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The Empirical Nature of "Meaning"

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A body of research suggests that the subjective experience of “meaning” is a response to one’s becoming aware of negative wellbeing.

Put another way, the phenomenon of meaning is reducible to a psychological response to suffering – suffering that cannot, for some reason, be remedied in the outside, extrapsychological world.

Studies have reported for years that parents report less happiness than those without children. However, some studies have shown an allegedly counterbalancing feature: parents report that their lives are more “meaningful” than do non-parents. So parents trade off happiness for meaning; seems rational.

That’s not the whole picture, though. An ultra-recent study finds that meaningfulness is a function not just of parenthood, but of how much parenthood sucks. “Parents who had the high costs of children in mind were much more likely to say that they enjoyed spending time with their children, and they also anticipated spending more leisure time with their kids,” say the study authors. While children used to have economic value – used to be a “good deal,” we might say – parents had no need of a subjective sense of the meaningfulness of parenting. “As the value of children has diminished, and the costs have escalated, the belief that parenthood is emotionally rewarding has gained currency. In that sense, the myth of parental joy is a modern psychological phenomenon,” say the study authors.

This same phenomenon is at work regarding hazing and group membership. The more suffering one endures in becoming part of a group, the more one subjectively values the group – whether it’s an American street gang or a Japanese university. Suffering is a quantifiable predictor of the subjective experience of meaning.

Similarly, having a crappy life (low SES) is a good predictor of religiosity. Religion is a technology that allows suffering people in a very shitty, unfair situation to continue living and producing children – in the interest of nature, but against their own interests.

The Book of Job is an example of this technology. It demonstrates a way to respond to the uncompensated sufferings of life: love God (the system) even more. Find “meaning.” Even the author of Job is disingenuous, though; he posits a little reward at the end for the ever-loyal, meaning-finding Job. As Ted Chiang shows in his story “Hell is the Absence of God” (and says explicitly in his story notes),

It seems to me that the Book of Job lacks the courage of its convictions: If the author were really committed to the idea tha virtue isn’t always rewarded, shouldn’t the book have ended with Job still bereft of everything?

The Book of Job is not logical or consistent; instead, it demonstrates a fitness-promoting response to unrecompensable suffering, and on another level, promises that this response will be ultimately rewarded on a non-psychological level. Therefore, I think the Book of Job is evil on two levels: trying to get people to engage in an irrational psychological response to allow them to ignore unfairness, and at the same time promising them that this defense mechanism will allow them to get compensated in the manner they really care about at a later time. It’s like the con artist who preys on victims of his previous cons, promising to get their money back.

My predictions from this meaning-as-quantifiable-response-to-suffering theory:

  • Women who experience horrific body changes from pregnancy will report finding more meaning in childrearing than those whose bodies are less affected.
  • Women whose husbands leave them shortly after the birth of a baby will report more finding more meaning in childrearing than matched controls whose husbands do not leave them.
  • This need not be limited to personal suffering of the parents. Parents whose children suffer major birth defects or illness will report more meaning in childrearing and the child’s life than matched controls of healthy children.
  • A sudden drop in SES will be a good predictor of the adoption of evangelical Christianity.

Written by Sister Y

March 6, 2011 at 12:44 am