Flourish and the Search for Meaning

meaning

It is said that it takes a crisis to bring out our innermost beliefs. This appears to be happened to a whole generation of young people in the US, the milllennials. They are featured in an opinion piece in today’s NYTimes Sunday Review by Emily Esfahani Smith and Jennifer L. Aaker.

Today’s young adults born after 1980, known as Generation Y or the millennial generation, are the most educated generation in American history and, like the baby boomers, one of the largest. Yet since the Great Recession of 2008, they have been having a hard time. They are facing one of the worst job markets in decades. They are in debt. Many of them are unemployed. The income gap between old and young Americans is widening.

The gist of the article is that these young people have turned to find meaning in their lives, rather than seek material rewards.

Millennials appear to be more interested in living lives defined by meaning than by what some would call happiness. They report being less focused on financial success than they are on making a difference. A 2011 report commissioned by the Career Advisory Board and conducted by Harris Interactive, found that the No. 1 factor that young adults ages 21 to 31 wanted in a successful career was a sense of meaning. Though their managers, according to the study, continue to think that millennials are primarily motivated by money, nearly three-quarters of the young adults surveyed said that “meaningful work was among the three most important factors defining career success.”

But it is not just their goals that I found interesting; it is how the article talked about them and about meaning. Here is a key extract.

Although meaning is subjective — signifying different things to different people — a defining feature is connection to something bigger than the self. People who lead meaningful lives feel connected to others, to work, to a life purpose, and to the world itself. There is no one meaning of life, but rather, many sources of meaning that we all experience day to day, moment to moment, in the form of these connections.

They are seeking the satisfaction that meaning brings from the search for and discovery of it. The numbers of those expressing this outlook has increased since the Recession of 2008, before which time they were often characterized as “narcissistic and flaky in their professional and personal lives, and [are] more selfish than prior generations.”

I find this shift very important to the subject that underpins my work on flourishing. Without using that word, I read this shift as evidence that the millennials are seeking a flourishing life, judged by how well they are taking care of the meaningful domains of their lives. “When individuals adopt what we call a meaning mind-set — that is, they seek connections, give to others, and orient themselves to a larger purpose — clear benefits can result, including improved psychological well-being, more creativity, and enhanced work performance.”

The article points out that this mindset and self-assessment are not the same as expressions of happiness. If true and lasting, this new characteristic bodes well for flourishing and the repair of our increasingly unsustainable world. The article uses mostly psychological language, but it also could be translated into the ontological vocabulary I use. I would say that this cohort is experiencing the fullness of “Being” instead of the unsatisfying Having” mode of life that Fromm (and I) write about. The reference to “connections” is more passive than what happens with them. Caring always comes via connections but when actors are focused on the distant end of the tie, not on their end.

Another ontological aspect is authenticity, which, most simply stated, refers to actions in the course of being. The source is mysterious, some have named it a “calling,” which I do not use because it has too many religious overtones. But if pressed to explain why one acted in such a caring fashion, the response is often, “because it was meaningful.” Meaningful actions are virtually the same as caring actions; and a meaningful life is one in which flourishing is possible.

Consumption theorists have offered many explanations as to why people consume unceasingly without deriving much in the way of happiness. Here I find the work of Tim Kasser very clear. Kasser (and others) have arranged people’s expressed values in an orderly manner and have been able to define two distinct (but with fuzzy boundaries) sets “intrinsic and extrinsic.” The arrangement is shown in the diagram which I found in several of Kassers’ papers.

values grid.jpg

He writes “Goals next to each other in this circumplex [ the roughly circular pattern] are psychologically consistent with each other; that is, people who care about personal growth also often care about affiliation, and people who care about image are often oriented towards popularity. Goals on the opposite side of the circumplex are in conflict with each other; for example, spirituality and hedonism oppose each other, as do financial success and community feeling.”

My point in this blog post is to show that the search for a meaningful life is virtually the same as a search for flourishing. The difference is only semantic, not substantive. The difference between these two goals can be found in many places, the ontology of being, the psychology of values, and, directly, in the attitudes of this population cohort. All represent a mode of life that has broken away from the dominant unsustainable, materialistic norms of our present culture. Without leaving that culture behind, there is little or no possibility of flourishing. Any such leaving is bound to be disruptive and anxiety-producing, but, as the article concludes, it appears to be worth it. (Frankl refers to Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, who wrote a widely read book, Mans’s Search for Meaning)

Of course, nobody likes living through tough economic times — and the millennials have been dealt a tough hand. But at the same time, there are certain benefits to economic deprivation. Millennials have been forced to reconsider what a successful life constitutes. By focusing on making a positive difference in the lives of others, rather than on more materialistic markers of success, they are setting themselves up for the meaningful life they yearn to have — the very thing that Frankl realized makes life worth living.

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