How to Break an Addiction to Meaning

by Dan on June 4, 2009


I wrote yesterday, about a common legal addiction to Tylenol PM.  One thing that keeps slapping me in the face as I get more enlightened is humanity’s crushing addiction to finding meaning in everyday life.  This may sound like an odd thought, calling meaning an “addiction,” so let me elaborate a bit.

Let’s look at the of Addiction:

  1. Compulsive physiological and psychological need for a habit-forming substance.
  2. The condition of being habitually or compulsively occupied with or involved in something.

We live as social animals, so our lives are constantly intersecting.  Inevitably, often daily, someone or several people will do something that does not match our preferences.  Maybe we’ll get cut off on the road, cut in line, or ignored by a waitress.  Maybe a friend will not call us back, or a date will be cold in person, while being warm on the phone.

When this happens, most people are faced with the so-called obvious question in front of them, “Why?”

Curiously, this can happen even when a hurricane happens, or your plumbing breaks down at a bad time.  “Why did this happen?”

In the worst scenario, it’s not even a “Why?” but a “Who?”  Who is responsible?  Who should take the blame?

I suppose we’re trained from when we were middle school students to find meaning in everything.  What caused the first World War?  What is Othello’s purpose?  It makes us a lot smarter, but also a lot unhappier.

There are two important points you have to understand before we go further.  How much meaning you want your life to have is up to you, but you still need to accept what follows.

First of all, most of the time you beliefs of what something means are either inaccurate or completely misinformed.

Second of all, from a practical standpoint, you do not need meaning to function in most of your life.

I’ll give you an example of an event.  Suppose your date flakes on you, calls up and says she’s sick.  You have a number of options in interpreting what has just happened.

A)    She’s too sick to meet you

B)     She’s not interested in seeing you

C)    You’re unattractive

D)    Women are flakey

E)     Life sucks

F)     She said she was sick. End of story

Tell me what’s the best option?  Should you give her the benefit of the doubt and pick the first option?  That’s arguably better than B, definitely better than C through E as well.  However, even that one is a stretch.  All you really can judge about the situation is F) She said she was sick, that’s the end of it.

You don’t have to make a decision of whether she likes you.  You don’t even have to make a decision on whether she’s telling the truth.  You just let it be.  It is as it is.

If she flakes on you 7 times in a row, is it time to find meaning?  Perhaps, but only a little.  Most people will make a personal judgment at this point, that she is flakey, or worse a global judgment, that women flake on them in general.  All you need to recognize is that she has a habit of canceling dates, for whatever reason, and from there you decide if it’s worth your time to ask her out again.  It’s an unemotional allocation of your resources.

This may sound like you’re changing yourself into the Terminator at first, that you’re not reacting to what’s happening in your life, and handling things cold and logically.  However, it’s more like removing bizarrely emotional automatic programs from your mind that don’t really belong there.

In the case of the girl canceling on the date, consider whether you’re qualified to figure out what’s going on in her life from your perspective.  Even if you know someone well, there are always a hundred things going on in their life, and a thousand things going on in their head that you aren’t aware of.

Even if you correctly figured out she lied about being sick, it would tell you nothing.  If you’re addicted to finding meaning, your search can never end at one step.  You have to interpret more.

Why did she say she was sick?  Is this a problem with me, or a problem with her?  Is it a problem with women in general?  Has mankind fallen off its prime because of the media?

In no time you’re making sweeping generalizations about the entire universe and your place in it, all because a girl didn’t show up for a date.  That’s the thing about needing an interpretation for every event.  You can never stop at phase one.  There needs to be a meaning for a meaning for a meaning.

I’ll give you an example of an honest interpretation gone wrong.

One time I was in a bar, and approached three women at a table to introduce myself.  I said “Hey, I just had to come over and say hi…”  Immediately, all three women shook their heads in unison.  Wow, what a rejection, I thought.  I wasn’t upset, but it was clear the girls didn’t like me and had made the decision rather quickly.

A minute later my friend Kevin approached the women and began talking at length with them.  Obviously they liked him more than me.  How else could you look at what happened without assuming that?  He came up to me a bit later and gave me the news, “They’re visiting from Russia and don’t’ speak any English.”  It turns out he had been talking to them in their native language and that is why he was able to talk with them and I wasn’t.  Had I been able to speak Russian, the interaction would have been different.

While this might sound like an isolated incident, it is much more common than you might imagine, albeit far less interesting.  The person who cuts you in line may have not known you were in line.  The reason you didn’t get the job might be that you have a resemblance to the HR lady’s evil second grade teacher.  The friend who is cold to you might have just been threatened at work and is too embarrassed to talk about it.

What do these things have in common?  You wouldn’t be able to tell the truth of the matter just from your experience.  Your interpretation is most likely partially accurate at best, and completely unfounded at worst.  It is natural to carry the arrogance that you can figure out what’s going on because we are scared of the alternative, living in ignorance.

I guess it’s partly a safety issue and partly an ego issue, our need to figure out what’s going on around us.  This all can sound counter-intuitive until we realize that our safety and good standing from finding meaning has been all an illusion this whole time.  We discover we are not any safer having made up a meaning for a situation we’ve faced.  It’s the equivalent to building a fort of sand to protect you from a bomb.

The good news is, even though your “fort” isn’t real, the “bomb” isn’t either.  You are not any more vulnerable for having not attached meaning to everything.  You are actually freer, and can make sound decisions for when there is real evidence in front of you.

UPDATE:  I’ve been removed from this post too long, so haven’t completed it.  More will follow in the future.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 the RFC June 5, 2009 at 11:56 pm

so have u explored the evolutionary benefit of pattern detection? perhaps the ‘addiction to finding meaning’ is really ur awareness/perception of humanities’s extremely developed detection of pattern. As far as i am concerned, it is concounter intuitive for human beings to not display some attachment to meaning. because meaning is a variation of of pattern seeking behavior. Philosophy’s of thought that would accept the last option D = accepting the circumstances at face value, indicates an inversion to pattern seeking behavior. So i ask you, can such inverted philosophies be evolutionarily advantagous or is the addicition to meaning as u described it implicit to successful survival? just something to think about.

2 Dan June 6, 2009 at 1:25 am

Hey RFC,

A couple answers to the valid points you raised.

First of all, any evolutionary benefit is irrelevant to how we should live our lives now. For example, there is an evolutionary benefit for a woman to shack up with a mean football player over a gentle short man. This is because 15,000 years ago, your chances of survival were a lot higher if you have an uber dominant mate who would crack skulls over little things. So anything that brought us to where we are today is interesting, but shouldn’t be taken as a guide to get us to our next level.

Pattern detection is indeed part of intelligence, but it’s more of a predictor of the future, than assigning meaning to something. Admittedly, there is an ambiguous line to draw on when to make a conclusion about anything. Otherwise you’d be locked in indecision.

For example, if your date cancels five times in a row, it would make sense to expect him or her to cancel on the next date as well. However, it would not be helpful to take this conclusion and attach a broader meaning such as this person having a personality problem, or you being less attractive, or men/women being flakey in your region.

I guess in the end, you have to use some common sense :-) .

Thanks for reading,


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