- Paperback: 426 pages
- Publisher: The Guilford Press; Revised ed. edition (September 25, 1992)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0898625319
- ISBN-13: 978-0898625318
- Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 5 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #746,674 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Meanings of Life Revised ed. Edition
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"The topic is, of course, tremendous. We feel giddily nervous on even entertaining it, and so usually take it for granted or leave it to Monty Python. Fortunately, this volume has now arrived, bringing with it a far-reaching analysis of how life's meaning impinges on social life. It is rare to find such a broad array of intriguing and subtle hypotheses derived from a single theme, and even more rare to find such wide-ranging awareness of history and culture in contemporary social psychology." --Daniel M. Wegner, Ph.D.
"The book encourages the reader to struggle with hard questions that have no objective answers." --Jerry Bruce, Sam Houston State, Huntsville, Texas
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Baumeister begins with a definition of meaning which I consider simply confused, but then my background is in philosophy. Fortunately, his definition is irrelevant to the rest of the book.
He suggests that the need for meaning can be (more or less arbitrarily, as he admits) considered under four aspects: purpose, value, efficacy, and self-worth.
Purpose is roughly equal to goals, although especially goals that (appear to) transcend arbitrary individual choice. We usually prefer to be working towards some goals that we imagine will be very fulfilling. As Baumeister explores, we usually find achieving these goals fulfilling for a brief time only, before we conceive some new goal, some new future state that we imagine will be satisfying. Or occasionally we get disappointed with our general life-project, endure a period of depression or uncertainty, and find a new direction.
This analysis is spot-on, and leads me to suggest that we consider more satisfying alternatives to ambition; for instance, gratitude. Czikszentmihalyi's work on "flow" would also be interesting to explore.
Instead, Baumeister gives an interesting analysis of religious ideals of fulfillment in the afterlife, pointing out that since we never get any news from the afterlife, these never prove disappointing, unlike ideals of fulfillment in this life. Therefore, people may find religious goals meaningful to the very end, while secular goals may prove disappointing.
(I'm not sure how a devoutly religious person would react to this book. It doesn't flatter them at all, but if you read carefully, I think you can detect that Baumeister is trying to avoid condescension.)
The second meaning is value, as in moral value: a sense that our lives contribute to the goodness of the world. Baumeister argues that the decline in religious belief (in certain cultures or segments of society) leaves a "value gap." We are not sure how to morally justify our lives. Several chapters of the book analyze ways that we try to fill the value gap, especially with the "self." Baumeister follows a few other cultural critics arguing that past cultures did not value the self or look to it as a source of value, and he convincingly argues that our modern culture has begun to do that in an attempt to fill the value gap. He looks at how this has transformed the way we think of our relationships, our work, suffering, and especially death.
A third need is efficacy, to feel that we really do accomplish something, that we have useful skills. He didn't explore this much, considering it fairly easy for most of us to meet this need in modern society. He does refer to some studies on the elderly, to whom this issue is often more poignant; also to some relevant studies of anorexia.
The fourth need is self-esteem, commonly interpreted as a need to feel better than other people (or groups of people) in some way. In this context, he refers to Raboteau's interesting analysis of how religion helped slaves find self-worth.
Relative to these needs, he looks at various aspects of our lives. One very interesting chapter looks at the way we think of our work: job vs. career vs. calling, the work ethic, and reasons that we often find our work unsatisfying. Another focuses on how we use the family, especially children, as a major value base. Another very interesting chapter on why women once disliked sex argues that it was because they considered being supreme moral examples, especially of chastity, to be one of the central meanings of their lives. The chapters on pain, death, and finding or losing meanings were quite good; especially the analysis of terminal illness, and leaving religious cults. The "self" proves central in most of these considerations, including an interesting analysis of how the "self" rose to prominence in the past few centuries of Western history.
The chapter on religion, for me at least, was underwhelming. The chapter on happiness was short and adequate, though if this is your primary interest I'd strongly recommend considering Martin Seligman's work instead.
It's an academic book, so the writing won't set anything on fire; but as academic books go, it's not that bad. There's a lot of repetition: introducing the topic, introducing it again later, exploring it, summarizing it; reviewing and summarizing it again later. Some of the abstractions are a bit uncomfortable to me, and I suspect for anyone unused to sociological concepts. For instance, Baumeister talks of society using the individual to its own advantage, where I can more easily imagine individuals using other individuals to their own advantages, in ways that cumulatively create cultural patterns.
Finally, I'd alert you that Baumeister has recently written a book entitled "The Cultural Animal," which looks like a broader, better book in many respects. Definitely check it out before you choose to buy this one!
Meanings of Life
(New York: Gilford Press, 1991) 426 pages
(ISBN: 0-89862-763-X; hardcover)
(ISBN: 0-89862-531-9; paperback)
(Library of Congress call number: BF778.B32 1991)
This is a book of social science
rather than psychology or philosophy.
Baumeister seeks to describe how people
actually seek to make their lives meaningful
rather than to explain what he believes the meaning of life to be.
In everyday life people do behave in ways that demonstrate
their basic assumed meanings in life:
work, love, religion, & parenthood.
We human beings are goal-seeking creatures.
Our goals usually come from the cultures around us.
And our families or some larger groups
support us in pursuing these meanings.
Meanings in life seem largely interchangeable.
For example, a woman might pursue work-related goals for a few years
and then shift to become a full-time mother.
If one meaning fails, people frequently turn to another.
If people become disillusioned with one religion, they try another.
We pursue both short-term goals and longer-term values.
Our short-term projects might be parts of a larger scheme of meaning.
And some people hope for an ultimate meaning in life.
This has often taken some religious form,
such as belief in another life after death.
But Baumeister says that there are no ultimate meanings.
Therefore we must be content with the relative meanings
we can achieve here and now.
In past generations, honest toil was considered a valid goal in itself.
Now work is more utilitarian: It must at least produce income.
Love, marriage, & family are often proclaimed as meanings in life.
But most people are ultimately disappointed by these purposes.
For example, various studies of happiness
show that parents were happier before they had children
--and after the children leave home.
Nevertheless most people continue to want children
despite the known problems.
Religion satisfies the need to believe and to belong.
Baumeister does not affirm that the metaphysical systems
of the various religions of the world are philosophically true.
But in the lives of real people, they are all psychologically useful.
For all the years of someone's life, a religious faith can give meaning.
In fact, people become the most religious
when the other dimensions of their lives disappoint them.
And when happiness in this earthly life seems impossible,
many religious people hope for life after death,
which will compensate for the sufferings of this life.
Some people need the consolations of religion.
Others find practical meanings and values sufficient.
Some religious and psychological systems
help people to find meaning even in their suffering.
Even death can be explained as achieving some meaning
within various religious systems.
People need meaning so strongly
that they accept all sorts of fanciful stories concerning death
--as long as these mythologies can make death a source of meaning.
For at least 50,000 years most human beings have believed
in some form of life after death
--in the complete absence of common-sense
or scientific evidence for those beliefs.
Could anything be stronger proof
of the psychological need for ultimate meaning?
People who keep their comfortable illusions are psychologically happier
than skeptics who question and challenge everything.
Even if their dreams are never realized,
simply having hope keeps them alive and happy.
When an old meaning collapses
(such as a marriage, a career, a political system, or a religious faith),
the person usually turns immediately to some new source of meaning.
And the new dream or new relationship will probably also have
a "honeymoon period" in which everything seems wonderful.
Roy Baumeister endorses the quest for meaning
even tho he does not believe that human life has any ultimate meaning.
If you are looking for the meaing of life,
search the Internet for the following:
"Meaning in Life Bibliography".
James Leonard Park, existential philosopher.