The Need for Meaning

Written on February 5, 2010. Written by .

I’ve often heard it said that to be truly happy you need to be a part of something bigger than yourself. In other words, limitless leisure and pleasure don’t necessarily lead to the ideal life. Those who have adopted this belief into their life philosophy try to find something more meaningful to give their life a feeling of purpose. Oftentimes pursuing meaningful work requires sacrifices of time and money that are never made up for in kind. Some individuals are even led into celibacy or death in their pursuit of meaning. It makes one wonder how evolution could have favored a gene that produces this kind of behavior.

To understand the evolutionary function of the need for meaning, we must first examine the things that we find meaningful. People seem to find meaning in things like: making the world a better place, saving lives, helping the poor, producing a great work of art, discovering a cure for cancer, and so on. People will also say that they find meaning in taking care of their family, but that is easy to understand evolutionarily and can be categorized as a separate type of meaning. Right now we want to understand the type of meaning that does not have a direct connection to replication. If we were to summarize all of these non-family related types of meaning in one sentence, we could say that meaning is achieved by contributing to the community by helping or influencing a large number of other people. Of course there are exceptions to this general statement. Some people just want to help animals, but that could be explained as a “misfiring” of a gene that primarily targeted humans as the recipients of aid. Or it could be that they have a hidden hope that by helping animals they can earn the praise of other people. It’s possible that this definition of meaning is incomplete, but it is surely a good approximation to the truth.

Now let’s put this meaning-gene to the test in a hypothetical hunter-gatherer tribe of about 100 people. Those who have the gene would become the tribal priests, craftsmen, and witchdoctors as a result of their perpetual desire to help others. Those without the gene would tend to mind their own business and focus on their personal matters like food and close relationships. At first glance it seems that the extra time to focus on one’s own problems would be advantageous. But humans are social creatures so the situation becomes more complex.

In a social group, individuals often look to others for advice on what to do. Sheep are famous for this because of their herding instinct. Humans don’t herd like sheep, but we still use the reactions of others to judge things like the danger of a situation or the character of a tribe-member. This causes a circular feedback loop that can produce group polarization for or against something. If the tribe becomes polarized against a particular individual, that individual could face ostracism, expulsion, or execution. All of these would likely bring about the end of that individual’s genetic lineage. Even if they already had children, those children would be much less likely to survive without a father in good standing within the tribe.

Now consider the effect of the meaning-gene. Those with the meaning gene are integral members of the community. The whole tribe relies on their skills and services. Those without the meaning-gene are only valued by a minority of the tribe. It would take a much bigger stimulus to cause the tribe to polarize against a tribe-member who has the meaning-gene. So if the loss in practical efficiency isn’t too large, possessing the meaning-gene could be an evolutionary advantage. So perhaps the need for meaning is just our genes’ way of telling us to integrate tightly into our community so that we decrease the chance of ostracism, expulsion, and execution.

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