Nihilism and Meaning

Although I’m nauseatingly disgusted by Nihilism, French Existentialism, and Scientism, and my Bayesian prior is that they’re wrong or incomplete, I can’t deny their plausibility. However, from what I’ve read, these philosophies usually deny objective meaning in very sloppy ways, so I was pleased to find A Nihilist’s Guide to Meaning, which struggles with meaning at some depth:

I’ve never been plagued by the big existential questions. You know, like What’s my purpose? or What does it all mean? […]

Unfortunately, some of my favorite writers of recent years — Sarah Perry and David Chapman, in particular — can’t seem to shut up about meaning. […] I’ve long struggled to make heads or tails of such metaphors — and yet these are solid, STEM-y thinkers, people I trust not to take me too far off the rails. […]

I’d like to venture a more explicit hypothesis about what, exactly, underlies our perceptions of meaning. Please forgive the mathy tone here:

A thing X will be perceived as meaningful in context C to the extent that it’s connected to other meaningful things in C.

Sarah gives a helpful metaphor: meaning is pointing. So the more arrows issuing out from something, the greater its meaning. […]

If meaning is about connectedness, and especially causal influence, we can see why it’s adaptive to pursue meaning. Perceptions of meaning allow us to answer a question we’re always asking ourselves, “Why am I bothering to do this?” If an activity feels meaningful, it merits our continued attention and investment. Whereas if it feels meaningless, an appropriate response is to stop doing it — to give up and search for a more meaningful path. To seek meaning, then, helps us avoid dead-ends and retain control over our lives. Just as boredom and ennui are emotions that prompt us to make better use of our time or to look for other opportunities, our perceptions of meaning (or lack thereof) prompt us to think about the deepest, longest-term impact of our actions, and to steer toward better outcomes.

It’s important to remember, though, that we can get duped into perceiving meaning where it doesn’t actually exist. As in many other areas of life, we can’t always pursue the outcomes we want directly. Instead we evolved to pursue a set of cues that give us the subjective sense of meaning. These cues typically correlate with real meaning, but have the potential to lead us astray, and in clever hands can even be used to exploit us. A charismatic CEO, for example, waxing grand and eloquent about the company’s mission, can create a strong sense of meaning in his employees — but all too often it’s illusory, the reality less “world-changing” than the rhetoric. […]

One of the best ways to look at meaning is to contrast it with pleasure. Consider this dramatically oversimplified formula:

Life satisfaction = pleasure + meaning

“Pleasure” here is what hedonists traditionally try to maximize. It includes health, comfort, and all manner of enjoyable sensory, aesthetic, and cognitive experiences, along with the absence of pain, misery, and suffering. Even beauty, for the hedonist, gets rolled up into the pleasure term.

Now we could imagine defining “pleasure” in such a way as to include “meaning.” After all, it feels good to experience meaning in one’s life. So why break meaning out into its own separate term?

One reason is to highlight how people are often forced to choose between meaning and pleasure; the two experiences seem to trade off against each other in interesting ways. Having children, for example, seems to reduce one’s pleasure, at least in the short run, while contributing greatly to one’s sense of meaning. (More here.) In the extreme case, martyrs are willing to endure torture and die for the sake of something larger than themselves. And sure, a martyr is a tragic figure — but vastly more tragic is he who suffers and dies for no purpose whatsoever:


But the bigger reason to separate meaning from pleasure is that pleasure is a strictly subjective experience. You can close your eyes and bliss out as hard as you like, and the pleasure you experience will be no less valid because it’s “just in your mind.” Meaning, on the other hand, is entangled with external reality, making it possible to be wrong about it. And thus the pursuit of true meaning requires an outward orientation to the world.

What if I’m deluded?

I think it’s always healthy to consider every criticism. As I research meaning, I’ll use this post to track every criticism I find and my self-analysis. Some are plausible, some probably apply to many people, and some seem like baseless pop-psychology. It’ll be useful to periodically review this list to make sure I’m not falling into any traps.

  1. Trap: Trying to find meaning is just a proxy for an in-born need for social stability.

    But because man, out of need and boredom, wants to exist socially, herd-fashion, he requires a peace pact and he endeavors to banish at least the very crudest [war of all against all] from his world. This peace pact brings with it something that looks like the first step toward the attainment of this enigmatic urge for truth. (Nietzsche)

  2. Trap: Trying to find meaning is a coping mechanism or rationalization for failure.
  3. Trap: Trying to find meaning is an existential crisis in the face of an impending death.
  4. Trap: Trying to find meaning is pointless but people associate an undue importance with it because it’s such a difficult (or impossible) task.
  5. Trap: Deciding on what is meaningful is mired in potential cognitive dissonance.
  6. Trap: Interventions not based on precise understanding are likely to do more harm than good.
  7. Trap: There is no such thing as objective meaning.
  8. Trap: Ideas of meaning are psychological delusions used to enhance survival that are the result of millions of years of evolutionary biology.
  9. Trap: Displacing a serious struggle with distractions and delusions as depicted by this sarcastic Maslow hierarchy:

    1. My thoughts: This is certainly possible; however, I’ve avoided the “travel the world” trope, but maybe that’s because I already did that for ten years as part of my job? Also, I certainly didn’t mean for this blog to come off as advice to others, but it’s worth exploring my need to share my journey even though I know from past experiences that most people that I invited to follow this will likely contribute little. I can say that I made a conscious decision to exclude certain people (most of my contacts) from my initial email because I thought they might take this the wrong way, so that’s some evidence that this doesn’t come from narcissism.
  10. Trap: Quitting and writing a blog are just the luxuries of a spoiled, rich, lazy, and decadent boredom.
    1. My thoughts: This is certainly possible; however, I seem to be struggling and wrestling with the questions, but I must admit I’ve indulged in some selfish pursuits at the same time. It certainly doesn’t feel like a life-or-death struggle, but why should it? Maybe after a certain amount of wealth, cleaning up the psyche, and healthy friendships and hobbies, Maslow’s self-actualization is simply the next step?
  11. Trap: From an evolutionary biology point-of-view, perhaps being male — a sort-of mutated female — requires a pseudo-child to bear (e.g. “my work is my baby”) in the form of self-actualization.
    1. My thoughts: Need some evidence and primary sources on this to evaluate further; otherwise, might just be pop-psychology.
  12. Trap: The search for meaning is an over-intellectualization of being burned out and needing a vacation.
    1. My thoughts: This is certainly possible; however, I enjoyed working until the last day (and even helped some colleagues a bit, for no pay, after leaving), and I didn’t feel burned out. I did spend the first few weeks mostly just sleeping, but that felt to me like a luxury of freedom that I worked hard for 15 years for, rather than being burned out.
  13. Trap: This is just because you don’t have a family, children, and/or other major responsibilities.
    1. My thoughts: The latter part of this is true for me right now. I imagine a bright future with family, children, and other major responsibilities and Baumeister et al 2013 suggests that these are contributors to meaning, but it’s unclear to me that this answer is necessarily so simple, and it disregards Frankl’s argument. This argument and the search for meaning do not seem mutually exclusive to me, and there’s a converse trap of using this argument (or hedonism, drugs, etc.) as an excuse instead of finding meaning (e.g. no time, too much stress, etc.).
  14. Trap: You can’t accomplish much that’s meaningful without money, power, social network effects, health, free time, friends, etc.
  15. Trap: Discovering or even understanding meaning is hopeless.
  16. Trap: The search for meaning does not appear to lead to its presence.
  17. Trap: The search for meaning is broken.
  18. Trap: Homo Sapiens are story-telling animals and we expect the same for meaning. “Reality doesn’t come in the shape of a story. […] It’s a human invention. And how to overcome that, I don’t think we are anywhere near knowing the answer to that one.”
  19. Trap: Asking about meaning is a category error.
  20. Trap: Searching for meaning is a depressive reaction to feeling threatened or helpless.
  21. Trap: It’s hard to finding meaning because it’s hard to act in the world in a non-Hayekian way.
  22. Trap: Meanings are made in sub-cultures.
  23. Trap: Creating meaning is a collaborative activity.
  24. Trap: The urge for meaning is an unending distraction for societal happiness at the expense of private happiness. An alternative would be some sort of pastoral Epicureanism.
  25. Trap: The search for meaning is a drive to attempt to climb the dominance hierarchy by acting out the hero myth.
  26. Trap: Meaning is within a a nearly impossible to understand chasm between the subjective and the objective.
  27. Trap: The search for meaning is a surrogate activity directed towards artificial goals to compensate for the meaning-crushing nature of the modern world.

I welcome all other criticisms.

The Base Case of Meaning

Viktor Frankl was a Jewish psychologist who became a slave laborer for years in Nazi concentration camps. In an argument that reminds me of the base case in mathematical induction, Frankl argues that if there is to be any meaning in life at all, it must be possible in the worst suffering:

With the progressive dawn, the outlines of an immense camp became visible: long stretches of several rows of barbed wire fences; watch towers; searchlights; and long columns of ragged human figures, grey in the greyness of dawn, trekking along the straight desolate roads, to what destination we did not know. There were isolated shouts and whistles of command. We did not know their meaning. My imagination led me to see gallows with people dangling on them. I was horrified, but this was just as well, because step by step we had to become accustomed to a terrible and immense horror.

Those who have not gone through a similar experience can hardly conceive of the soul-destroying mental conflict and clashes of will power which a famished man experiences. They can hardly grasp what it means to stand digging in a trench, listening only for the siren to announce 9:30 or 10:00 A.M.– the half-hour lunch interval– when bread would be rationed out (as long as it was still available); repeatedly asking the foreman– if he wasn’t a disagreeable fellow– what the time was; and tenderly touching a piece of bread in one’s coat pocket, first stroking it with frozen gloveless fingers, then breaking off a crumb and putting it in one’s mouth and finally, with the last bit of will power, pocketing it again, having promised oneself that morning to hold out till afternoon.

The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms– to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him– mentally and spiritually. Dostoevsky said once, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.”

If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life– daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditations, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.

For us, as prisoners, these thoughts were not speculations far removed from reality. They were the only thoughts that could be of help to us. They kept us from despair, even when there seemed to be no chance of coming out of it alive. Long ago we had passed the stage of asking what was the meaning of life, a naive query which understands life as the attaining of some aim through the active creation of something of value. For us, the meaning of life embraced the wider cycles of life and death, of suffering and dying.

Frankl created a branch of psychotherapy called Logotherapy (related fields are Existential Therapy and Meaning Therapy):

It is one of the basic tenets of logotherapy that man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life. That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has a meaning.

But let me make it perfectly clear that in no way is suffering necessary to find meaning. I only insist that meaning is possible even in spite of suffering– provided, certainly, that the suffering is unavoidable. If it were avoidable, however, the meaningful thing to do would be to remove its cause, be it psychological, biological or political. To suffer unnecessarily is masochistic rather than heroic.

What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms. Logos is deeper than logic.

Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a “secondary rationalization” of instinctual drives. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning. There are some authors who contend that meanings and values are “nothing but defense mechanisms, reaction formations and sublimations.” But as for myself, I would not be willing to live merely for the sake of my “defense mechanisms,” nor would I be ready to die merely for the sake of my “reaction formations.” Man, however, is able to live and even to die for the sake of his ideals and values!

Of course, there may be some cases in which an individual’s concern with values is really a camouflage of hidden inner conflicts; but, if so, they represent the exceptions from the rule rather than the rule itself. In these cases we have actually to deal with pseudovalues, and as such they have to be unmasked. Unmasking, however, should stop as soon as one is confronted with what is authentic and genuine in man, e.g., man’s desire for a life that is as meaningful as possible. If it does not stop then, the only thing that the “unmasking psychologist” really unmasks  is his own “hidden motive”– namely, his unconscious need to debase and depreciate what is genuine, what is genuinely human, in man.

Not every conflict is necessarily neurotic; some amount of conflict is normal and healthy. In a similar sense suffering is not always a pathological phenomenon; rather than being a symptom of neurosis, suffering may well be a human achievement, especially if the suffering grows out of existential frustration. I would strictly deny that one’s search for a meaning to his existence, or even his doubt of it, in every case is derived from, or results in, any disease. Existential frustration is in itself neither pathological nor pathogenic. A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease. It may well be that interpreting the first in terms of the latter motivates a doctor to bury his patient’s existential despair under a heap of tranquilizing drugs. It is his task, rather, to pilot the patient through his existential crises of growth and development.

To be sure, man’s search for meaning may arouse inner tension rather than inner equilibrium. However, precisely such tension is an indispensable prerequisite of mental health. There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life. There is much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” I can see in these words a motto which holds true for any psychotherapy. In the Nazi concentration camps, one could have witnessed that those who knew that there was a task waiting for them to fulfill were most apt to survive. The same conclusion has since been reached by other authors of books on concentration camps, and also by psychiatric investigations into Japanese, North Korean and North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camps.

I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium or, as it is called in biology, “homeostasis,” i.e., a tensionless state. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.

Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, 1946,

Choosing an Impactful Career is Non-Obvious

Ironically for a profession in which most applicants cite humanitarian or altruistic reasons, the impact of practicing medicine – particularly in the developed world – is limited […] physician density is negatively correlated with burden of disease; the social determinants of health explain more of the variance in health outcomes than physician density; there are steeply diminishing returns between increases in physician density and decreases in burden of disease. Further, the ‘bottom line’ figures (which are likely optimistic) suggest an additional doctor adds four health years for every year they work. This is a lot less than can be accomplished through even modest donations to effective charities, and so suggests the ‘direct impact’ of medicine is pretty modest.


Medical Careers, 80,000 Hours,

More on Baumeister et al 2013

Interesting methodology: Instead of trying to define happiness and meaning, which are hard to define and have some overlap, Baumeister et al 2013 simply asked survey participants to gauge each, then asked a bunch of other questions, and then, controlling happiness and meaning for the other, searched for correlations between happiness, meaning, and the other questions for significantly different correlations to try to tease out how happiness and meaning might be different, and then created some hypotheses and definitions out of the results. They admit they threw out some “ostensibly significant findings” which “made little or no sense” and that “this project was intended to generate ideas”.

One particularly fascinating point is that participants rated happiness as “fleeting and unstable,” yet their own responses (the survey was taken multiple times over the course of a month) showed the opposite.

The reason behind that apparent mistake may be that happiness in fact consists of enjoyment of the present, so it does not inherently link together different moments in life (unlike meaning). Its link to the present may encourage the inference that it is unstable and transient.

Overall, the study finds these significant correlations:

  • Meaning: Imagining the future, being a giver, helping the needy, taking care of children, time with loved ones, arguing, high stress, lots of worrying, praying, meditating, cleaning, talking on the phone, listening, reading for pleasure, buying gifts for others, and feeling wisdom.
  • Happiness: Feeling good, feeling healthy, easy life, having money, present oriented, not being a giver, time with friends, not arguing, low stress, and little worrying.

Our findings suggest that happiness is mainly about getting what one wants and needs, including from other people or even just by using money. In contrast, meaningfulness was linked to doing things that express and reflect the self and in particular to doing positive things for others. […] Happiness went with being a taker more than a giver, while meaningfulness was associated with being a giver more than a taker. Whereas happiness was focused on feeling good in the present, meaningfulness integrated past, present, and future, and it sometimes meant feeling bad.

Our exploratory findings are broadly consistent with the framework that happiness is natural but meaning is cultural. Although humans use money and other cultural artifacts to achieve satisfaction, the essence of happiness still consists of having needs and wants satisfied. The happy person thus resembles an animal with perhaps some added complexity. In contrast, meaningfulness pointed to more distinctively human activities, such as expressing oneself and thinking integratively about past and future. Put another way, humans may resemble many other creatures in their striving for happiness, but the quest for meaning is a key part of what makes us human, and uniquely so.

Meaning vs. Happiness

A large survey revealed multiple differing predictors of happiness (controlling for meaning) and meaningfulness (controlling for happiness). Satisfying one’s needs and wants increased happiness but was largely irrelevant to meaningfulness. Happiness was largely present oriented, whereas meaningfulness involves integrating past, present, and future. For example, thinking about future and past was associated with high meaningfulness but low happiness. Happiness was linked to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaningfulness went with being a giver rather than a taker. Higher levels of worry, stress, and anxiety were linked to higher meaningfulness but lower happiness. Concerns with personal identity and expressing the self contributed to meaning but not happiness.

Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life, Baumeister et al, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2013,

First blog post

After 10 years as a professional software engineer, I took a six month leave of absence starting January 1st, 2017. After a month and a half of dillydallying, I’m now ready to start to do what I set out to do: investigate a job or career change to maximize my net positive impact on the world and find more meaningful work. At the recommendation of a friend, I’ll use this blog as a somewhat disorganized chalkboard documenting my journey.