One of the primary arguments of Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope, is that there are aspects of modern life that make finding meaning more difficult. In the book I called this “The Paradox of Progress.”
You can read the excerpt above, but real quick: despite the fact that the modern world is more prosperous, educated, safer, diverse, and connected than ever before, we are seeing alarming rates of anxiety, depression, drug overdoses, and so on. (For references, see the book.)
Some of this has to do with the nature of modern life itself—the constant attachment to screens, our hyper-awareness of absolutely anything bad happening anywhere in the world, the infinite number of ways in which we can now feel inadequate or insecure. These things all make the search for meaning more of a struggle. But at the same time, previous places where people found meaning are eroding. Traditional religions are seeing their numbers dwindle. People are having smaller families and living further from those families. People relocate more often so they have fewer steady friendships.
I really feel this struggle for meaning is the defining trend of our generation, and there is a lot I see that supports this.
What Is Meaning?
What people generally experience as “meaning” is the sense that they are doing something or participating in something that is greater and more important than themselves. The idea is that if we die, we will have contributed to the world in some way that we will be remembered or that our work will live on.
For most of human history, people were uneducated and disconnected. Therefore, achieving a sense of meaning was a simple question: raise some kids, build a house, plant some trees, etc. Done. When your time comes, you will die knowing you left something significant behind, if for the only reason that you were unaware of most of what existed.
Today, that ability to transcend the self is complicated by our education and connectedness. Modern life exalts our individual desires and encourages us to act upon them. Modern life also connects us to the world in a way that shows us how meaningless and unimportant the vast majorities of our pursuits are. You volunteered at your kid’s school, good for you. But then you remember that climate change is going to ruin everything, rendering everything you do meaningless, so you despair.
Meaning Is the New Black
When I look at our culture today, I see emerging trends centered around generating a greater sense of meaning for people. In fact, you could say “meaning is the new black.” It’s hip right now mostly because people feel an acute lack of it.
When I was a kid, if you were into computers and sci-fi/fantasy, you were a nerd and socially punished for it. Today, our culture is heavily influenced by the possibilities of technological advancement. That’s because technological advancement is one of the few things in life that holds the promise of outliving ourselves. Whether it’s cryptocurrencies, renewable energy, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, cryonics, or whatever, most people are interested in or pursuing these things because of their outsized influence on humanity.
Another emerging trend is influencer culture. I’m regularly shocked by how often I meet insanely successful people with incredible careers who privately tell me they want to start a blog or a YouTube channel so they can, as they put it, “affect more lives.”
I don’t really buy this, as many of the people who have told me this have incredible influence and impact through their current professions. The difference is that that impact is not immediately visible. Doctors and lawyers and professors don’t see the immediate feedback of their work, even if it’s world-changing.
Social media allows people to influence thousands (or millions) of people and you get that immediate feedback. You get that satisfaction of seeing the numbers go up and feeling your own influence in the world causing you to experience a hit of meaning juice, a sense that you impacted something and somebody. This experience, of course, doesn’t last and you soon need more. But these people don’t understand that yet. At the moment, all they want is that immediate feedback.
The rising popularity of psychedelics is another trend that I think is rooted in our search for meaning. Humans have what Jonathan Haidt calls a potential for “hive psychology,” where, much like a worker bee dying for the hive, we have an ability to expand our awareness beyond our own ego and be willing to sacrifice our lives for a person, group, or cause. People usually get pushed into hive psychology by extremely stressful events—warfare, terminal illness, surviving tragedy, sitting in a cave and meditating for ten years, etc. Because we transcend ourselves, these experiences come to feel incredibly meaningful.
Psychedelics are often a kind of shortcut to that trans-egoic awareness that feels so meaningful and people are hopping on the bandwagon in droves. I’ve been to two conferences in the past year where business people were pushing psychedelics aggressively onto others, claiming it would improve productivity, life satisfaction, relationships, etc.
I don’t know about that. There’s interesting research going on in regard to psychedelics and mental health issues (but I won’t get into that here). But what I do suspect is that what a lot of these people perceive as tangible benefits is really just them getting a greater sense of meaning out of their normal, boring day-to-day work.
Yet another emerging trend is meaning being pushed by brands and marketing. If you look at marketing campaigns by mega companies such as Apple and Nike, they advertise not products, but human movements. They invite you to become a part of something bigger, to “bear witness” or to “be different.” The implication is that their products will give you that deeper sense of meaning that transcends your own miserable life (spoiler: they don’t).
Finally, perhaps the most important (and most alarming) trend is political populism. People are now finding their sense of meaning through political causes, and the bigger and more disruptive the cause, the better. This is causing polarization in most countries and greater political turmoil as a result.
The Diversification and Commodification of Meaning
One way to think about these trends is there has been a diversification, as well as commodification, of meaning within society.
The diversification of meaning does have some benefits. It enables people to pick and choose what matters to them, to discover their own values, and it grants a greater opportunity for self-actualization.
The problem with diversification of meaning is twofold: 1) people with different sources of meaning tend to attack one another, and 2) the responsibility of seeking out meaning for ourselves is a daunting and difficult emotional process.
The commodification of meaning interlaces with this diversification in uneasy ways. Do we want to be able to pay Apple or Nike to gain a sense of importance? Do we want our purpose to be pitched to us and fought for in a competitive marketplace?
On the one hand, meaning has always struggled in a market-based battle. It’s just that the markets for most of human history consisted of kings, churches, and warfare. People found meaning in their king and/or church and then marched off to war to kill people with other kings and other churches. The strongest/most motivated form of meaning had an advantage and often won.
Today, we’ve outsourced our religious warfare to the economic market, where companies fight for meaningful dollars from consumers. On the one hand, that’s a far less violent way to deliver meaning to the masses. On the other hand… well, it’s just kind of sad.