Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

The Meaning Instinct

Originally posted on December 17, 2012

I suggest that humans have an intrinsic need to construct meaning—something that orients them to the chaotic phenomena of the world. We pass along meanings as stories, myths; we organize religious-cultural systems based on these stories. It is universal. (When people become sufficiently disoriented through delerium (due to fever, some plants or medicines, some illnesses, etc.), dementia (due to injuries to or degeneration of the brain, etc.), the disorientation associated with these disturbances can feel frighteningly traumatic. The point here is that the need for discovering a sense of meaning is very basic.

Note that I am not implying that there actually exists “out there” a single source of meaning for all people in all times and situations. Certainly there is no consensus as to what that meaning would be, although a number of religions express this need by asserting their own dogma. Rather, I’m noting that it’s an archetype, a primal drive, a deep instinct, a universal human tendency to create the experience of life as meaningful, to superimpose some pattern on perception and experience.


Alfred Adler, one of the pioneers of depth psychology, noted that young children come to deeply felt “conclusions” about who they are, who others are, what the world is about, and how best to cope. These are largely unconscious, and depending on the circumstances may be more fixed or more provisional and open to revision. Generally these are accurate in the context of what most immature minds might imagine given the particulars of the way parents, teachers, and friends operate; however, these conclusions are both inaccurate and maladaptive as the child moves beyond the home and school of that phase of early childhood. Then the challenge involves either clinging to this “style of life” (as Adler phrased it) or re-learning a more adaptive set of attitudes. Many people do not make this transition until adulthood—some in therapy, some through other good influences, some never.

The point is that there is a certain kind of general “philosophy of life” that many people cannot put into words. They experience a jumble of feelings, images, slogans, organized clichés, and other elements which, like a dream, are organized into plausibility by the rationalizing unconscious—a function that is amazingly, powerfully clever in doing this—far more clever than what the conscious mind can do!

A second type of philosophy involves the activity of trying to rationally coordinate one’s ideas. Few people make much effort at doing this, and indeed the aesthetic pleasure of doing so is uncommon. These are people who actually like to philosophize and don’t mind discovering that just maybe they could be mistaken.

A third type is a very clever activity of generating what seems to be a convincing sensation of meaning that is moderately rigorous, but the “true believer” wouldn’t dream of deeply questioning the assumptions that go into his preferred theory.

Most people’s unconsciously constructed philosophy of life can with-stand careful rational analysis. However, if one should be pressed to a more rigorous standard of philosophy, one that demands that incongruities be addressed—-for example, by a professor of philosophy in a seminar or a particularly intellectual theologian, most people will get pretty uncomfortable or angry. In ordinary situations, people generally manage to avoid others grilling them. It isn’t considered courteous to push another to explain and justify his or her deepest assumptions. If this should happen, the first level is that most folks find some excuse for opting out of the interrogation. If they feel pinned down, they get angry!

It is not admitted openly, but it is arrogant and unkind and a bit of intellectual aggression to ask others to be able to express their consciously  well-coordinated “philosophy of life.” Very few even have much interest in fashioning one. (I do, but I also keep evolving it! Haha!) Most people, though, have a not-terribly coherent jumble that is nevertheless adequate to serve. The sense of life as meaningful is mainly a product of many elements, not unlike the way we construct and maintain an illusory “sense of self,” as I describe in a paper on my website.

To restate this thesis another way: Meaning is not objective, but rather a sense of positive coherence about the general directionality of life. It may be associated more or less with conscious thoughts, a philosophy of life, and this may in turn be more or less rationally coordinated. This is somewhat parallel to my thesis that the self is also a deep experience that is felt, first, and then to varying degrees rationalized. And like the self, it is a product of many different experiences. It is a nexus, a built-up sense that becomes a concept that in turn can become an anchor to which one can return: Yes, there is meaning: How can I recapture it?

For many people, the sources of the sense of meaning is mild; but then again, the stress on them that tests this meaning is also mild; so, one carries on. However, if stress grows and the basis of meaning is shallow, it will not suffice and the result is that the sense of lack of meaning becomes toxic in the system, like the build-up of acid or carbon-dioxide in states of low blood flow. I think that this dynamic of increasing stress and low vitality of meaning contributes to some depression and anxiety symptoms.

The factors that can contribute to the strength of the sense of meaning include any of the following:
  – a transpersonal destiny, a sense of how or in what way the world, the future, God, some transpersonal cause needs you
  – a personal matrix of value—people, family members, a club, friends, church, people who need you
  – a semi-transpersonal, semi-ambition-al cause—books to write, art to complete, house to finish building, waiting to witness a grandchild’s wedding… to know that there is still a sense of “need” in one’s local system
  – a cause, perhaps less personal, for which one feels loyalty, enthusiasm, passion, and for which one intuits that one’s own contributions are needed
  – a sense of participation in a transpersonal movement, a religious revival, the emergence of a new sub-cultural trend, a professional bit of research or other trend
  – etc.

Detracting from the sense of meaning is the feeling of dis-illusion with a cause that had previously been meaningful, politically, militarily, socially, scientifically, business or some other enterprise. Other factors that may detract from the sense of meaning include disappointment in one’s erstwhile allies or a feeling of having been betrayed. The disillusion in one’s hoped for political deliverance can be dull or sharp. Many a revolution, full of high ideals for a party or cause or nation founders on the gradual emergence of leadership that is half-hearted or corrupt or ineffective compared to what had been expected.

Of course, major losses of close others, familiar and secure base, social standing (e.g., deep humiliations or exposures of weakness), etc. also detract from both sense of self as valued and also the sense of meaning in life. That is to say, the two dynamics are not entirely separate.

Consciousness as an Anchor

To protect oneself against demoralization, depression, and a loss of the sense that one’s life is meaningful—even in the face of disillusion in a given role—one must consciously construct the foundations of a sense of why and how one’s life may be more infused with meaning.

This may well work if it is moderately infused in turn with imagery, stories, heroes, history, a sense of developing or emerging future trends. Rational philosophy can work, more or less, in some people. For some few it can be more vigorous, for many, it’s too “heady.”

Still, if the stories are simple and understandable—and even if they include a certain mixture of a demand to believe in the mysterious or paradoxical—, they can be clung to even more tightly! Examples of this kind of cultish dogmatism are scattered throughout history.

At any rate, construction of a sense of meaning-in-life is a worthwhile endeavor, at least for me, and it seems, more relevant as I age. Indeed, it feels meaningful enough that I want to share what works for me. I have no expectation that you will buy it, but perhaps (I dare hope) some of you may find some images or ideas stimulating to your own process of meaning-construction!

One Response to “The Meaning Instinct”

  • terry teaters says:

    Good entry. I enjoyed it.

    I am eager to learn more about what you are calling a “rationalizing unconscious.” I have not come across that term before.

    What if life has no inherent meaning and neither does the ego that dwells within it? All the meanings I have ever made for myself about myself fell somewhere along a line between skewed and outright dangerous. I am finding much more comfort now in just “not knowing.”

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