♦ LAST UPDATED ON March 3, 2021 ♦
When two singles encounter each other and fairly consider their prospects together as a loving couple, they surely will be thinking and talking about the meaning of love and life. A romantic lover may not, impulsive as he or she may be, before perhaps coming around to real love.
A lot of people turn religious, spiritual, mystical, etc., so as to ascertain and live by a meaning of life. Others try to impart meaning onto us — taking advantage of the affective human that we are. Religion has long been recognized as a central source of meaning in life that provides individuals with core beliefs, expectations, and goals, and places the individual’s life into a larger context.
I am a seeker of and adherent to meaning myself. For decades, I had arranged my life’s affairs and projects based on assumptions that were religious in nature. However, my assumptions about life have changed over the years, but not my attention to my or other’s meaningful life.
As such, I have come to think that while people entertain all kinds of different beliefs and worldviews, ideas that easily divide us, a common search for meaning (Frankl) does actually underly our diverse quests — whatever they may be — which may help us to talk to each other if we could care a little more.
So, is there just one meaning of life?
If one is not satisfied with reality, if one forsakes the good and always demands something better, if one is unwilling to come face-to-face with the world as it is, then one will be susceptible to dogmatic or ideological thought, to intolerance and extremism in the worst case. I hope to help singles avoid that fate.
The above-quoted essay is rather insightful in that the authors do not attempt to prescribe what exactly the meaning of life is or should be, but rather argue ‘that the experience of meaning lies at the heart of human existence, that the feeling or belief that one’s life is meaningful is essential for healthy human functioning.’
Why is it so important that one comes to terms with meaning in life as this may sound like a no-brainer? Well, I have conversed, over the decades, with people for whom life was or had become rather meaningless, and it showed in their often unconscious, aggressive, or depressive behaviors.
As a single looking for Mr. Right or Mrs. Perfect, please avoid those other singles who consitently struggle with finding their meaning of life. You do not want to become the sole source of meaning for someone else as that makes for an unstable relationship. It might end up in a tragedy.
Imagine a single person, let’s call him Jim, who has come to be romantically inclined toward Akari. His unconscious intention is really to gloss over the relative meaninglessness in his life via the appropriation of her vitality, energy, and love. One might say that Jim is at least trying to cope with the meaningless in his life, but his resurrection might happen, if so, at the expense of ‘love is blind’ Akari.
Other singles might see the meaning of life as fairly absurd and just try to have some fun while it lasts. Imagine a single person, let’s call her Elena, who is out there in the dating scene every other night at this or that bar. She gets picked up by a naive fellow, Ben by name, who then falls madly in love with her, a love that is unrequited and ever will be so. What is Ben’s chance of avoiding heartbreak?
It is hard to imagine that real love can develop between two people without some shared experience of meaning between them. A single who is fairly grounded in meaning and an empty lover — sort of just a moving body no matter how well endowed — do not make for good fortune in most people’s books.
Luckily, a meaning or the meaning is not binary, not like an all or nothing. A loving relationship can work between two singles out as long as love and life are meaningful, even in different ways, to the two people in that bonded relationship — that is as long as love and life are not meaningless or absurd to one or the other. Such a stark imbalance will not bode well.
Meaning is not All or Nothing
Meaning in life is commonly understood as having two motivational aspects, purpose and personal significance, and one cognitive aspect, coherence.
Now, imagine that a particular single cannot find his or her One, perhaps because of beliefs and preferences that are meaningful to him or her, such that these make it rather difficult as in ‘it’s got to be another person from my denomination’ or ‘it’s got to be someone with my level of higher education,’ or ‘it’s got to be someone of my race,’ or any other such de-facto meaningful restriction. What then? Meanings — not just their absence — can make for suffering just as well.
There then is great variability in the extent that people feel that their lives are filled with personal meaning. Perceptions of meaning in life can be influenced (and bolstered) through the goals individuals pursue: both everyday goals and more overarching feelings of a “grand” purpose in life. I like to think of these as scopes of meaning, some of which may be more relevant than others to a particular person.
Everyday goals boost meaning in life by providing individuals with specific feelings of purpose and direction. Alfred Adler, founder of the school of individual psychology, suggested that life is meaningful on the condition that progress is made toward attaining these goals. Positive psychology suggests that intrinsic goals involving intimacy, spirituality, and generativity tend to elevate meaning and purpose and that everyday goals that work towards self-actualization and instill passion in our lives will inevitably strengthen a sense of meaning. I go for all that!
Cosmic and Terrestrial Meanings
The conception of cosmic meaning focuses on one’s life fitting into an overall coherent pattern such as the universe. In his writings, Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Victor Frankl argued that people need to find an overarching, chronically accessible source of meaning in life that provides them with a clear guide for their existence.
Similarly, American existential psychiatrist Irwin D. Yalom proposed that people’s understanding of the meaningfulness of their lives is often derived from cosmic and/or terrestrial sources of meaning. Yalom describes cosmic meaning as a preexisting design that is superior to the individual (e.g., “God’s plan”), and five different types of terrestrial sources of meaning:
- dedication to an important cause,
- self-actualization, and what he referred to as
- the hedonic solution.
What source of meaning, if any, may speak to you the most? Any single person is well-advised to know him or herself a bit in this regard, as it is something important to disclose during the phase of modern courtship.
Assuming too much Meaning
However, lacking a grand or cosmic meaning in life doesn’t necessarily imply that one’s life is meaningless. I, for instance, feel that most of the time my life is meaningful even so I gave up on the grand sense of meaning, on the cosmic meaning, starting when my mid-life crisis hit. But I do not find that terrestrial approach to life frightening, disorienting, or otherwise disturbing. The absence of a grand or cosmic meaning is rather liberating to me, after all, as it seems to absolve me from having to assume certain duties and obligations I see others rather ritualistic attending to.
I do find a lot of meaning in the relationships between me and my fellow humans, between me and the many things going on every day. There are duties and obligations inherent in these relationships that I am not denying. But I am not fond of assuming grand make-believe duties and obligations, and prefer to stick with those naturally and prominently emerging out of loving relationships with real others in the here and now. I know that I have meaning to the people who know me, and that is meaningful to me as well.
However, humans seem to read meaning into everything. I do it, for sure, and I cannot help it. Further, all these meanings then compete against each other for attention in my mind. Which meaning matters the most? It seems to depend on the situation at hand.
Why do meanings matter? What if none of any of these meanings would really matter to me anymore? Would that be the ultimate case of boredom, of insanity? Could I actually keep living? Perhaps, but I try to decide which meanings matter to me by choosing them carefully — so as to avoid boredom or even insanity.
This approach imparts the unbearable lightness of being on me, instead of weighing me down.
The Positive Psychology website has a more detailed article on the meaning of meaning.
Give Love a Chance
People say that giving love a chance is important as it not only helps a single to avoid isolation or loneliness, but in that it is also a process of discovery – including the discovery of meaning. French philosopher Alain Badiou’s essay, In Praise of Love, and recommending giving love a chance, is pertinent. There are perhaps only a few circumstances or situations that can make a person change his or her perspective on life as dramatically as the encounter with the One, with Mr. Right or Ms. Perfect, etc. A new, broader perspective of life naturally implies a new, broader meaning I would say.
‘You do not know what you do not know,’ they say. So, staying away from ‘erotic’ love, including ‘risky’ romantic love, and containing oneself on an island under a palm tree is so sad for those in the know. Please give love a chance!