On the importance of meaning and purpose in my life…

Saturday afternoon I went through a short and yet intense moment of experiencing the sense of loss over a past relationship, contemplating what exactly it was this relationship represents, and why it seemingly meant and still means so much to me. An intriguing possibility occurred to me, one I hadn’t really thought of before as clearly, but that at least at the moment seems to be fairly plausible: When I initially developed feelings for this person, I distinctly remember having a fresh sense of “this is what I want and need”, something that has been diminishing for quite a while. However, my subsequent decisions and the outcomes I observed didn’t make sense to me. So, what I have been and partly still am attracted to and obsessed about may be the idea that this relationship could give my life meaning and purpose, together with the enhanced experiences of agency and self-efficacy. And I want to flesh out each term a bit more.

My experience of agency, which, briefly put, is perceiving that actions I’m taking are self-determined, allowing me to actually take charge of my life. A typical example from psychology is that by making a decision I can bring about a specific outcome, and I would argue that spending time with someone I feel close and attracted to, interacting with that person, and observing the feedback I’m getting clearly constitutes a situation with a heightened sense of agency.

Closely related but not identical is the concept of self-efficacy. While agency can be experienced in good and bad outcomes alike–as long as it has been my actions that bring the outcome about–self-efficacy is specifically linked to positive outcomes that are congruent with my goals. As such, being with someone and observing that person’s increased sense of well-being as a direct consequence of my actions creates a higher sense of self-efficacy.

The experience of meaning or meaningful outcomes–and I think it is important to distinguish meaning from the other concepts–is something I can more or less attribute to a situation. To some degree, it is both guided by and subsequently guides future goals I have in life. As an example, even an initially negative experience I make, such as the person I feel for not returning those feelings, can be seen as meaningful if I end up with a thought that, one way or another, this experience helped me in reaching one of my goals. As such, it is highly independent from agency, as even outcomes that are seemingly caused by others or maybe even random events can be perceived as meaningful.

Semantically overlapping with the concept of meaning, I would yet separately name my sense of purpose. I would argue this sense is an expression of how I translate my appreciation of life as a whole into what I intend to do for seeking meaningful experiences. In short, it is the one highest-level goal I have in life. Obviously I can’t look into the future, but I guess that if I could, a very good reason would probably be that I’d want to verify that I will reach this high-level goal. In that sense it is like the hypothesis and synthesis of future meaning, and whenever I manage to move closer toward this goal I’m experiencing an increased sense of meaning. And for me, being with someone in an intimate way is clearly part of the purpose and meaningful.

Finally, I would add the experience of things making sense. And I think it is important to also distinguish this from both meaning and purpose. In a situation where I made a mistake and incur some form of punishment or cost, the painful part of the experience at least makes sense–which is different from a situation where I experience pain without understanding why it happened. I would say that my implicit belief in cause and effect has very little room for randomness, and I often have a fairly strong need to understand what exactly caused the things happening to me, particularly the painful ones, which is why in a situation where outcomes do not make sense they at least must be meaningful to be bearable.

More generally speaking and related to what I see as the preliminary thoughts on a neuro-computational model for human experience as a whole, I would argue that once the more basic needs we experience as human beings are satisfied–those that guarantee our physical well-being and survival–we are left with the challenge to look after those still requiring satisfaction, which I speculate could be one of the reasons why people in positions of great power might at some point become incredibly dissatisfied with part of their experience.

Coming back to my own situation in life: working in the field of psychology, albeit not as an academic in the strictest sense, has always been a continuous source of meaning. The way in which I came to the job, however, did not entail the experience of agency and purpose, at least I would argue that how I ended up working in this field came about more as a coincidence. And I somehow sense that a slow but noticeable decline in perceived meaning may very well have contributed to the intensity with which I have attached myself to the idea of finding meaning elsewhere, say in this relationship turned to obsession.

Consequently, I am now wondering to what extent my sense of loss is, to a considerable degree at least, the expression of the needs for meaning and purpose, and that if I were to find those two by other means, especially if I were to experience them with agency and self-efficacy, the sense of loss would be highly diminished. Naturally, it seems tempting to simply go for another relationship–that would afford me with a renewed sense of “that’s what I want and need.” However, I have to ask myself how stable this experience would really be, given that I have witnessed how easy it can also break apart…

The relationship between needs, values, emotions and well-being

To figure out why emotions can be unhelpful at times, I’m currently in the process of building my own model to understand the links between needs, values, emotions, subsequent decision making, and well-being, hoping that understanding these links may help improve my own well-being as well as my interpersonal relationships.

Very briefly put together, my basic assumptions are that I, like everybody else, have a set of idiosyncratic needs (N), which I would classify into three domains–biological, psychological, and cultural or social. Those needs are represented by values (V), and that experiencing these values (including thinking back to or imagining future experiences) or the environment’s response to or challenge of them is one of the main contributors to the experience of emotion (E). Subsequently and mostly unconsciously emotions lead to a change in the trajectory of a person’s interaction with the environment, in short immediately or long-term altered behavior (B), and I would call this effect of emotion motivation (M) towards a goal (G) which is linked to the value. Given the motivational component, a person is then either propelled to unconsciously act according to genetically preprogrammed or habitually learned responses (R), or–if the emotion and motivation become conscious via awareness (A) and particularly if they are represented by language (L)–is able to select and apply a more cognitively appraised, goal-oriented strategy (S) to improve the chance of fulfilling the underlying need. Below, I will give a few more details about some of the highlighted terms, to define them more clearly and set them apart.

In my mind, needs are parameters and conditions that have to be satisfied to maintain proper function of the body, the mind, and social relations. If the needs are satisfied appropriately and in balance with the needs of our environment, including the needs of other people, this will enhance chances of individual as well as species survival and well-being. Importantly, not all needs are equally urgent to be satisfied, and both the passage of time itself as well as interacting with our environment changes the amount to which each need requires satisfying for continued well-being.

To allow behavior to be “in tune” with our needs–that is to say for our brains to figure out what needs we actually have, how urgent each of them is, and what we have to do to satisfy them–those parameters and conditions are represented by values. Unfortunately, these representations are not necessarily always the most helpful ones, but can be biased and distorted or even woefully incorrect. We may for instance greatly value something that actually doesn’t fulfill any need, or we may have no representational value for a critical need, both leading to a potential for long-term dissatisfaction. For example, people may have a high value for recreational drugs and (over-) use them even though the body reacts negatively to their consumption; on the other hand, people may have little value for (or even aversion towards) socializing and human interaction, but if they have this as a psychological need, they will also experience lower well-being. In this context and as far as I understand, I think it’s important to note that economic and neuroeconomic models only represent values, which together build the utility function (U). In other words, economic decision making is not necessarily geared towards need satisfaction, which I would call contentment, but towards increased utility, something I think of more as happiness.

While the value system we have is fairly flexible, I think it’s still worth pointing out values can be either genetically pre-programmed (such as our liking/wanting of sugary foods), learned (such as liking/wanting of receiving money), or inferred, concluded or simply “copied” from people we trust (such as liking/wanting the concept of sexual chastity). Values can be either positive, i.e. sought, desired, and preferentially chosen, or negative, i.e. avoided.

Given that psychological and social needs can be satisfied with a much larger and diverse set of stimuli and contexts, there are probably more possible values than needs. E.g. the need for social approval can be satisfied via others’ liking as well as someone’s submission, respect, etc. And some people seem to prefer being loved, others may prefer being feared or revered. Taken together, one of the most important predictors of well-being would be an accurate, helpful, and environmentally balanced value representation of needs.

At least for some needs we have a direct emotional response in case a lack in its satisfaction is registered, either consciously and/or non-consciously. And certain responses seem to be typically associated with emotional states that are triggered to generate motivation directly towards fulfilling the need or countering a threat for satisfying the need in the future. For some biological needs, emotional responses are fairly clear, such as feeling tired when we need sleep, thirsty when we need water, or hungry when we need nutrition. And a severe lack may result in higher aggression potentials, given the urgency and severity of the condition.

For psychological and social needs and their values, it is in fact much more complicated to understand typical emotional responses, given that the way in which they are elicited and expressed seems to depend on (among other factors) whether

  • a positive value is experienced (e.g. liking and pleasure)
  • a positive value could be experienced in the future (e.g. wanting/craving)
  • a negative value is experienced
  • a negative value could be experienced in the future
  • a (positive) value is threatened by the environment
  • a (positive) value is threatened by an intentional agent (other person)
  • actions of the person him- or herself make it more or less likely to experience a value
  • actions of someone else make it more or less likely to experience a value
  • whether these actions were intentional, out of neglect, or out of ignorance

Obviously, this is merely the beginning of creating a model. Once I get a little further along with it, I would like to be able to make more accurate predictions about which emotions are most likely to be elicited in specific contexts.

For my own long-term well-being it seems critical that I learn a few key things:

  • becoming aware of the emotions that I have
  • correctly identifying the value or values which led to these (complex) emotions
  • to be able do so, having the language necessary to identify the emotions
  • attempting to back-track from the values to the underlying needs they represent
  • if no need seems to exist, the value may have to be altered to improve well-being

And in situations of experience “lack or loss” of well-being (discontentment) without strong emotional responses, it may be necessary to try to identify the need or needs that are not being met and attempting to generate or set up values that represent those needs.

Learning about the value of our own self

Yes, I work in a lab using brain imaging to figure out how emotion and the regulation of emotion are processed and implemented in the human brain, but this is once more me trying to shine a philosophically inspired light on a matter I deeply care about.

One of the patterns that stuck out for me in several conversations I had with friends over the course of the past few weeks is that many (maybe most or even almost all) humans place upon themselves something like a “value”. This value doesn’t seem to be framed as a dollar amount, but rather as a more “relative” (or relational) value, which is flexible enough to shift a little “up” or “down” according to our needs and the context we find ourselves in. The reason for putting the terms value, up, and down into quotes is that I am convinced that those are, in fact, not one-dimensional–which is the most typical way we would think about value. Rather I think that what each of us considers to be “our value” is something much more facetted, something we learn and update over time, and that given a situation is then evaluated in a specific context, determining how we feel about ourselves.

Unpacking this last sentence a bit, I believe that the determination of this “value” has three main components: first, it is almost exclusively “fed” (learned) by feedback we receive from other people. It is true that at our most successful moments, such as when we achieve a specific goal that took enough effort to achieve, we also draw “value” (i.e. feeling good about us) from that, but unless other people reflect this back by telling us how well we have done (even if just by liking it on Facebook), the initial moment of bliss over the success may even turn into bitterness. So, first we need recognition. And as a side note, naturally it matters who we get this from. The more we care about someone in particular, the more it matters what they think of us in return…

The second component is our interpretation of the feedback. This may sound trivial, but is a crucial step! In fact it is the only of the three “parts” that is (to some extent at least) in our control. Just imagine that you have achieved a wonderful thing; maybe you just cooked the best meal ever, or finished writing a paper (or blog entry), or managed to book a vacation for an incredibly low price. Whatever it is, according to your goals and needs, you achieved! And now you tell this to a very good friend, and his or her reaction is something like, “so what?” Given that you chose this person to share your success with–or he or she is a person you share much more with in general–you were probably looking for something a lot more enthusiastic. Instead you experience quite a let-down moment. However, isn’t it possible that the reason for this so-what? reaction lies in your friend and not so much in your achievement or its inherent value for your friend? So here we do have a choice to take this personally or to allow us to consider that our friend might be very busy, feeling down himself at the moment, or some other explanation for the lack of positive feedback.

In my mind, the third component is context. For instance, someone may be a tremendously hard worker but consider himself a relatively poor caregiver. In the work context, say at a staff meeting, his momentary self-evaluation (relative value) would be quite high, whereas in a more family-oriented context, say a Thanksgiving gathering of family, he might think rather poorly (low) of himself. This might then lead to a shift in preferences, such that he would rather spend time with colleagues than with his family.

And why do I care about this topic? Well, for one I believe that whatever value we place upon ourselves goes a long way to explain how we feel about ourselves on a moment to moment basis. From a very early age on and throughout all cultures I can think of, humans learn to “collapse” evaluations of all sorts into a single dimension: good versus bad, positive versus negative, right versus wrong. And that’s pretty much what we care about most. We want to belong to the “good side”, and especially in Western cultures we are constantly bombarded with the message that positive feelings are better than negative ones–people in commercials at least are rarely feeling down, and if they are then it is portrayed as bad. And naturally, we also want to be “right” as much as possible.

Why do I bring this up? I think that this (over-) simplification of value is at the heart of a lot of suffering, given that it both enhances the force of context by at the same time also reducing the diversity in which our self-knowledge can shape context and thus endanger our emotional well-being: the more I think of myself in terms of this one dimension, the more influence will negatively interpreted feedback have on my value.

And now imagine yourself back into being a small and most likely less-competent-than-now child. You have been playing with the kid of the neighboring family, and after you get home, you overhear your parents talking about them as “bad neighbors”. Something the people next door did has upset your parents, but being nuanced and context-specific is difficult, so instead of making a complicated story, all you will hear is this one (unidimensional) judgment: they are bad–at least at that moment. And given that you are hardly in a position to argue with your parents but rather depend on their support and care, your brain may simply be forced to accept their statements as facts.

This one-dimensional thinking is so deeply engrained–although it could naturally also be genetically pre-programmed–that it seems difficult for us to overcome and look at ourselves in a more nuanced way: I for instance have done quite a few things in the past 12 or so months that certainly are not among the “proud moments” of my life; but I also achieved in certain areas (and in some areas, failures and successes even overlap!). Can I look back and learn from the things I myself consider to be less than optimal and cherish the successes at the same time? Can I feel “good enough” about myself from all of this?

When it comes to our bodies, we learn movement via self-observation and a long process of fine-tuning and adjustments. One part of the circuits involved in this feature is usually called the Mirror-Neuron-System. When we perform an action, our brains predict the outcome, including the whole trajectory to be able to correct in mid-motion, and this prediction is then compared with what we see, allowing us to continually improve our behavior. Given that we cannot directly feel the emotions in other people, we must rely on their feedback, including non-verbal cues, as indirect markers, which in turn allows us to tune our behavior. However, our emotional evaluation is being degraded from the multi-dimensional reality into a one-dimensional good-or-bad outcome. Instead of allowing the combined reality that our parents love us although they also and at the same time are feeling disappointed whenever we fail at something they predicted we would succeed in, we are made to choose, and in such moments the “I’m bad and worthless” point of view seems to prevail easily…

As a last, intriguing thought: after the financial collapse of the housing bubble on the US market in 2007/2008, many people were asking why no-one saw it coming. Well, one of the reasons may be that when it comes to our professional lives we tend to work in cohorts. And maybe only hearing back from people in your own trade, particularly when continually sending and receiving messages of success, simply does not provide a “factual enough” feedback to correctly assess the (objective) value of one’s achievements. This naturally applies to many work fields, but other professions have at least come up with ideas to improve control, such as having an internal affairs department to police the police, or having two houses to self-control government. And as much as there is financial oversight, it may simply not be “outside” enough to work properly.

In short, I think we do need opposition–or at the very least an outside perspective–to form accurate views of the world and the consequences of our actions therein. In terms of emotional value, this opposition may best be offered by people we care about, but should then be presented in a way that does not support the uni-dimensional thinking we have been raised in.

What do you think?