Meaningfulness, its moral implications and the path forward | Opinion

When one thinks about meaningfulness in life, a few generic categories readily come to mind: our relationships, our professional life and our hobbies.

This is, of course, a generalization—as each of these categories has a myriad of sub-categories—but it is a helpful one. In light of the existing data on the matter, from these three categories it can unhesitatingly be said that our society is currently in a crisis of meaning.

To put it bluntly, a great number of people are living a great deal of their lives afflicted with passivity and discontentedness with respect to their relationships, professional lives and hobbies—or, a complete lack thereof on all three fronts.

What does one even mean when they are talking about “meaningfulness”?

Philosopher Susan Wolf’s definition of meaningfulness states that a meaningful action is one that entails deriving subjective fulfillment from an act, while also ensuring the action has worth independent of itself.

Let’s say you enjoy fitness and want to become a personal trainer. Such a choice would be a meaningful one in the sense that, on the one hand, such a choice will fulfill you in the long-term and it will also have worth independent of you by helping your clients get into better shape.

Unfortunately, most jobs are not geared toward the attainment of meaningfulness for those who must work them. Less than half of American workers say that they are satisfied with their current job.

Given that job satisfaction is highly correlated with income, the higher the income, the greater the job satisfaction. With the median personal income in the U.S. around $35,977, it’s quite likely that the data on the matter underrepresents the problem of job dissatisfaction in America.

“Only about 15% of the world’s one billion full-time workers [report being] engaged at work,” wrote Jim Clifton, Gallup CEO and chair. “What the whole world wants is a good job, and we are failing to deliver it.”

Most full-time workers work roughly an average of 40 hours a week; there are 52.18 weeks in a year; to give a conservative estimate of how many years a person works, let’s say a person works for 40 years of their life. In making up the difference here by those who work 40 plus hours a week and those who retire late, the average person will spend about 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime.

Most people report saying they are not satisfied with their current job and are mostly disengaged. In sum, the average person spends one-third of their lives unengaged and unfulfilled.

This is also the case with relationships.

Half of marriages end in divorce and nearly half of those that don’t end in divorce are riddled with unhappiness—the latter frankly being a conservative estimate. There isn’t data that is comparable to this on premarital relationships, but given that most of these relationships end, I can’t imagine the data would be peachier.

Sixty-two percent of adults report having around two to five close friends. This comes with a significant caveat: 54 percent of adults also report that they regularly feel as if no one knows them well, nearly half report frequently feeling lonely or left out. Forty-three percent report that their relationships are not meaningful and that they are isolated from others, and 59 percent feel that those around them do not share their interests and ideas.

The Harvard Business Review found that most people “could name several activities, such as pursuing a hobby, that they’d like to have time for.” Many fall into the trap of feeling like they have no time to participate in activities they would find meaningful.

College students gather on the horseshoe at the University of South Carolina on August 10, 2020, in Columbia, South Carolina.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

One-fourth of Americans do not get paid time off, and most who do fail to use all of their vacation time (they either don’t take it at all or spend their vacation doing work-related activities). The sad truth is that the perception of having no time often becomes a reality. Reports indicate that about half of Americans say they seldom have time on their hands and two-thirds say they almost always feel rushed when they do.

None of this ought to be considered an invitation to misanthropy. The problem the above crisis leads to is misanthropic in nature. Our crisis in meaningfulness has the potential to have devastating moral consequences, specifically the moral consequences of nihilism, which is the necessary next step after a drought in meaningfulness. When our lives lack meaning, they become boring.

According to the philosopher Henry Frankfurt, boredom is a complete lack of interest in life, a diminishment of vitality, a reduction in cognition and a spiral into disinterested unconsciousness. Simply put, a void is left in the mind of the bored.

Kierkegaard’s epithet that boredom is “the root of evil,” and Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” phrase is elucidatory here: Most evil arises from complacency, thoughtlessness, disengagement, shallowness and the blind surrender to cultural norms. Often the void of boredom becomes filled with resentment, hatred and/or pernicious ideology, leading to events like the January 6 insurrection on the Capitol.

Why is a lack of meaningfulness so prevalent? And how can we increase the prevalence of meaningfulness, so as to avoid the threat of nihilism?

According to the economist Richard H. Thaler, when it comes to our decision-making processes, our starting point is not one of rational self-interest. On the contrary, we tend to focus on the narrow impact of each individual decision rather than its overall effect. We are generally very unwilling to give up what we have at the moment for something new in the future, even if the former is bad and the latter is good, and we are extremely susceptible to succumbing to short-term temptation, by abdicating delayed gratification.

“The inability of man to govern and restrain his emotions I call bondage. For when man is subject to passions, he is not in his own power, but in the power of destiny, so that we are often compelled, even while seeing better, to follow the worse,” wrote the philosopher Benedict De Spinoza. Our failure to moderate our emotions puts us under the control of unmoderated emotions, and in turn, makes us more reliably do what is not in our best interest, even when we know exactly what is in our best interest.

Our socio-cultural predicament sets most people up to lack the ability to have more meaningful lives. The majority of occupations under poorly-regulated capitalist societies manifest themselves to turn workers into cogs in machines; most work is either unengaging or tedious, which sucks the spirit out of the worker and leaves them drained for when they actually have time to do what they might find meaningful.

The condition of unfulfilling work that doesn’t pay so well is the rule rather than the exception. In a system (like the U.S.) that makes the possibility of meaningfulness heavily contingent upon one’s finances, it deprives many people the freedom to pursue what would be truly meaningful to them. Furthermore, when this is compounded by poor levels of social mobility due to economic inequality, such deprivation is amplified.

Conformity to the broader culture—values which are not necessarily one’s own—is highly incentivized—through the ostracization of those who attempt to depart from it. When we circumvent our values for the values of others, we will almost certainly become unhappy and resentful.

Finally, at least in the U.S., the education system encourages conformity, discourages individual thought and exists in the fashion assembly lines and passive lecturing. All this model has shown to do is fail to inspire learning and to produce inattention and boredom.

The path forward is quite simple—though sadly, complicated to implement.

We need an education system that incentivizes free thought and ethics, caters to individual learning needs and interests and a system that teaches students how to think wisely—rather than what to think or not think about.

Bringing philosophy into the curriculum during childhood might be a helpful first step in this process. Likewise, within our education system, instead of guidance counselors who simply utilize the cookie-cutter phrase, “go to college,” what is needed are incentives for well-informed individuals from all work sectors to collaborate with schools to help guide students make informed decisions. Ideally, some of these individuals ought to be school staff.

Next, we need to ensure that our society is one that doesn’t entail an ultra-rich class and an ultra-poor class. The existence of such classes impedes the possibility of millions of people from having adequate opportunities to pursue what is meaningful to them, due to their profound hindrance on social and financial mobility.

Currently, most systems in the world do not entail these reforms.

Devastating consequences to our social and cultural fabric are on the horizon if these reforms continue to be neglected. I am not saying most people have meaningless lives. Instead, I am saying most people have lives where they are experiencing much less meaningfulness than they wish to, and that to an extent is damaging.

This crisis needs to be resolved in the 21st century.

Daniel Lehewych is a graduate student of philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center, specializing in moral psychology, ethics and the philosophy of mind. He is a freelance writer, powerlifter and health science enthusiast.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.

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