wants you to believe. a lot of churches, including evangelicals, have gone social justice warrior liberation theology for many reasons and one is recruitment of millennials and GenZ. Didn’t you know? Jesus was a refugee, an illegal immigrant and would never drive an SUV.

  23. Tim H says

    I think part of what makes meaning is committing. I liked how Routledge talked about things that are necessary but not sufficient. People can try all they want to argue that materialism is it – the necessary but not sufficient- but there just is more to existence. If there is more to existence, then why would one not work to find out what is ultimate? And this is what is going to give meaning. Committing to what is ultimate. There are other pieces of the puzzle – the necessary – but committing to the ultimate is going to enhance those – fulfill them – not compete with them.

    I find the Christian landscape/narrative incredibly compelling in the answer to what is ultimate. The Christian message breaks the power of power relationships. Starting with the great I-Am – the ground of all being as the non-competitive ultimate, all is very simply gift. Do we really today know and revel in the tale of this ground-of-all-being becoming fully human, coming from outside of our broken nature at the fiat of a young woman in a nowhere village that was part of an insignificant colony on the edge of the mightiest empire the world had ever seen? To then give himself over to teaching and healing and developing people who could carry on his work? To then allow himself to be handed over to the religious and civil authorities – all the while allowing every opportunity for some human person or institution to show courage or decency against the madness of killing a completely innocent human being for worldly power? There is just such astonishing beauty in this story of the God-man sacrificing himself for us in perfect atonement for our rejection of the God who loved us into being. And then we have the question, is it true?

    As the medieval philosopher-theologians told us, faith is assent to what God has shown us and reason is to understand it and Him and his creation as best we can. Our actions – our works – the necessary but not sufficient – are to commit to these truths of the faith – the worship and love of God – and then for the sake of that love and worship of God to go into the world and give ourselves to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. If the Christian story is true, doing these things will give us greatest joy and greatest sense of purpose. And there is some evidence that this works out for those who take all this on and give their lives to it fully. The stories of the saints are full of people fully committed to the Christian narrative and doing the works of mercy and subjectively joyful lives they led.

  24. lydia says

    I haven’t read all the comments and don’t know if this is been mentioned or not but Victor Frankl’s, “Man’s Search for Meaning” is the go to book for this issue.

    Which brings me to another point. The bigger our government becomes, the more socialistic it becomes, the more our choices are made for us. All the regulation and micromanagement from government stifles creativity and innovation. it is part of putting up a big roadblock to giving life meaning.

    And frankly I prefer individualism over collectivism.

  25. SLC Dave says

    I was stopped halfway through the first paragraph at “Some argue that meaning isn’t really that important at all and that we should instead focus solely on practical concerns such as physical health, economics, education, and the environment.” All four of these categories have brought meaning to my life or am I operating on a different sense of “meaning?”

    On a different note, I have noticed that many people distort the nihilistic view to mean “nothing matters” or rather that “I am not important in the world, and if I am not important, then life has no meaning.” I think, however, that when you come to terms with the tiny insignificance of humanity in the grand universe, you can truly appreciate all of the small “meaningless” objects and moments in this life. The rocks, the tree bark, the sights and sounds of a bustling city street, the smell of spring run off seeping through the ground, as well as the joy of sharing it all with a bunch of other crazy hooligans all bring meaning to this life.

  26. Pingback: Crisis of Meaning | Sitting Quietly, Doing Nothing

  27. Pingback: Meaning Matters –

  28. Phillip says

    Abstract words like “meaning” and “love” and “happiness,” are really tricky. What does “meaning” mean? See the problem? What is it to love and be loved? What is happiness? Can we even agree on the definitions? Hopeless people see meaning in the world. Unloved people think they know what love is, loved people think they know when they are loved. Happy people… well, I don’t know any… I “mean” they are not happy every moment. How many happy moments does it take to make one “happy” in the big sense. Do unhappy moments diminish the happy ones equally? Is it simply a matter of having one more happy moment than sad moments? I don’t know, and if you really think about it, you probably don’t either. We needed some words, and we came up with them, but they are not objective words, with objective…. meaning. Ugh.

Comments are closed.