Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy
Showing posts with label Meaning. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Meaning. Show all posts

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

On Edge: Understanding and Preventing Young Adults’ Mental Health Challenges

Making Caring Common. (2023).

From the Executive Summary

Our recent data suggests that the young adults of Generation Z are experiencing emotional struggles at alarming rates. While the emotional struggles of teens have been in the national spotlight since the pandemic—and this attention has been vital—according to our nationally representative survey, young adults report roughly twice the rates of anxiety and depression as teens. Compared to 18% of teens, a whopping 36% of young adults in our survey reported anxiety; in contrast to 15% of teens, 29% of young adults reported depression. Far too many young adults report that they feel on edge, lonely, unmoored, directionless, and that they worry about financial security. Many are “achieving to achieve” and find little meaning in either school or work. Yet these struggles of young adults have been largely off the public radar.

From the Press Release:

The report identifies a variety of stressors that may be driving young adults’ high rates of anxiety and
depression. The top drivers of young adults’ mental health challenges include:
  • A lack of meaning, purpose, and direction: Nearly 3 in 5 young adults (58%) reported that they lacked “meaning or purpose” in their lives in the previous month. Half of young adults reported that their mental health was negatively influenced by “not knowing what to do with my life.
  • Financial worries and achievement pressure: More than half of young adults reported that financial worries (56%) and achievement pressure (51%) were negatively impacting their mental health.
  • A perception that the world is unraveling: Forty-five percent (45%) of young adults reported that a general "sense that things are falling apart” was impairing their mental health.
  • Relationship deficits: Forty-four percent (44%) of young adults reported a sense of not mattering to others and 34% reported loneliness.
  • Social and political issues: Forty-two percent (42%) reported the negative influence on their mental health of gun violence in schools, 34% cited climate change, and 30% cited worries that our political leaders are incompetent or corrupt.

The report also suggests strategies for promoting young adults’ mental health and mitigating their
emotional challenges. These include:
  • Cultivating meaning and purpose in young people, including by engaging them in caring for
  • others and service;
  • Supporting young people in developing gratifying and durable relationships; and
  • Helping young people experience their lives as more than the sum of their achievements.
“We need to do much more to support young adults’ mental health and devote more resources to prevention,” said Kiran Bhai, MCC’s Schools & Parenting Programs Director and a co-author of the
report. “This includes reducing the stressors that young people are facing and helping them develop
the skills they need to thrive.”

Thursday, November 23, 2023

How to Maintain Hope in an Age of Catastrophe

Masha Gessen
The Atlantic
Originally posted 12 Nov 23

Gessen interviews psychoanalyst and author Robert Jay Lifton.  Here is an excerpt from the beginning of the article/interview:

Lifton is fascinated by the range and plasticity of the human mind, its ability to contort to the demands of totalitarian control, to find justification for the unimaginable—the Holocaust, war crimes, the atomic bomb—and yet recover, and reconjure hope. In a century when humanity discovered its capacity for mass destruction, Lifton studied the psychology of both the victims and the perpetrators of horror. “We are all survivors of Hiroshima, and, in our imaginations, of future nuclear holocaust,” he wrote at the end of “Death in Life.” How do we live with such knowledge? When does it lead to more atrocities and when does it result in what Lifton called, in a later book, “species-wide agreement”?

Lifton’s big books, though based on rigorous research, were written for popular audiences. He writes, essentially, by lecturing into a Dictaphone, giving even his most ambitious works a distinctive spoken quality. In between his five large studies, Lifton published academic books, papers and essays, and two books of cartoons, “Birds” and “PsychoBirds.” (Every cartoon features two bird heads with dialogue bubbles, such as, “ ‘All of a sudden I had this wonderful feeling: I am me!’ ” “You were wrong.”) Lifton’s impact on the study and treatment of trauma is unparalleled. In a 2020 tribute to Lifton in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, his former colleague Charles Strozier wrote that a chapter in “Death in Life” on the psychology of survivors “has never been surpassed, only repeated many times and frequently diluted in its power. All those working with survivors of trauma, personal or sociohistorical, must immerse themselves in his work.”

Here is my summary of the article and helpful tips.  Happy (hopeful) Thanksgiving!!

Hope is not blind optimism or wishful thinking, but rather a conscious decision to act in the face of uncertainty and to believe in the possibility of a better future. The article/interview identifies several key strategies for cultivating hope, including:
  • Nurturing a sense of purpose: Having a clear sense of purpose can provide direction and motivation, even in the darkest of times. This purpose can be rooted in personal goals, relationships, or a commitment to a larger cause.
  • Engaging in meaningful action: Taking concrete steps, no matter how small, can help to combat feelings of helplessness and despair. Action can range from individual acts of kindness to participation in collective efforts for social change.
  • Cultivating a sense of community: Connecting with others who share our concerns can provide a sense of belonging and support. Shared experiences and collective action can amplify our efforts and strengthen our resolve.
  • Maintaining a critical perspective: While it is important to hold onto hope, it is also crucial to avoid complacency or denial. We need to recognize the severity of the challenges we face and to remain vigilant in our efforts to address them.
  • Embracing resilience: Hope is not about denying hardship or expecting a quick and easy resolution to our problems. Rather, it is about cultivating the resilience to persevere through difficult times and to believe in the possibility of positive change.

The article concludes by emphasizing the importance of hope as a driving force for positive change. Hope is not a luxury, but a necessity for survival and for building a better future. By nurturing hope, we can empower ourselves and others to confront the challenges we face and to work towards a more just and equitable world.

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Meaning from movement and stillness: Signatures of coordination dynamics reveal infant agency

Sloan, A. T., Jones, N. A., et al. (2023).
PNAS, 120 (39) e2306732120


How do human beings make sense of their relation to the world and realize their ability to effect change? Applying modern concepts and methods of coordination dynamics, we demonstrate that patterns of movement and coordination in 3 to 4-mo-olds may be used to identify states and behavioral phenotypes of emergent agency. By means of a complete coordinative analysis of baby and mobile motion and their interaction, we show that the emergence of agency can take the form of a punctuated self-organizing process, with meaning found both in movement and stillness.


Revamping one of the earliest paradigms for the investigation of infant learning, and moving beyond reinforcement accounts, we show that the emergence of agency in infants can take the form of a bifurcation or phase transition in a dynamical system that spans the baby, the brain, and the environment. Individual infants navigate functional coupling with the world in different ways, suggesting that behavioral phenotypes of agentive discovery exist—and dynamics provides a means to identify them. This phenotyping method may be useful for identifying babies at risk.

Here is my take:

Importantly, researchers found that the emergence of agency can take the form of a punctuated self-organizing process, with meaning found both in movement and stillness.

The findings of this study suggest that infants are not simply passive observers of the world around them, but rather active participants in their own learning and development. The researchers believe that their work could have implications for the early identification of infants at risk for developmental delays.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the study:
  • Infants learn to make sense of their relation to the world through their movement and interaction with their environment.
  • The emergence of agency is a punctuated, self-organizing process that occurs in both movement and stillness.
  • Individual infants navigate functional coupling with the world in different ways, suggesting that behavioral phenotypes of agentive discovery exist.
  • Dynamics provides a means to identify behavioral phenotypes of agentive discovery, which may be useful for identifying babies at risk.
  • This study is a significant contribution to our understanding of how infants learn and develop. It provides new insights into the role of movement and stillness in the emergence of agency and consciousness. The findings of this study have the potential to improve our ability to identify and support infants at risk for developmental delays.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

‘Bullshit’ After All? Why People Consider Their Jobs Socially Useless

Walo, S. (2023).
Employment and Society, 0(0).


Recent studies show that many workers consider their jobs socially useless. Thus, several explanations for this phenomenon have been proposed. David Graeber’s ‘bullshit jobs theory’, for example, claims that some jobs are in fact objectively useless, and that these are found more often in certain occupations than in others. Quantitative research on Europe, however, finds little support for Graeber’s theory and claims that alienation may be better suited to explain why people consider their jobs socially useless. This study extends previous analyses by drawing on a rich, under-utilized dataset and provides new evidence for the United States specifically. Contrary to previous studies, it thus finds robust support for Graeber’s theory on bullshit jobs. At the same time, it also confirms existing evidence on the effects of various other factors, including alienation. Work perceived as socially useless is therefore a multifaceted issue that must be addressed from different angles.

Discussion and conclusion

Using survey data from the US, this article tests Graeber’s (2018) argument that socially useless jobs are primarily found in specific occupations. Doing so, it finds that working in one of Graeber’s occupations significantly increases the probability that workers perceive their job as socially useless (compared with all others). This is true for administrative support occupations, sales occupations, business and finance occupations, and managers. Only legal occupations did not show a significant effect as predicted by Graeber’s theory. More detailed analyses even reveal that, of all 21 occupations, Graeber’s occupations are the ones that are most strongly associated with socially useless jobs when other factors are controlled for. This article is therefore the first to find quantitative evidence supporting Graeber’s argument. In addition, this article also confirms existing evidence on various other factors that can explain why people consider their jobs socially useless, including alienation, social interaction and public service motivation.

These findings may seem somewhat contradictory to the results of Soffia et al. (2022) who find that Graeber’s theory is not supported by their data. This can be explained by several differences between their study and this one. First, Soffia et al. ask people whether they ‘have the feeling of doing useful work’, while this study asks them whether they think they are making a ‘positive impact on [their] community and society’. These differently worded questions may elicit different responses. However, additional analyses show that results do not differ much between these questions (see online supplementary appendix C). Second, Soffia et al. examine data from Europe, while this study uses data from the US. This supports the notion that Graeber’s theory may only apply to heavily financialized Anglo-Saxon countries. Third, the results of Soffia et al. are based on raw distributions over occupations, while the findings presented here are mainly based on regression models that control for various other factors. If only raw distributions are analysed, however, this article also finds only limited support for Graeber’s theory.

My take for clinical psychologists:

Bullshit jobs are not just a problem for the people who do them. They also have a negative impact on society as a whole. For example, they can lead to a decline in productivity, a decrease in innovation, and an increase in inequality.

Bullshit jobs are often created by the powerful in society in order to maintain their own power and privilege. For example, managers may create bullshit jobs in order to justify their own positions or to make themselves look more important.

There is a growing awareness of the problem of bullshit jobs, and there are a number of initiatives underway to address it. For example, some organizations are now hiring "bullshit detectives" to identify and eliminate bullshit jobs.

Thursday, June 29, 2023

Fairytales have always reflected the morals of the age. It’s not a sin to rewrite them

Martha Gill
The Guardian
Originally posted 4 June 23

Here are two excerpts:

General outrage greeted “woke” updates to Roald Dahl books this year, and still periodically erupts over Disney remakes, most recently a forthcoming film with a Latina actress as Snow White, and a new Peter Pan & Wendy with “lost girls”. The argument is that too much fashionable refurbishment tends to ruin a magical kingdom, and that cult classics could do with the sort of Grade I listing applied to heritage buildings. If you want to tell new stories, fine – but why not start from scratch?

But this point of view misses something, which is that updating classics is itself an ancient part of literary culture; in fact, it is a tradition, part of our heritage too. While the larger portion of the literary canon is carefully preserved, a slice of it has always been more flexible, to be retold and reshaped as times change.

Fairytales fit within this latter custom: they have been updated, periodically, for many hundreds of years. Cult figures such as Dracula, Frankenstein and Sherlock Holmes fit there too, as do superheroes: each generation, you might say, gets the heroes it deserves. And so does Bond. Modernity is both a villain and a hero within the Bond franchise: the dramatic tension between James – a young cosmopolitan “dinosaur” – and the passing of time has always been part of the fun.

This tradition has a richness to it: it is a historical record of sorts. Look at the progress of the fairy story through the ages and you get a twisty tale of dubious progress, a moral journey through the woods. You could say fairytales have always been politically correct – that is, tweaked to reflect whatever morals a given cohort of parents most wanted to teach their children.


The idea that we are pasting over history – censoring important artefacts – is wrongheaded too. It is not as if old films or books have been burned, wiped from the internet or removed from libraries. With today’s propensity for writing things down, common since the 1500s, there is no reason to fear losing the “original” stories.

As for the suggestion that minority groups should make their own stories instead – this is a sly form of exclusion. Ancient universities and gentlemen’s clubs once made similar arguments; why couldn’t exiled individuals simply set up their own versions? It is not so easy. Old stories weave themselves deep into the tapestry of a nation; newer ones will necessarily be confined to the margins.

My take: Updating classic stories can be beneficial and even necessary to promote inclusion, diversity, equity, and fairness. By not updating these stories, we risk perpetuating harmful stereotypes and narratives that reinforce the dominant culture. When we update classic stories, we can create new possibilities for representation and understanding that can help to build a more just and equitable world.  Dominant cultures need to cede power to promote more unity in a multicultural nation.

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Artificial intelligence, superefficiency and the end of work: a humanistic perspective on meaning in life

Knell, S., Rüther, M.
AI Ethics (2023).


How would it be assessed from an ethical point of view if human wage work were replaced by artificially intelligent systems (AI) in the course of an automation process? An answer to this question has been discussed above all under the aspects of individual well-being and social justice. Although these perspectives are important, in this article, we approach the question from a different perspective: that of leading a meaningful life, as understood in analytical ethics on the basis of the so-called meaning-in-life debate. Our thesis here is that a life without wage work loses specific sources of meaning, but can still be sufficiently meaningful in certain other ways. Our starting point is John Danaher’s claim that ubiquitous automation inevitably leads to an achievement gap. Although we share this diagnosis, we reject his provocative solution according to which game-like virtual realities could be an adequate substitute source of meaning. Subsequently, we outline our own systematic alternative which we regard as a decidedly humanistic perspective. It focuses both on different kinds of social work and on rather passive forms of being related to meaningful contents. Finally, we go into the limits and unresolved points of our argumentation as part of an outlook, but we also try to defend its fundamental persuasiveness against a potential objection.

From Concluding remarks

In this article, we explored the question of how we can find meaning in a post-work world. Our answer relies on a critique of John Danaher’s utopia of games and tries to stick to the humanistic idea, namely to the idea that we do not have to alter our human lifeform in an extensive way and also can keep up our orientation towards common ideals, such as working towards the good, the true and the beautiful.

Our proposal still has some shortcomings, which include the following two that we cannot deal with extensively but at least want to briefly comment on. First, we assumed that certain professional fields, especially in the meaning conferring area of the good, cannot be automated, so that the possibility of mini-jobs in these areas can be considered. This assumption is based on a substantial thesis from the philosophy of mind, namely that AI systems cannot develop consciousness and consequently also no genuine empathy. This assumption needs to be further elaborated, especially in view of some forecasts that even the altruistic and philanthropic professions are not immune to the automation of superefficient systems. Second, we have adopted without further critical discussion the premise of the hybrid standard model of a meaningful life according to which meaning conferring objective value is to be found in the three spheres of the true, the good, and the beautiful. We take this premise to be intuitively appealing, but a further elaboration of our argumentation would have to try to figure out, whether this trias is really exhaustive, and if so, due to which underlying more general principle. Third, the receptive side of finding meaning in the realm of the true and beautiful was emphasized and opposed to the active striving towards meaningful aims. Here, we have to more precisely clarify what axiological status reception has in contrast to active production—whether it is possibly meaning conferring to a comparable extent or whether it is actually just a less meaningful form. This is particularly important to be able to better assess the appeal of our proposal, which depends heavily on the attractiveness of the vita contemplativa.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Meaning in Life in AI Ethics—Some Trends and Perspectives

Nyholm, S., Rüther, M. 
Philos. Technol. 36, 20 (2023). 


In this paper, we discuss the relation between recent philosophical discussions about meaning in life (from authors like Susan Wolf, Thaddeus Metz, and others) and the ethics of artificial intelligence (AI). Our goal is twofold, namely, to argue that considering the axiological category of meaningfulness can enrich AI ethics, on the one hand, and to portray and evaluate the small, but growing literature that already exists on the relation between meaning in life and AI ethics, on the other hand. We start out our review by clarifying the basic assumptions of the meaning in life discourse and how it understands the term ‘meaningfulness’. After that, we offer five general arguments for relating philosophical questions about meaning in life to questions about the role of AI in human life. For example, we formulate a worry about a possible meaningfulness gap related to AI on analogy with the idea of responsibility gaps created by AI, a prominent topic within the AI ethics literature. We then consider three specific types of contributions that have been made in the AI ethics literature so far: contributions related to self-development, the future of work, and relationships. As we discuss those three topics, we highlight what has already been done, but we also point out gaps in the existing literature. We end with an outlook regarding where we think the discussion of this topic should go next.


Meaning in Life in AI Ethics—Summary and Outlook

We have tried to show at least three things in this paper. First, we have noted that there is a growing debate on meaningfulness in some sub-areas of AI ethics, and particularly in relation to meaningful self-development, meaningful work, and meaningful relationships. Second, we have argued that this should come as no surprise. Philosophers working on meaning in life share the assumption that meaning in life is a partly autonomous value concept, which deserves ethical consideration. Moreover, as we argued in Section 4 above, there are at least five significant general arguments that can be formulated in support of the claim that questions of meaningfulness should play a prominent role in ethical discussions of newly emerging AI technologies. Third, we have also stressed that, although there is already some debate about AI and meaning in life, it does not mean that there is no further work to do. Rather, we think that the area of AI and its potential impacts on meaningfulness in life is a fruitful topic that philosophers have only begun to explore, where there is much room for additional in-depth discussions.

We will now close our discussion with three general remarks. The first is led by the observation that some of the main ethicists in the field have yet to explore their underlying meaning theory and its normative claims in a more nuanced way. This is not only a shortcoming on its own, but has some effect on how the field approaches issues. Are agency extension or moral abilities important for meaningful self-development? Should achievement gaps really play a central role in the discussion of meaningful work? And what about the many different aspects of meaningful relationships? These are only a few questions which can shed light on the presupposed underlying normative claims that are involved in the field. Here, further exploration at deeper levels could help us to see which things are important and which are not more clear, and finally in which directions the field should develop.

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Seeing your life story as a Hero's Journey increases meaning in life

B. Rogers, H. Chicas, J. M. Kelly, & E. Kubin
Originally posted January 2023


Meaning in life is tied to the stories people tell about their lives. We explore whether one timeless story—the Hero’s Journey—might make people’s lives feel more meaningful. This enduring story appears across history and cultures, and provides a template for ancient myths (e.g., Beowulf) and blockbuster books and movies (e.g., Harry Potter). Eight studies reveal that the Hero’s Journey predicts and can causally increase people’s experience of meaning in life. We first distill the Hero’s Journey into seven key elements—Protagonist, Shift, Quest, Allies, Challenge, Transformation, Legacy—and then develop a new measure that assesses the perceived presence of the Hero’s Journey narrative in people’s life stories: the Hero’s Journey Scale. Using this scale, we find a positive relationship between the Hero’s Journey and meaning in life with both online participants (Studies 1-2) and older adults in a community sample (Study 3). We then develop a re-storying intervention that leads people to see the events of their life as a Hero’s Journey (Study 4). This intervention causally increases meaning in life (Study 5) by prompting people to reflect on important elements of their lives and connecting them into a coherent and compelling narrative (Study 6). This Hero’s Journey re-storying intervention also increases the extent to which people perceive meaning in an ambiguous grammar task (Study 7) and increases their resilience to life’s challenges (Study 8). These results provide initial evidence that enduring cultural narratives like the Hero’s Journey both reflect meaningful lives and can help to create them.

General Discussion

Humans are natural storytellers. People make sense of their lives using stories and how they tell their stories shapes the way they see and react to the world (McAdams & McLean, 2013). While these stories are drawn from events in their lives, they are inherently subjective and people frame their experiences using common cultural narratives (Hammack, 2008; Meltzoff, 1988, McLean & Syed, 2016). In this paper, we tested whether one of the most enduring culturalnarratives—the Hero’s Journey—is tied to meaning in life.

Across eight studies and six supplementary studies, we found that Hero’s Journey narratives predicted meaning in life. We began by distilling the Hero’s Journey into its basic narrative elements and constructing a psychological measure using these elements (Supplementary Studies 1-3). Next, in Studies 1-3, we tested our first prediction that there is an association between the Hero’s Journey narrative and meaning in life. We found that the perceived presence of the Hero’s Journey in people’s lives correlated with meaning in life (Study 1 and Supplementary Study 4). The connection between the Hero’s Journey and life meaning also manifested in the stories people told to others. Life stories rated by independent coders as more similar to a Hero’s Journey predicted higher levels of meaning in life and a sense of
flourishing in the self-reports of the storytellers (Studies 2-3).

Studies 4-8 confirmed our second prediction that people can use a re-storying intervention to reframe their personal narratives as a Hero’s Journey (Study 4) which can increase meaning and benefit their well-being (Study 5 and Supplementary Studies 5-6). We provided evidence that the intervention increased meaning in life by helping people to identify and connect the important narrative elements in their lives into the culturally resonant Hero’s Journey framework (Study 6). The intervention did not only bring psychological benefits, but it also helped people to see more meaning in their ongoing experiences, from perceiving patterns in letter strings (Study 7) to finding solutions for their personal challenges (Study 8).

Once again, social psychology has significant contributions to clinical psychology.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

You Can't Win at Morality

Kurt Gray, Will Blakey, and Carlos Rebollar
Moral Understanding Substack
Originally posted 26 OCT 22

Here is an excerpt:

Moral Ideals

Most of us want to do good in the world, and follow a set of moral guidelines, or “ideals.” But the word “ideals” has dangerous roots. The etymology of the very word “ideal” implies perfection, which we authors believe is bad.

 In 1796, Immanuel Kant used the word “ideal” to describe a hypothetically perfect person, thing, or state. It may have been easy for Kant to fetishize the perfect moral person, but it’s not clear that he is the best role model for us modern people (or anyone else). Kant was a weird guy. He once likened sex to sucking dry a lemon (scholars think he died a virgin), he thought you had to tell the truth even if it meant the slaughter of an innocent family, and he thought it was a good idea to get a portrait taken that highlighted his giant bald forehead and left most of his face in darkness (see picture).

Despite Kant’s questionable judgment, an ideal-driven ethics is widely promoted. Christianity’s most popular role model is Jesus, and they say he was perfect. Tony Robbins, self-help guru, says that we should become the best version of ourselves. The reasoning goes, “if our ideals are unachievable, that’s the whole point! They’re supposed to make you shoot for the moon.” This is why Kant’s idealism is so seductive. We think it’ll make us never stop improving ourselves. When it comes to role models, we don’t search for pretty good people, we search for moral perfection and emulate it to the best of our abilities.

As advocates for increasing moral understanding in the world, we are not arguing that people should stop striving to do good. But we do think that the quest for moral perfection can lead us astray. “The perfect is the enemy of the good” is a quote that’s useful in a lot of cases, but it’s especially useful when it comes to morality.

We argue that striving for moral perfection or “trying to win at morality,” has at least two main drawbacks: First, it can contribute to unhealthy thinking, and second, it can deter us from taking steps in the right direction. Instead, we propose that striving for more moral good (not the most) and practicing moral humility can help us do good in the world around us.

Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom… When Your Goal is Perfection

Achieving moral perfection is tricky because, as we saw with Janet, answers to the “most moral good” are uncertain. And this is a problem because uncertainty about big questions doesn’t feel good.

Take these big questions: Is God real? Are we living in a simulation? Why are we here and what is the meaning of life? For many, the uncertainty inherent in these questions is a background feature of life. But for others, including me (Will), it is too often an anxiety-provoking challenge. I struggle with “existential OCD,” a psychological disorder involving anxiety resulting from intrusive thoughts and discomfort about these big life questions. Not knowing why we’re all here or where we’re all going often stresses me out. But I’ve largely been able to combat this stress through therapy and renegotiating a better relationship with uncertainty.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

America Is Pursuing Happiness in All the Wrong Places

Arthur Brooks
The Atlantic
Originally posted 16 NOV 22

Here are two excerpt:

As a social scientist, I believe that happiness should be understood as a combination of three phenomena: enjoyment, satisfaction, and meaning. Enjoyment is pleasure consciously and purposefully experienced, so it can create a positive memory. Satisfaction is the joy of an achievement, the reward for a job well done.

And then, there’s meaning. You can make do without enjoyment for a while, and even without a lot of satisfaction. But without meaning, you will be utterly lost. That is the psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s argument in his classic book Man’s Search for Meaning. Without a sense of meaning—a sense of the why of our existence–our lives cannot be endured.

Here is a quick diagnostic tool I sometimes use to find out if someone has a good sense of their life’s meaning. I ask them two questions:
  1. Why do you exist?
  2. For what would you be willing to die?
There is no greater joy than seeing someone you love find their answers. I remember this in the case of my son Carlos. He struggled in high school, like so many adolescents, to find a sense of his life’s meaning.  After high school, he joined the military. Today, at 22, he is Corporal Carlos Brooks, Scout Sniper, Third Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment, Weapons Company.


But my goal is not just to tell you our troubles. It is to suggest solutions. Let me propose three that we all can undertake.

First, share your secrets of meaning. When I explained the importance of faith, family, friendship, and work, perhaps you said to yourself, I practice those things! That’s great. But it’s not enough to practice these things in our own lives—we need to celebrate them openly and recommend them to others. We all need to preach what we practice. To keep quiet about your sources of meaning because you are worried about looking judgmental is an act of selfishness.

Second, go out of your way to reject identity politics, and tell our shared story as Americans instead. If we want to find our way back as a nation, we must repudiate the poison of grievance and victimization and work instead to reestablish a healthy sense of meaning by constructing a narrative for our country that includes all of us.

Please don’t dismiss this as impossibly idealistic. On the contrary, some of our most successful presidents, from Washington to Lincoln to Franklin D. Roosevelt, did exactly this in times of crisis and trouble—they told a shared story to unite Americans against a common threat rather than balkanizing our people against one another.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

When Good People Break Bad: Moral Impression Violations in Everyday Life

Guan, K. W., & Heine, S. J. (2022).
Social Psychological and Personality Science. 


The present research investigated the emotional, interpersonal, and impression-updating consequences of witnessing events that violate the moral character impressions people hold of others. Across three studies, moral character-violations predicted broad disruptions to participants’ sense of meaning, confidence judging moral character, and expectations of others’ moral characters. Participants who were in real life closer to perpetrators, directly victimized, and higher in preferences for closure and behavioral stability reported more negative outcomes. Moreover, experimental manipulations showed that character-violations lead to worse outcomes than the comparable experience of encountering consistently immoral others. The authors discuss implications for research on moral perception and meaning, as well as on understanding responses to everyday revelations about people’s characters.

From the General Discussion

Moral character-violations appear frequently in the media and occasionally in everyday life. The present research provides an explanation of how these experiences affect perceivers, grounded in the meaning maintenance model (Heine et al., 2006) and social perception literature (Goodwin et al., 2014). Across all three studies, good-to-bad character-violations were associated with disruptions in perceivers’ sense that they understand the world, their confidence judging character, and their impressions of people’s morality in general. In other words, the psychological impact is not restricted to people’s views of specific character-violated targets, but spills over to color how people view other people more generally. Studies 1 and 2 also illuminated the types of moral character-violations people tend to encounter in everyday life, exploring additional situational and dispositional factors that predict stronger feelings of loss of meaning. Study 3 found causal evidence for these effects.

Our findings speak to general experiences, but a few key variables powerfully predict recalled outcomes. Directly victimized targets, and those with higher preferences for closure and personality stability reported greater disruptions in meaning. These findings line up with past evidence that being directly betrayed or transgressed upon leads to strong negative emotions (Adams & Inesi, 2016; Hutcherson & Gross, 2011), and having higher dispositional needs for stability and closure predicts more negative reactions to meaning-violations (e.g., Doherty, 1998).

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Hidden wisdom or pseudo-profound bullshit? The effect of speaker admirability

Kara-Yakoubian, et al.
(2021, October 28).


How do people reason in response to ambiguous messages shared by admirable individuals? Using behavioral markers and self-report questionnaires, in two experiments (N = 571) we examined the influence of speakers’ admirability on meaning-seeking and wise reasoning in response to pseudo-profound bullshit. In both studies, statements that sounded superficially impressive but lacked intent to communicate meaning generated meaning-seeking, but only when delivered by high admirability speakers (e.g., the Dalai Lama) as compared to low admirability speakers (e.g., Kim Kardashian). The effect of speakers’ admirability on meaning-seeking was unique to pseudo-profound bullshit statements and was absent for mundane (Study 1) and motivational (Study 2) statements. In Study 2, participants also engaged in wiser reasoning for pseudo-profound bullshit (vs. motivational) statements and did more so when speakers were high in admirability. These effects occurred independently of the amount of time spent on statements or the complexity of participants’ reflections. It appears that pseudo-profound bullshit can promote epistemic reflection and certain aspects of wisdom, when associated with an admirable speaker.

From the General Discussion

Pseudo-profound language represents a type of misinformation (Čavojová et al., 2019b; Littrell et al., 2021; Pennycook & Rand, 2019a) where ambiguity reigns. Our findings suggest that source admirability could play an important role in the cognitive processing of ambiguous misinformation, including fake news (Pennycook & Rand, 2020) and euphemistic language (Walker et al., 2021). For instance, in the case of fake news, people may be more inclined to engage in epistemic reflection if the source of an article is highly admirable. However, we also observed that statements from high (vs. low) admirability sources were judged as more profound and were better liked. Extended to misinformation, a combination of greater perceived profundity, liking, and acquired meaning could potentially facilitate the sharing of ambiguous fake news content throughout social networks. Increased reflective thinking (as measured by the CRT) has also been linked to greater discernment on social media, with individuals who score higher on the CRT being less likely to believe fake news stories and share this type of content (Mosleh et al., 2021; Pennycook & Rand, 2019a). Perhaps, people might engage in more epistemic reflection if the source of an article is highly admirable, which may in turn predict a decrease in the sharing behaviour of fake news. Similarly, people may be more inclined to engage in epistemic reflection for euphemistic language, such as the term “enhanced interrogation” used in replacement of “torture,” and conclude that this type of language means something other than what it refers to, if used by a more admirable (compared to a less admirable) individual.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Hate and meaning in life: How collective, but not personal, hate quells threat and spurs meaning in life

A. Elnakouri, C. Hubley, & I. McGregor
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
Volume 98, January 2022,


Classic and contemporary perspectives link meaning in life to the pursuit of a significant purpose, free from incoherence. The typical assumption is that these meaningful purposes are prosocial, or at least benign. Here, we tested whether hate might also bolster meaning in life, via motivational states underlying significant purpose and coherence. In two studies (N = 847; Study 2 pre-registered), describing hatred (vs. mere dislike) towards collective entities (societal phenomena, institutions, groups), but not individuals, heightened feelings linked to the behavioral approach system (BAS; eagerness, determination, enthusiasm), which underlies a sense of significant purpose, and muted feelings linked to threat and the behavioral inhibition system (BIS; confused, uncertain, conflicted), which underlies a sense of incoherence. This high BAS and low BIS, in turn, predicted meaning in life beyond pre-manipulation levels. Exploratory analyses suggested that personal hatreds did not have the meaning-bolstering effects that collective hatreds had due to meaning-dampening negative feelings. Discussion focuses on motivation for collective and ideological hatreds in threatening circumstances.


Classic and contemporary  theories in psychology  and beyond pro-pose that various threats can cause zealous responses linked to collective hate  (Arendt,  1951;  Freud,  1937;  Jonas  et  al.,  2014).  The  present research offers one reason behind the appeal of collective hate in such circumstances: it’s ability to spur meaning in life. Shielded from the negativity of personal hate, collective forms of hate can mute threat and BIS-related  feelings,  boost  BAS-related  feelings,  thereby  fostering meaning in life. This research therefore helps us better understand the motivational drivers of hate and why it is an ever-present feature of the human condition.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Death as Something We Make

Mara Buchbinder
Originally published 8 April 2021

Here are two excerpts:

While I learned a lot about what drives people to MAID (Medial Aid in Dying), I was particularly fascinated by what MAID does to death. The option transforms death from an object of dread to an anticipated occasion that may be painstakingly planned, staged, and produced. The theatrical imagery is intentional: An assisted death is an event that one scripts, a matter of careful timing, with a well-designed set and the right supporting cast. Through this process, death becomes not just something that happens but also something that is made.


MAID renders not only the time of death but also the broader landscape of death open to human control. MAID allows terminally ill patients to choreograph their own deaths, deciding not only when but where and how and with whom. Part of the appeal is that one must go on living right up until the moment of death. It takes work to engage in all the planning; it keeps one vibrant and busy. There are people to call, papers to file, and scenes to set. Making death turns dying into an active extension of life.

Staging death in this way also allows the dying person to sidestep the messiness of death—the bodily fluids and decay—what the sociologist Julia Lawton has called the “dirtiness” of death. MAID makes it possible to attempt a calm, orderly, sanitized death. Some deliberately empty their bladder or bowels in advance, or plan to wear diapers. A “good death,” from this perspective, has not only an ethical but also an aesthetic quality.

Of course, this sort of staging is not without controversy. For some, it represents unwelcome interference with God’s plans. For people like Renee, however, it infuses one’s death with personal meaning and control.

Friday, April 9, 2021

The Ordinary Concept of a Meaningful Life

Prinzing, M., De Freitas, J., & Fredrickson, B. 
(2020, May 5). 


The desire for a meaningful life is ubiquitous, yet the ordinary concept of a meaningful life is poorly understood. Across six experiments (total N = 2,539), we investigated whether third-person attributions of meaning depend on the psychological states an agent experiences (feelings of interest, engagement, and fulfillment), or on the objective conditions of their life (e.g., their effects on others). Studies 1a–b found that laypeople think subjective and objective factors contribute independently to the meaningfulness of a person’s life. Studies 2a–b found that positive mental states are thought to make a life more meaningful, even if derived from senseless activities (e.g., hand-copying the dictionary). Studies 3a–b found that agents engaged in morally bad activities are not thought to have meaningful lives, even if they feel fulfilled. In short, both an agents’ subjective mental states and objective impact on the world affect how meaningful their lives appear.

General Discussion

What, according to the ordinary concept, makes a life meaningful?  Studies1a-b found that  laypeople  think positive  mental states (interest,  engagement, fulfillment) can make an agent’s life meaningful. These studies also found that, according to lay assessments, doing something that has value for others can also make an agent’s life meaningful. These findings conflict with the predominant philosophical theories of meaning in life. These theories posit an exclusive role for either positive mental states (subjectivist theories) or objective states of an agent’s life (objectivist theories), or they require that both criteria be met (hybrid theories). In contrast, we found that laypeople think an agent’s life is meaningful when either criterion is met.This indicates that the ordinary concept of a meaningful life does not fit neatly with these three philosophical theories. Instead, they seem to be captured by what we will call the independent-additive theory: subjective factors  (positive mental states like fulfillment) and objective factors (like contribution, sensibility, and morality)each affect the meaningfulness of an agent’s life, and their effects are both independent and additive.  

We investigated the roles of sensibility and morality as plausible boundary conditions for lay attributions of meaningfulness. For sensibility, we saw somewhat mixed results. Study 2a found no evidence that a life characterized by sensible activities (wine connoisseurship) was  seen as more  meaningful than a  life characterized  by senseless  activities(rubber  band collecting). However, Study 2b, with a larger sample and wider variety of vignettes, did find such  an  effect. Nevertheless, in both  studies, fulfilling  lives were seen as  more  meaningful than  unfulfilling  ones—regardless  of  whether  that fulfillment was derived  from sensible  or senseless activities.  Hence, on the ordinary concept, sensibility contributes to meaningfulness, though  not  as  much  as  fulfillment  does. Moreover, in  alignment  with  the independent-additive theory, fulfillment maintains its additive effect, independently of sensibility.  Regarding morality, Studies 3a-b found that morally good lives were viewed as much more meaningful than morally bad ones. In fact, morally bad agents were not thought to live meaningful lives, even if those agents felt very fulfilled. In contrast, morally good agents were seen as having meaningful lives even if they didn’t feel fulfilled.Nevertheless,  though the effect of morality was larger than that of fulfillment, participants still thought that a fulfilled, immoral agent was living more meaningfully than an unfulfilled, immoral agent. Supporting the independent-additive  theory,  the additive  effect  of  fulfillment was independent  of morality.

In short, we identified four factors (fulfillment, contribution, sensibility, and morality) that seem to have independent, additive effects on third-person attributions of meaningfulness.  There  may well be more such  factors.  But  the  evidence  from  these  six experiments supports a model of third-person meaningfulness judgments that—in contrast to subjectivist,  objectivist,  and  hybrid  theories—emphasizes  independent  and  additive  factors that  contribute  to  the  meaning in a person’s life.  We  have called such a model the “independent-additive theory”.

Monday, July 6, 2020

HR researchers discovered the real reason why stressful jobs are killing us

Arianne Cohen
Originally posted 20 May 20

Your job really might kill you: A new study directly correlates on-the-job stress with death.

Researchers at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business followed 3,148 Wisconsinites for 20 years and found heavy workload and lack of autonomy to correlate strongly with poor mental health and the big D: death. The study is titled “This Job Is (Literally) Killing Me.”

“When job demands are greater than the control afforded by the job or an individual’s ability to deal with those demands, there is a deterioration of their mental health and, accordingly, an increased likelihood of death,” says lead author Erik Gonzalez-Mulé, assistant professor of organizational behavior and human resources. “We found that work stressors are more likely to cause depression and death as a result of jobs in which workers have little control.”

The reverse was also true: Jobs can fuel good health, particularly jobs that provide workers autonomy.

The info is here.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Universal basic income seems to improve employment and well-being

Donna Lu
New Scientist
Originally post 6 May 20

The world’s most robust study of universal basic income has concluded that it boosts recipients’ mental and financial well-being, as well as modestly improving employment.

Finland ran a two-year universal basic income study in 2017 and 2018, during which the government gave 2000 unemployed people aged between 25 and 58 monthly payments with no strings attached.

The payments of €560 per month weren’t means tested and were unconditional, so they weren’t reduced if an individual got a job or later had a pay rise. The study was nationwide and selected recipients weren’t able to opt out, because the test was written into legislation.

Minna Ylikännö at the Social Insurance Institution of Finland announced the findings in Helsinki today via livestream.

The study compared the employment and well-being of basic income recipients against a control group of 173,000 people who were on unemployment benefits.

Between November 2017 and October 2018, people on basic income worked an average of 78 days, which was six days more than those on unemployment benefits.

There was a greater increase in employment for people in families with children, as well as those whose first language wasn’t Finnish or Swedish – but the researchers aren’t yet sure why.

When surveyed, people who received universal basic income instead of regular unemployment benefits reported better financial well-being, mental health and cognitive functioning, as well as higher levels of confidence in the future.

The info is here.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Workism Is Making Americans Miserable

Derek Thompson
The Atlantic
Originally published 24 Feb 20

Here is an excerpt:

The decline of traditional faith in America has coincided with an explosion of new atheisms. Some people worship beauty, some worship political identities, and others worship their children. But everybody worships something. And workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants.

What is workism? It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.

Homo industrious is not new to the American landscape. The American dream—that hoary mythology that hard work always guarantees upward mobility—has for more than a century made the U.S. obsessed with material success and the exhaustive striving required to earn it.

No large country in the world as productive as the United States averages more hours of work a year. And the gap between the U.S. and other countries is growing. Between 1950 and 2012, annual hours worked per employee fell by about 40 percent in Germany and the Netherlands—but by only 10 percent in the United States. Americans “work longer hours, have shorter vacations, get less in unemployment, disability, and retirement benefits, and retire later, than people in comparably rich societies,” wrote Samuel P. Huntington in his 2005 book Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity.

One group has led the widening of the workist gap: rich men.

In 1980, the highest-earning men actually worked fewer hours per week than middle-class and low-income men, according to a survey by the Minneapolis Fed. But that’s changed. By 2005, the richest 10 percent of married men had the longest average workweek. In that same time, college-educated men reduced their leisure time more than any other group. Today, it is fair to say that elite American men have transformed themselves into the world’s premier workaholics, toiling longer hours than both poorer men in the U.S. and rich men in similarly rich countries.

This shift defies economic logic—and economic history. The rich have always worked less than the poor, because they could afford to. The landed gentry of preindustrial Europe dined, danced, and gossiped, while serfs toiled without end. In the early 20th century, rich Americans used their ample downtime to buy weekly movie tickets and dabble in sports. Today’s rich American men can afford vastly more downtime. But they have used their wealth to buy the strangest of prizes: more work!

The info is here.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Emotion semantics show both cultural variation and universal structure

Jackson, C. J., Watts, J. and others.
Science  20 Dec 2019:
Vol. 366, Issue 6472, pp. 1517-1522
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw8160


Many human languages have words for emotions such as “anger” and “fear,” yet it is not clear whether these emotions have similar meanings across languages, or why their meanings might vary. We estimate emotion semantics across a sample of 2474 spoken languages using “colexification”—a phenomenon in which languages name semantically related concepts with the same word. Analyses show significant variation in networks of emotion concept colexification, which is predicted by the geographic proximity of language families. We also find evidence of universal structure in emotion colexification networks, with all families differentiating emotions primarily on the basis of hedonic valence and physiological activation. Our findings contribute to debates about universality and diversity in how humans understand and experience emotion.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

What jobs are affected by AI? Better-paid, better-educated workers face the most exposure

M. Muro, J. Whiton, & R. Maxim
Originally posted 20 Nov 19

Here is an excerpt:

AI could affect work in virtually every occupational group. However, whereas research on automation’s robotics and software continues to show that less-educated, lower-wage workers may be most exposed to displacement, the present analysis suggests that better-educated, better-paid workers (along with manufacturing and production workers) will be the most affected by the new AI technologies, with some exceptions.

Our analysis shows that workers with graduate or professional degrees will be almost four times as exposed to AI as workers with just a high school degree. Holders of bachelor’s degrees will be the most exposed by education level, more than five times as exposed to AI than workers with just a high school degree.

Our analysis shows that AI will be a significant factor in the future work lives of relatively well-paid managers, supervisors, and analysts. Also exposed are factory workers, who are increasingly well-educated in many occupations as well as heavily involved with AI on the shop floor. AI may be much less of a factor in the work of most lower-paid service workers.

Men, who are overrepresented in both analytic-technical and professional roles (as well as production), work in occupations with much higher AI exposure scores. Meanwhile, women’s heavy involvement in “interpersonal” education, health care support, and personal care services appears to shelter them. This both tracks with and accentuates the finding from our earlier automation analysis.

The info is here.