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Does Disinterest in Meaning Reveal a Meaningless Life?

Some people are unconcerned about their life’s meaning. Is this a problem?

Some people have confided with me, occasionally in great embarrassment, that they are not at all busy with the meaning of their lives. They are not wondering what the meaning of their lives is. They are not asking themselves whether their lives are or are not meaningful. They are not searching for what would make their lives more meaningful. They are not concerned that their lives are meaningless because they will die one day, or because the universe is large and they are small, or because they achieved in their lives less than Einstein, Mozart, Rembrandt, Aristotle, or Mother Teresa did. They just never think about the meaning of their lives.

But many of my interlocutors also wondered whether this shows that there is something wrong with them. Doesn’t their lack of interest in the meaning of their life show that their life is meaningless and that they are shallow and unsophisticated? Why can’t they be like those who think about and discuss the meaning of their lives? What’s wrong with them?

I suggest that lack of concern about meaning in one’s life doesn’t show anything problematic about the meaning in one’s life. Consider the following analogy: Many people don’t think at all about their hand as long as it functions well. They are much more aware of their hand—it becomes an “issue” for them—when the hand isn’t functioning properly or gives them pain.

Similarly, not thinking about the meaning of one’s life may issue from the fact that one’s life is sufficiently meaningful. Some people whose lives are meaningful aren’t conscious of this fact, and don’t even sense the meaningfulness, because it’s just there, without interruption or significant tides and ebbs. They are so accustomed to the meaningfulness of their lives that they stopped noticing it.

Another way of approaching the issue is this: It is common in philosophy to distinguish between various types of knowledge. Two of these are “knowing how” and “knowing that.” The first is the knowledge we ascribe to people when we say that they know how to do something (e.g., how to ride a bicycle). The second is the type of knowledge we ascribe to people when we say that they know that a certain fact is true (e.g., that Paris is the capital of France).

This second type of knowledge is also sometimes called “propositional knowledge.” Many hold that these two types of knowledge can be largely independent of each other. For example, a person may know very well how to ride a bicycle without being able to explain why or how he rides it as she does, why a bicycle must keep moving in order not to fall, or other facts about bicycle riding. Having a meaningful life, too, can be seen as a form of “knowing how” that is largely independent of propositional discussions of “knowing that.” People can have meaningful lives without being able to, wanting to, or needing to discuss it.

But aren’t people who don’t think about the meaning of their lives shallow and unsophisticated?

I don’t think so. I know many people who are definitely not shallow in their love, or in their understanding of science, or poetry, or philosophy, or art or politics, or business. They are also not shallow or unsophisticated psychologically. But they are not concerned with the meaning of their lives. They just happen to be interested in other things in a deep and sophisticated way, but not in this particular topic of the meaning of their lives.

What has been written here is also partly corroborated by evidence in empirical psychology about the relation between what has come to be called “presence of meaning in life” and what has come to be called “search for meaning in life.” Presence of meaning is the degree to which people take themselves to have a meaningful life. Search for meaning, on the other hand, refers to the strength of people’s desire to create or enhance meaning in their lives and the degree to which they try to do so.

Research by Steger et al., (2006), Steger et al. (2008), and Steger et al. (2009) shows that presence of meaning and search of meaning are negatively correlated. In other words, when the search for meaning is higher, the presence of meaning is lower. This suggests that at least one type of consciousness of, or concern with, meaning in life may not be indicative of a highly meaningful life but, on the contrary, of a stronger sense that life lacks meaning.

References

Steger, M. F., Frazier, P., Oishi, S., & Kaler, M. (2006). The Meaning in Life
Questionnaire: Assessing the presence of and search for meaning in life. Journal
of Counseling Psychology
53: 80-93.

Steger, M. F., Kashdan, T. B., Sullivan, B. A., & Lorentz, D. (2008). Understanding
the search for meaning in life: Personality, cognitive style, and the dynamic
between seeking and experiencing meaning. Journal of Personality 76: 199-228.

Steger, M. F., Oishi, S., & Kashdan, T. B. (2009). Meaning in life across the life span:
Levels and correlates of meaning in life from emerging adulthood to older adulthood.
Journal of Positive Psychology 4: 43-52.

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