Personality Psych 2: “The Meaning of Life”

In my previous blog post of this series I introduced generally what things personality psychology strives to understand and talked a little bit about its similarities and differences with other sciences. This week I’ll introduce the humanistic and positive psychology approaches to personality, so buckle up!

Humanist psychologists think that studying the mind is fundamentally different from studying other “hard sciences” and their main goal is to acknowledge and address these differences that make psychology a distinct science. Importantly, the human mind is aware. Humanists attempt to address this phenomenon rather than ignore it, and want to highlight the importance of uniquely-human consequences resulting from this (including things like willpower, dreams, creativity, imagination and reflection etc.).

To begin, it’s important to understand a central insight of humanistic psychology known as phenomenology. This idea, with roots in ancient Rome, says that a person’s conscious experience of the world is more important than the actual “reality” of the world itself. Phenomenology emphasizes the here and now, and states that past and future are just ideas since only the part of reality that you perceive is what matters. Interestingly, the realization that only your present experience matters sets the basis of free-will – that we now have the ability to choose what we think, feel and do.

The different ways people individually interpret reality is known as a construal, and in choosing the way you interpret the world, humanists say we either get closer to, or farther away from, exercising free will. Leaving this choice to others or society results in our loss of autonomy and pointedly, our soul.

Existentialism

Maybe you’ve heard the expression “existential crisis”. Maybe you’ve felt something akin to this when you got caught up in trying to answer life’s Big Questions. Understandably so, since the ideas existentialism tried to address are rather intimidating – What is the nature of existence? How does existence feel? What does it mean?

Before humanism came about, existentialism emerged in Europe as a reaction to the industrial revolution and rationalism, in attempt to regain contact with the basic experiences of being alive and aware. They said that rationality can’t account for everything – an idea which has since started to grow on me.

Similar to phenomenological approaches, existentialists begin with a focus on the specific experience of a human being existing in a particular moment in time and space that is necessarily different from every other moment. So here we are – existing at one infinitesimally small moment at a time, so what does this actually mean? Ludwig Binswanger said that there seemed to be three different components to the conscious experience: your physical/biological experience, your social experience, and your inner psychological experience. Recognized by psychologists and social scientists alike, another important part of your experience is the circumstances into which you are born.

I came across an interesting reflection on modern society derived from this idea that was oddly comforting. From an existential point of view, living in a modern world is actually quite hard. Modern society may seem to have less overarching meaning or purpose. Historically, more people would to turn to religion for solace but nowadays with religiosity decreasing, this is a less common strategy. In addition, we’ve made some incredible advances in science, art and philosophy, yet we have still failed to answer the age-old questions of why are we here and what should we be doing. Existential philosophy says that there are no answers to these questions aside from those we invent for ourselves. Failure to come to any answers can create anxiety about the meaning of life and whether or not we’re “doing it correctly”. Sartre said that there were three main categories of this anxiety that every conscious human can experience:

Anguish – because of the fact that the choices you make will never be perfect.

Forlornness – Resulting from the fact that you and you alone have to make your own choices.

And Despair – at the fact that despite the choices we make, there are many aspects of the world that are beyond our control.

So now what?

Sounds like a lot of overwhelming truths to be faced with really. Existentialists acknowledged this and many actually believed that it was our “existential responsibility” to face our own mortality and the apparent meaninglessness of life. Avoiding these (or other) problems altogether is only a temporary way out. Yes we could “live in bad faith” and surrender to the will of peers, society, religion, or convention and lead an unexamined life. Living with no worries about what it all really means of course, has consequences. Specifically, existentialists might call you immoral and cowardly – as you might as well be a pebble (if you fail to reflect on the uniqueness of your human experience). Practically, you likely still won’t be happy even if you do live this way, you can only temporarily ignore existential issues. Research shows that people would rather live a meaningful life than be wealthy and that experiences promote happiness more than possessions do. Finally, to get at the semantics of it all, this way of living is technically impossible. Choosing not to worry about the meaning of life and to surrender your choices to external influence is, ultimately, still a choice.

The alternative?  

Existential psychologists might expect you to “face the facts”. That you are mortal, your life is short, and you are a master of your own destiny. However, in doing so you are not considered protected form the truth that is everyone is alone and everyone is doomed. Nor does it the change the fact that life has no meaning beyond what you give it, so the meaning of life itself is an illusion. Cheery right? To counterbalance the weight of these dark truths, humans have been said to have evolved different strategies to distort reality to help us feel better.

Some existentialists (i.e. Nietzsche) thought that true “heroes” could courageously cast aside these defences and overcome life’s apparent lack of meaning by simply being brave enough. Others, Sartre for example, more positively said that existential reflection is what allows us to understand our freedom and these challenges leave us with the responsibility to impart change for the betterment of the human condition despite all of life’s uncertainties.

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