Human beings have probably asked about “the meaning of life” since language was invented, and they have given a multitude of answers. The most popular is probably that the meaning of life is to find happiness, whatever that may mean, and the history of that answer can be traced at least to Aristotle’s notion of eudaemonia in the Nicomachean Ethics. But to say that the meaning of life is to find happiness only invites the question “What is happiness?” and then the answer quickly disintegrates into a multitude of other answers.
I am not convinced by this answer in any of its forms. Partly my scepticism arises from the ease with which the answer quickly dissolves into emptiness when we find ourselves wanting to say things like “Well, you know: we are happy when we are, … er, … happy.” This is not the most illuminating thing ever said about the meaning of life (if indeed it has a meaning). My scepticism also stems from a disinclination to accept that the question should be answered solely in terms that matter to me. Suppose, for example, that my happiness is purchased at the expense of others (as is almost certainly the case), as when the emperor Tiberias achieved happiness by inflicting unspeakable pain on others because it was the only way he could arouse an interest in anything (in his case, usually sexual interest). A view of happiness in which my happiness is somehow divorced from the happiness of others therefore seems unsatisfactory, if only to me.
Nor is happiness as readily achieved or understood as we might imagine. Some have argued, with some force, that happiness and sadness arise not from being in fixed states but from sensing changes in our circumstances: we are happy when things are improving; happiest when they are improving at a rate we find optimal; we are sad when things are deteriorating; saddest when they are deteriorating most rapidly and seem out of control.
It is likely that happiness is not achieved in the same way for all people. An articulate, educated person may find happiness in feeling part of a historical process that constitutes a meta-narrative for humankind and perhaps for the whole universe (as in a religion); someone less inclined to cerebral forms of happiness may be happy with a piece of music, a pint of beer, sex, or a beautiful sunset. And all variations and mixtures of all of them. But this is not enough if it is also the changing nature of our perception of our state that makes for happiness and sadness: an unchanging meta-narrative may not make me happy if my place in it is insecure; a piece of music, sex or a pint of beer may have all sorts of positive and negative effects on me depending upon my other moods.
Esther Perel has observed that we used to regard monogamy as “one partner for life” and now we regard it as “one partner at a time”. I suspect much the same is true of meta-narratives. Until relatively recently we expected to live our whole life with one meta-narrative. It could be a religious belief, a political belief, a belief in a particular sport or career or activity. Now we tend to have one meta-narrative at a time, and there are times during the transition from one to another that we lose all sense of purpose in life because the meta-narrative that had provided us with the map that gave shape to our existence has dissolved. People commonly experience this in bereavement: because a significant other often carries a major part of the mapping that gives shape to our lives, loss of that significant other (parent, spouse, child, pet) shatters our sense of where and who we are until a new map can form. Meta-narratives provide very powerful and extensive maps that are capable of locating us in a story that encompasses the whole universe (as in most major religions). And of course we create such narratives and with them purposive structures out of “causes” defined in opposition to some perceived wrong such as war, discrimination, cruelty; and the relentless search for peace and sustainability (to cite only two contemporary favourites) can provide a shape to our lives – a meaning – that religious narratives also supply to those inclined to adopt them.
Someone with no meta-narrative or nothing that plays the part of a meta-narrative in his or her life is likely to be a lost soul exhibiting demotivation, lack of direction and general lassitude. They will describe themselves as “lacking in energy” when what they mean is that they have lost all sense of direction and purpose; they lack not so much energy as meaning.
Dale Carnegie famously wrote in How to make friends and influence people that the first question we should ask of anyone with whom we have dealings is “What do they want?” He reasoned that because people will do anything in order to get what they want – and allowing for the fact that they may want very strange things that lie outside the normal spectrum of wants and things they are ready to do for them – once we know what someone wants we have it in our power to make them do virtually anything if we can persuade them that they will get what they want if they do it. It is a rather cynical point of view, but in many cases it is almost certainly true.
But not if someone wants nothing, and someone who has lost touch with any kind of purposive narrative probably will want nothing. Their lack of interest can extent to food, drink, company, health and even life itself (as the recently-bereaved often demonstrate). Someone who lacks a life narrative cannot be motivated to do anything because nothing makes any sense or offers to reward them with something that seems like satisfaction of their wants. By definition, if you lack all desire you will want nothing and not be ready to do anything to get it.
At this point a new player called a pseudo-narrative enters the arena. A pseudo-narrative is a narrative that achieves social popularity and creates a false market in activities related to it but is ultimately unsatisfying and vacuous. Its merit is that it fills the void left by the absence of a genuine meta-narrative and so dispels at least temporarily the sense of emptiness that such a lack involves. The health of a society can be measured by the proportion of pseudo-narratives it deploys to dispel its sense of purposelessness. In time of war these pseudo-narratives reduce almost to zero because survival depends upon the real meta-narrative of defeating the enemy; in times of prosperity and peace they tend to proliferate. One of the problems of “peace and sustainability” is that there is nothing sustainable about a vacuous peace. And most peace turns out eventually to be vacuous; we are all prey to the temptations of Homer’s lotophagoi and Putnam’s pig-people. A glance at the vacuous content of most weekend newspaper magazines and supplements will convince anyone that we have travelled a long way down this road already.
Moreover, mention of war reminds us that our ability to unite against a common enemy depends very greatly upon the availability of a narrative that can be set over against the narrative of that enemy. One of the most toxic states of affairs that can arise in a country is where it has no such narrative, for then it lies prey to those who will happily invent one. The rhetoric of the far right and the far left feeds on the emptiness of the reservoir of alternative meta-narratives that can so easily arise, and perhaps has already arisen, in the lotus-eating middle classes whose lives revolve around fashion, food and fun. And there is a huge corresponding danger in any society that feeds only upon opposition to things that it perceives as wrong without having any clearly-articulated view of what it will do when they are all done away with and having won the war they have to “win the peace”. In most civilisations, winning the peace has proved much more difficult than winning a war.
And the reason for that, of course, is that we do not as a matter of fact have an answer to the question “What is happiness?” that is not couched in terms of pseudo-narratives. We live in a peace defined by “sex and shopping” as a friend of mine likes to put it, and in both quantity seems far more important than quality.
English has a word for all this that has been current for decades: we pursue “pastimes” that literally pass the time in ways that obscure the absence of any purpose in our lives. The vast majority of us engage in pastimes of exactly this sort for exactly this reason, trying to convince ourselves that we are doing ourselves some good but deep-down knowing that we are doing nothing of the sort. (And I freely acknowledge that writing blogs may be just another example of the same phenomenon.)
So is the answer a return to religion? Some might think so; others might wish it so; I rather hope not. But what is the alternative? Postmodernism took the bold step of trying to live without a meta-narrative, but failed. Liberalism tried to make the absence of a prescribed meta-narrative the basis for the emergence of a new one; that failed too as only pseudo-narratives emerged to fill the vacuum. Left and right totalitarianisms rose and fell by offering us respite from emptiness, and although my fear is that we are now ripe for another one, I hope that proves to be wrong. So what is the alternative?
I suspect that finding an answer to this question constitutes the greatest challenge facing us as human beings in this era. At the very least articulating a persuasive response to Islamist fundamentalism, which is currently an unequal contest between the convinced and the unconvinced – ironically between the believer and the infidel – is a pressing need in our time. We also know that rampant consumerism cannot continue indefinitely, so we realise – even if we do not admit it to ourselves because we are too busy protecting the “sex and shopping” pseudo-narrative that keeps our worst senses of ennui at bay – that we need to discover and articulate a human story that is sustainable, deep-rooted and persuasive. And as far as I can see we are currently considering no credible candidates for the role of this meta-narrative at all.