Why We Crave Meaning in Our Lives, and How to Find It

“An identity is very much a tool for connecting with other people. It’s what our species evolved to do.”

READ ON TO DISCOVER:

  • The four things you need to find meaning in life
  • What sexual kinks have to do with the nature of the self
  • Why self-centered people can be so aggressive

Roy Baumeister is one of the world’s most prolific and influential psychologists, having published well over 500 scientific articles and more than 30 books. Scott Barry Kaufman is a cognitive psychologist and the scientific director of The Imagination Institute. The two recently sat down on The Psychology Podcast to discuss how self-absorbed people think, how awareness of death affects the way we live, and how we can build fulfilling, meaningful lives.

Scott: How did you get interested in psychology?

Roy: Well, I went to college to study math because I was good at it in high school, and higher math seemed kind of weird. Those were the hippy days, and everybody talked about relevance and profundity so I thought, “Well, why don’t I study philosophy and religion and grapple with the big questions?” And then it turned out psychology had some interesting approaches to those. Philosophers grapple with ideas of right and wrong, and Freud said, “Let’s look at how people actually get their ideas of right and wrong, rather than analyzing the concepts.” That scientific approach got me hooked.

Scott: What was your doctoral dissertation about?

Roy: Back in the 1970s, the self-esteem movement was just starting to take off. People were thinking, “Maybe you get a failure experience, your self-esteem goes down, and that’s what affects your behavior.” I was a little skeptical of that. I thought, “Maybe we care more about what other people think of us than what we think of ourselves.”

So in my dissertation, I tried giving people good or bad feedback about their personalities, either in a public or a private setting. Either, “You’re the only one who will see this confidential information,” or, “I’m showing it to other people.” If it’s just self-esteem, it should have the same effect, right? It’s the same information having the same impact on how you appraise yourself.

It turned out if you read the evaluation confidentially, it had very little effect. But knowing other people had seen it made a big, big difference. So this was the start of study of self-presentation. Gradually it caught on because lots of people started saying, “Yes, behavior really changes when other people are looking.”

Scott: You countered a lot of the thinking at the time. What did you find were some of the downsides of having too high self-esteem?

Roy: There are very few things that are unmitigated good or bad. So yeah, there’ll be some advantages to high self-esteem, but some disadvantages too. One formulation was that the benefits of self-esteem mostly come to yourself, in that it feels good. It’s nice to think you’re a superior, competent being, but the costs are borne by the people around you. If you’ve had a romantic partner or a roommate or a co-worker with a very high self-esteem, they can be a pain to deal with.

“As our society puts more and more emphasis on the self as the source of value, it’s creating a very fragile meaning of life.”

There are people who think they’re a lot better than they are. They have unstable high self-esteem, [which] leads to defensiveness and aggressiveness. They want to think they’re superior, but somebody criticizes them, their self-esteem drops temporarily, and they hate that. So the unstable ones become hypersensitive: “Is this person about to criticize me?” They lash out when they think someone is being critical.

But the true high self-esteem people just think they’re wonderful, and nothing phases them. Good day, bad day, success, failure, you still think you’re great. Think of them as floating through life on a cloud of their own wonderfulness. Nothing’s bothering them, so why should they get upset?

Scott: Sure, and this topic has been part of a larger investigation you’ve had on the nature of the self. And I noticed in some of your earliest investigations, you looked into masochism. You viewed masochism as an escape from self, and I thought maybe you could talk a little bit about that line of research.

Roy: Yeah. I’d published a book on identity and how people decide who they are, and I thought, “Why don’t I do another one on how people find meaning in life?”

Meaning of life is a grand philosophical one, [and] I said, “Social science has a lot left to contribute. Let me read everything, and see what comes out.” So, I was just looking around for interesting things to read, and I thought, “These people who engage in kinky sex, wanting to be tied up and spanked and stuff like that, they must have really interesting lives.” I recall spending a day or two in the library, and pretty soon I realized that I was not going to learn much about the meaning of life from people doing weird sex. But what struck me is that this was a challenge to our theories of self.

We think of the self as we’re trying to maximize esteem. You’re trying to maximize control, and find pleasure and avoid pain. And these people systematically did the opposite. They wanted to be humiliated, to be deprived of control, to accept pain rather than pleasure. So, I said, “This goes exactly opposite to what we think about the self. How are we going to reconcile this?” And after a while, I realized that there wasn’t going to be any magic resolution. That doing these things was a way to get rid of the self.

There are several possible appeals of that. One is you forget yourself when it’s stressful to be yourself over a long period of time. It’s the same with suicide, right? Going to write about the meaning of life, I had to understand what causes suicide, because that’s people who have decided life doesn’t have any meaning. But I realized, “No, it’s not a rejection of your whole life. It’s not [that] life is a meaningless thing. It’s more that the present is intolerable, and it’s more an escape from this week rather than from your life as a whole.”

Scott: You raised a lot of very interesting points, one about death as an escape from self. If we were to get our arm cut off we wouldn’t say, “We’re dead.” But when we get our brain cut off, people say, “We’re dead.” It’s very interesting to think about where the self is located.

Roy: There are some interesting theoretical issues on this. Ernest Becker wrote The Denial of Death and got a Pulitzer Prize arguing that much of human life is motivated by this fear of our own mortality. Social psychologists have developed this into a theory they call “terror management,” and they say that self-esteem is erected as a defense against death. To me, that has never made sense, because your self is what dies when you die, [so] if you really wanted to get rid of the fear of death, you should lower your self-esteem, so that it’s no big deal that you die.

I came to conclude that as our society puts more and more emphasis on the self as the source of value, it’s creating a very fragile meaning of life. People used to get meaning of life [by] getting involved in something bigger than themselves. It’s presumably something that will last after you’re gone, [like] a religious, political, scientific, or artistic movement. The idea that, “I will create something, and this will live on after my life,” that’s what gives meaning.

Silhouette of Woman on Lakeside Jetty with majestic Sunset Cloudscape

If you draw the meaning of your life from focusing on the self, that makes you all the more vulnerable because when you die, your self dies. People like to think they’ll be remembered, but the empirical evidence is that people are not remembered very well. Most people can hardly come up with a few sentences about their grandparents, and don’t even know the names of their great grandparents. It’s a little bit of a downer to reflect on this, but after you die, the people who know you will remember you and think of you now and then, but the people who didn’t know you will probably not give you another thought.

Scott: You raise a good point, because there is a study showing that if you prime people to think of self-transcendent things as opposed to thinking about the self, they do show reductions in terror.

But asking, “What is the self?” is such a complicated question. We both would agree that the self is a very fragmented thing, a very multidimensional construct. But what is the association between our self and our identity? Are they the same thing?

Roy: First of all, the self has lots of pieces, but to say it’s fragmented… An essential feature of the self is unity. You have one self. Now, the terms “self” and “identity” are used in different ways by different people. One way to make the distinction is: identity is the definition of the self, and so in a sense, that’s your position in society. Your identity is your roles, it’s how other people would characterize you. Whereas the self might be the psychological processes that produce it, and that would include your self-concept. If you lived alone, you might have some self concept, [but] you wouldn’t have much of an identity. If you never met another person, you wouldn’t need a name, you wouldn’t own anything, you wouldn’t have a reputation.

A lot of the things that are central concerns for the self, and things that define your identity, are all dependent on social interaction. A lot more things are based on interpersonal relations than we think. We have a habit in psychology to think of one mind at a time, and that’s what I came up against in my dissertation. People are thinking, “All these effects are due to changes in self-esteem.” Self-esteem may not matter much, but people care a lot about what other people think of them.

An identity is very much a tool for connecting with other people. It’s what our species evolved to do, and it’s our strategy for survival and reproduction as social animals. We need to connect with others. We’ve come up with elaborate social systems, much more than seen elsewhere in nature, but they depend on differentiated identities.

Young Women Travel Together Concept

Scott: I don’t feel like we ever really defined what the self is. I take your point that the self feels unitary, but what I meant by “fragmented” is [that] it is comprised of lots of different, sometimes contradictory processes, and a lot of people throughout the history of psychology have talked about the importance of integrating these various selves to have optimal human functioning. So what is the self?

Roy: Trying to come up with a definition is one of the hardest things. I think the self is not a thing, not a piece of the brain, but rather a process of performance. You talk about the different parts, yet integration is, in a sense, the last step. The self comes into being [from the] bottom up. The brain doesn’t even have a central processing unit. The brain doesn’t really need a self, it’s a requirement of complex social systems.

We have a review article coming out soon. Sometimes human groups are more than the sum of their parts, and sometimes less, and we try and say, “What makes the difference?” The conclusion was, groups function well when people are individually identified and participate as separate individuals. When people all blend into the group, then that produces bad effects, like social loafing and mob violence.

So human groups really do better with differently shaded selves. The requirement to be a unique individual doesn’t come from inside the person, it comes from the social system. We evolve to make those systems work, and they do bring immense benefits when we take part in them. But the self comes into being in the social group. It’s a process of performance, not a thing.

Scott: You’re such a social psychologist.

Roy: Thanks.

Scott: You could hear a different perspective from someone who just studies the brain.

Roy: The brain people are sometimes skeptical that there is such a thing as a self. There’s a hefty tradition running through them saying the self is an illusion.

But you couldn’t do economics or sociology without identities. What’s the point of buying something if you don’t have the self to own it next week? What’s the point of selling something if you don’t have a self to get the money and use it for something else that the self wants? So the assumption of continuity of identity and of self is indispensable for the disciplines that study social systems. For the ones that go down into the individual mind, it’s not so important. And to me, that’s the profound point: the need for the self arises in personal relations, not in terms of the requirements of a single mind.

Scott: Right, I find that very interesting.

Let’s move on to the meanings of life. Something that was seminal in your work was differentiating between happiness and meaning, saying we have this striving for meaning in life. You came up with four needs for meaning, and I thought you could maybe talk about the four.

“An identity is very much a tool for connecting with other people. It’s what our species evolved to do.”

Roy: Okay. Viktor Frankl was the first one to dare to bring the idea of meaning and the meaning of life into psychology. For him it was pretty much about purpose. Purpose is certainly a big aspect of meaning of life—one of the four needs for meaning—but just having a purpose isn’t enough. There also has to be some sense of right and wrong, some basic values, even to justify yourself so that you think you are a good person. If you have a purpose but it’s associated with something bad, then that’s not fully satisfactory.

The third is efficacy. You have to believe you can make a difference. Having a purpose is not going to make your life meaningful if there’s nothing you can do to fulfill that purpose. It’s, “There’s something I can do to reach those goals, to get to heaven, to provide for my children,” or whatever the purpose is.

And then thinking again about self-esteem, [having] some basis for thinking that you’re a person of value. For people who have a purpose that they’re striving for, with a strong sense of what’s right and wrong, who feel able to make a difference in a positive way, and who have some basis for thinking that they’re a worthwhile person, life is pretty meaningful.

Scott: You also argue that there is a myth of there being a higher meaning. Can you tell me why that’s a myth?

Roy: Yes. People ask, “What is the meaning of life?” as if there’s going to be a single answer, one formula that explains and integrates everything. Whereas the meaning of most people’s lives is stitched together out of several unrelated things. They have their family and romantic relationships, their work, they may have their religious faith, hobbies and other activities, other sources of meaning. The idea that there’s a single meaning to even one person’s life is probably not right.

Scott: That makes sense. We may have multiple purposes throughout our lives, so that speaks against this notion of there being a single, higher meaning that we need to spend our whole life searching for.

Roy: Conventional wisdom is that living a purely hedonistic life doesn’t satisfy you in the long run. There are studies suggesting that pursuing happiness for its own sake doesn’t really work, but if you try to cultivate a meaningful life, that can work and will then make you happy too.

 

This conversation has been edited and condensed.