The inequality of meaning
Meaning, the long-term aspect of happiness, makes us feel purposeful, fulfilled, and content with our lives. But not all sources of meaning are equal. Some purposes are better than others, and sometimes it’s better to have no purpose than to have a bad one.
For example, it’s better to be a depressed teenager who doesn’t know where to go in life than a frustrated teenager whose passionate purpose becomes the gunning down of his classmates. Likewise, it’s better to be a lonely hermit than a devout follower of an evil cult.
It might feel better to have a bad purpose or belong to a bad group than to have no purpose and belong to no group, but it also feels better to inject heroin than to stay sober. What matters are the long-term consequences, not short-term feelings.
In non-extreme cases, most people would rather be on a bad path than on no path. This is because they are metaphysically weak.
So they haphazardly invest thoughts, energy, resources, and emotions in whatever happens to give them meaning in life. Sometimes this works out well, other times it leads to bigotry and irrationality; or it ends catastrophically.
If we want our sources of meaning in life to be consistently good, we must be able to endure temporary meaninglessness, that is, to be metaphysically tough. But how long do we have to endure?
The short answer
Until we know that a certain source of meaning is truly good.
The long answer
It depends on how reliably we can assess the goodness of a certain source of meaning:
- Personal goals and missions are relatively easy to assess. If someone’s purpose in life is, say, to grow in character (and if by ‘character’ he doesn’t mean being a narcissistic power junkie), then he shouldn’t dwell in meaninglessness, but readily invest everything he can in that source of meaning. Someone else’s vision might be to become a billionaire, a superathlete, a music legend, an artistic genius, or a spiritual master. He simply has to evaluate his values, talents, and the opportunity costs—how willing he is to make the personal sacrifices his goal demands—and invest accordingly.
- Sources of meaning that involve other people can be harder to assess. “Is our relationship a positive-sum game or a trap of codependency?” “Should we have children or not?” “Is this group improving the lives of all its members or exploiting a subset of them?” Effective communication and social analysis may be required to evaluate whether it is better to keep investing or to detach and face meaninglessness. Still, it’s usually quite obvious whether a source of mutual purpose and belonging has positive or negative long-term outcomes for the people involved. For example, working creatively for a company that produces useful products is obviously better than fighting loyally for a gang united by its desire for vengeance, even though the latter might create a more passionate meaning.
- Sources of meaning that involve large populations are extremely difficult to assess. So difficult, in fact, that we should be very cautious about every little investment we make. Here we are in the realm of ethics, politics, and ideologies. Is progressivism or conservativism the answer? Do we need more hierarchy or more equality? Should we revel in nationalist passions or oppose them? Is the meaning we get from identifying with an ideological tribe worth it in the long run, or would we be better off having weaker opinions and being content with a less emotional sense of purpose?
As a general rule
The more people are involved in a source of meaning and purpose, the harder it is to assess its goodness and the more careful we should be about becoming invested in it:
- On the personal level, the principle is to discover and do one’s own True Will by investing as soon and as much as possible to maximize purpose fulfillment. Failure will only be a learning experience, so there’s no need for metaphysical toughness, no need to ever accept meaninglessness, except as a learning experience itself.
- On the interpersonal level, the principle is to manifest a common True Will by communicating with others and analyzing group dynamics. Cognitive, emotional, and material investments should be made cautiously, though not hesitantly. It will sometimes be better to stay metaphysically tough and to endure meaninglessness on this level until one can change his social environment.
- On the societal level, the principle is to find solutions that maximize everybody’s well-being. Being invested in an ideological tribe might feel meaningful, but the investment makes it impossible for better solutions to ever be found, let alone implemented. Here it is usually better to demonstrate metaphysical toughness and to reject irrational ideologies, even if they are powerful sources of meaning. Abstract ethical principles don’t stir up people’s passions as much as firm political opinions and affiliations; this is why most people find them boring, but we know now that their boredom is a sign of metaphysical weakness.
We must be metaphysically tough and endure a lack of meaning in life when there is no good path in sight. And what makes a path good is harder to assess the more people are meant to follow it.