We need to talk about the meaning in our lives
Having meaning is hugely important in an era in which our old props are pulled away
Alone in a crowd: Isolation is a problem that can be addressed by people being more present for other people.
Wandering around Eason the other day I noticed a group of young men listening with full attention to another young man who was explaining things to them about gaming. Well, I couldn’t quite understand what he was talking about so I assume it was gaming and that he was a maestro of the Xbox or Playstation or both.
When I left an hour later I passed the same group still listening with full attention to the same young man explaining the same thing. Clearly he finds meaning in gaming or in whatever he was explaining and so do the people who were drinking in his words.
The existentialist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl saw meaning as the essential ingredient in human wellbeing. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
Meaning is what would make you get up in the morning even if you didn’t have to get up in the morning. It can come from relationships, work, games, the arts, sports and many other sources.
Today we don’t usually talk about this topic in public, but we need to pay more attention to it; it’s hugely important in an era in which our old props are pulled away.
One prop was organised religion which used to tell us what the meaning of life was and how we should live. That prop (sometimes more of a stick than a prop) is gone. Another prop was work which has been a source of meaning for human beings for all our history. Even if the job you get isn’t the job you wanted, it can sometimes become meaningful later on by giving you a sense of accomplishment or by enabling you to support your family.
That prop is in danger. Getting the job you want is not easy and neither is getting security and decent pay. Artificial intelligence (AI) threatens to accelerate the replacement of people with machines; the disappearance of humans from many supermarket checkouts is a foretaste of something much bigger.
An Oxford University study published in 2013 estimated that 47 per cent of jobs are capable of being automated as AI systems gain hold. A more recent OECD study put the figure at 14 per cent but added that another 32 per cent of jobs could be significantly changed by automation.
At the very least, it can be said that we cannot rely on jobs, to the same extent as before, to provide the meaning in our lives.
Now, meaning doesn’t fill an empty stomach. The National Women’s Council of Ireland recently stated that “women are more likely to be poor, to parent alone, to be the main provider of unpaid care work, to be in precarious employment, to earn low wages and to be at risk of domestic or sexual violence”. It was commenting on a report by Kitty Holland in this newspaper that in certain poorer parts of Dublin the suicide rate for young women is as high as that for men.
Some of the remedies for issues such as low pay and precarious employment lie in the hands of government, the EU, business, trade unions, and so on. Others require different behaviours in communities. Isolation is a problem that can be addressed by people being more present for other people. Don’t blame social media for isolation: I encountered the social isolation of single mothers long before the first iPhone went on sale.
But if it’s important to acknowledge the effects of social and economic conditions, it’s also important to acknowledge the huge importance of meaning in one’s life.
Those young men I saw in Eason will, in the future, I hope, find meaning not only in gaming but in relationships, work and other activities.
I don’t suppose a politician who promised a debate on the meaning of life as his or her platform would get many votes.
But it’s still one of the single most important things we could talk about and we need to talk about it much, much more.
Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is ‘Kindfulness’. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).