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  • Writer's pictureJesse Thornton

Our Need for Meaning

Abraham Maslow called it self-actualization, religion says it is service, Buddha said it is the Here-and-Now, existentialism said there is no meaning except what we make of it, Wall Street says it is the all-mighty dollar, and Shakespeare wrote prolifically about it.  Meaning is many things to many people, but for everybody it is something we strive for.  Why do we search for it?  What created this innate drive in all of us?  There is no one answer to this question.  Hopefully this article will generate more questions than answers.

Religion and spirituality:

Most religions guide us to serve God and give to our community.  Many religions offer structure through the year with holidays and activities that help us identify and remind us of what is important.  Religions also provide meaning by giving culture through dress, diet, and language.  Further, religions foster a community to belong to and a pathway to a higher power.  I am not saying that any religion is right or wrong.  I am stating that this is what religions teach us is the meaning of our lives.


Mindfulness derives from Buddhist tradition of being present in the “here-and-now” moment.  It reminds us that an important meaning to life is existing and engaging in the present moment.  Also, mindfulness acknowledges the past and future as ideas, but it says that the present moment is what we really inhabit.

Id, ego, & super-ego (Sigmund Freud):

Freud was actually on to something.  He said that humans are born with innate drives for meaning that interact with each other.  The Id says it is nothing more than need-satiation.  Food, sex, and power are all immediate needs to be gratified.  The Ego says it is me because I am aware of myself.  This is paradoxical because it is self-declarative, “I see me.  Therefore, I am.”  Finally, the super-ego says it is more than me because rules and others get in the way and govern of me.  These three drives compete and interact with each other to generate more complex ideas of meaning.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:

Maslow noticed that people’s meaning in life changes as they overcome different challenges in life.  He felt we are driven to meet one need after another.  He noticed that satisfying one set of needs opens doors to a new set of needs.  Therefore, he believed that meaning is a journey that evolves as we overcome lower levels of needs.


Existential theorists believe that life is a blank slate and that meaning is created not discovered.  They believe that there is no purpose until it is created.  Learning and education is important because knowledge provides the structure that we use to create meaning.  Video-gamers may call this “sandbox mode.”

Evolutionary Theory:

Evolutionary scientists pay special attention to lineage and mastery of our environment.  They say meaning is about creating something that will last such as a legacy, an enduring community, or having children.  They go on further to say that it comes from increasing the complexity of our world.  This is done through education, developing our community, and raising children.

These are a few theories that teach us about the meaning of our lives.  This is not a complete list, as there are many theories and ideas.  So which is the correct theory?  Well, they all are.  No one of these theories overlaps or contradicts another.  Instead, each provides a different way to examine life and to understand and learn about our meaning.

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