Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Optimize for Meaning

The world offers many simple formulas for leading a good life - from the ever popular commencement speech advice "do what makes you happy" to the hippie/Disney incantation that "it's all about love". But no simple formula can capture all the nuance that makes up a good life. Behind the scenes the successful followers of these formulas cheat at the edges, making exceptions in difficult circumstances. It's not clear how a philosophy about the primacy of happiness or love offers guidance in hard times when a person must sacrifice short term well-being for long term gain.

Bending a slogan through enough curlicues of argumentation can apply it to all cases. But if any principle can be universalized with enough argumentation, then none stands out. Each serves as a reasonable map for people lacking any life direction but grows hazy in the details.

Undaunted by the failure of simple life philosophies, I recently made an attempt to fashion my own. Perhaps it is no more useful than the others. But it is mine, so I am allowed to adore it. It is:

Optimize for meaning

It is vague (what is meaning?), but I hope that its very vagueness helps it bridge the distance between the clean world of ideas and the messy world of existence. It seems a better description of the method of obtaining the Good Life than optimizing for happiness, or power, or global average utility.

My philosophy is derived through introspection. I perceive my life to be better when I create and participate in meaningful events. I am also heartened by the fact that it doesn't seem to be obviously unrealistic. A meaningful life still has all the facets of life we are used to - boredom, frustration, you name it. It is not utopia. The only thing it seems to lack is the burden of meaninglessness.

As a advocate of meaning, I'm faced with the question: how is meaning created? I recognize that my life today is far more meaningful than when I was a bored teenager growing up in rural suburbs. How did that change happen? I have no general philosophy of meaning, but I have discovered a few ways that it comes into existence.

The effort of creation - If you are so brusque as to ask a young artist why they bothered to hang one of their own paintings when they could buy better ones at the store, they will answer "because it is mine". It is the same reason why parents love their children, even if their children are not the best children in the world. Effort creates meaning.

A strategy for creating meaningful living environments is to surround yourself with physical artifacts created by you and your loved ones.

The esteem of the esteemed -  Meaning is found in the things loved by the ones we love. The favorite song of a friend can create a strong emotional response even if you don't otherwise like it. It feels important (which may be a synonym for meaningful) in a way which other songs do not.

Time - On my birthday I gave my girlfriend and I matching necklaces featuring black onyx pendants. We have not taken them off since, and each day they are infused with progressively more meaning. Keeping an object close to the body or otherwise giving it part of your scarce space and attention imbues it with significance. So does performing some ritual of care to an object over time. These objects of power can be used to elevate the emotional content of ritual, performance, and gift.

On a larger scale, old religious buildings or natural structures such as trees which are older than any living human are especially powerful things. The destruction of Buddhist statues by the Taliban caused an outcry even from non-Buddhists. But this outcry wouldn't have happened if the stone Buddhas were only 17 years old instead of 1,700.

Particularity - Modern consumer capitalism wipes away meaning by eliminating individuality and creating a feeling of anonymity. I felt good about my fine taste in clothes when I bought a slick new jacket from Uniqlo - until I saw multiple people on the street wearing the same thing over the next few weeks. I was just one of many people with the exact same taste.

Particularity is a rebellion against consumer anonymity. Buying handmade goods from Etsy provides a source of meaning to both buyer and seller. A rock that picked up on a particular roadtrip with a particular friend can never be copied by anybody else.

Sacrifice - Sacrificing an object that already has meaning or value can give meaning to a new event or object. The Burning Man festival is built around a sacrificial ritual - the burning of a giant, wooden man. The sacrifice of the man has a passionate intensity because of the week that attendees spend living in its shadow, with it the tallest and most reliable landmark to navigate the festival. When it burns, it is like burning "North" or the sun - a force of nature goes missing.

Gifting, another tradition associated with Burning Man, produces meaning. Something given to us feels more important than the same thing if we buy it ourselves, perhaps out of recognition of the sacrifice that the giver made to get it.

Religious fasting, a temporary sacrifice, gives meaning to the mundane act of eating. It is a very nice and pleasant thing to bring meaning to the boring necessities of life.

Belonging - Our connections to others give meaning to our lives. Existence in relationship to romantic partners, family, and larger organizations is more meaningful than existence as isolated individuals. Social roles are also important. People find meaning in filling the cultural expectations of a husband, wife, mother, father, or child.

Altered consciousness - Episodes of identity malleability are meaningful events. This often takes the form of transcendent connection, often in context of genuine religious experience or political activism. Connecting with something larger than ourselves (god, the universe, a political cause, etc.) gives meaning and provides some protection from the crippling existential fear of death.

Struggle - Feats of strength and endurance are meaningful. A severe injury, such as a broken limb, becomes an important story to tell people for the rest of one's life. People even inflict physical discomfort on themselves - running marathons and participating in triathlons. Perhaps suffering creates meaning mediated through increasing one's self-confidence. Becoming a more robust individual feels important.

I'm sure there are other things which create meaning that I have missed.

A world that optimizes for meaning looks different from a world that optimizes for happiness, global utility, or power. For example, some utilitarian philosophers want to eliminate all suffering, even that of prey animals. Aside from the strangeness of such a life (can we even imagine it?), it seems to eliminate a lot of the sources of meaning in the world. I am not ready to suggest that we keep around sources of suffering that we can eliminate on purpose, but I suggest we start to look at suffering as more than just an enemy.

Perhaps listing the things which are meaningful can help us understand the crisis of meaninglessness in modern life. For example, it seems that a lot of things which create meaning involve scarcity and effort, and the primary focus of the modern economy is to eliminate scarcity and effort. Could that be the source of our collective ennui?

This exercise helps me understand the fanaticism that I and others feel towards Burning Man. Even aside from the sacrificial burning of the man, it is an event engineered to generate large amounts of meaning. The festival is a celebration of eccentric creativity and individuation. It exists amidst a physical struggle - the temperature extremes, mandatory self-sufficiency, and harsh weather create shared suffering. The final event is a somber memorial of loss - the burning of the temple (loss also creates meaning).

How else can we create meaning?