Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Are we starving for meaning?

Last week the Human Givens Blog featured a research intervention in Ethiopia that showed how the fulfilment of innate emotional needs was a prerequisite for saving children there from malnutrition. The availability of food was, by itself, not sufficient. Malnourished children who are also starved of a meaningful sense of connection with their primary caregiver lose their appetite for food. The internal, emotional logic seems to be: What's the point of eating in order to stay alive in a world where I am not welcome, or wanted? Happily, when reconnected with their mothers, these children regained their appetite for life, started eating food, and recovered.

Reflecting on this just a little, could there be a parallel in our own culture? We are drowning in consumer plenty but are we, at the same time, literally starving for an adequate sense of meaning and purpose? If so, what are the consequences, and what do we do about it?

If our sense of meaning and purpose is inadequate (which for many people in our scientific, self-centred, hedonistic consumer culture, it certainly seems to be), what reason is there to care about ourselves, each other, or our planet - not just today, but in the long-term?

If human beings are merely a by-product of a blind, uncaring, random process of evolution; if all meanings are concocted and therefore equal (so take your pick); what reason is there not to believe that he (or she) who dies with the most toys, having been to the most parties, having had the most fun - wins? It's almost logical (if you accept the underlying assumptions).

This is one reason why the theme of the 2016 Human Givens Conference is Seeking meaning in the modern world. People with a strong, authentic sense of meaning and purpose have a reason to care about tomorrow, and the motivation to make the changes necessary to ensure that tomorrow happens (whether they are around to enjoy it - or not). Developing our collective sense of meaning and purpose could therefore be, not just some kind of higher-order luxury, but actually crucial to our survival as a species.

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