Do We Ask About Meaning Because We Are Sick, Decadent, or Unhappy?

A painting of an autopsy, by Rembrandt, entitled "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp"

Do We Ask Because We’re Sick? – Freud may have been right when he claimed: “The moment a [person] questions the meaning of life, [they are] sick …”[i] No doubt the question of life’s  meaning arises more often when things go badly than when they go well, but the question can arise anytime. Even if you ask the question continually, thinking about an important question is not necessarily detrimental to mental health. You might enjoy constantly thinking about the question as others enjoy their daily walk. Despite Freud’s claims , we will assume that he is wrong—asking questions about the meaning of life does not reveal mentally illness. On the contrary, posing deep questions may be a marker of psychological health, the truest expression of humanity.

Do We Ask Because We’re Decadent? – Only those whose basic needs are met have time for philosophical contemplation. So isn’t it decadent for the well-off to pose these questions, especially when many others barely survive? Isn’t it disingenuous when the well-fed muse over the worthiness of their lives? I don’t think so. Perhaps the people posing the questions are decadent, but that doesn’t mean the questions themselves are trivial. A desire for truth,  not self-indulgence, may motivate questions. And good might come from thinking about non-trivial questions—maybe the contemplative will become kinder or more generous as a result. To search for meaning is not corrupt.

Do We Ask Because We’re Unhappy? – If we were happy, would we still wonder about the meaning of life? And if not, does that mean that happiness is the meaning of life? Aristotle thought that happiness was the goal of life, although it is not clear that he thought the happy life and the meaningful one were coextensive. We generally think less about meaning when we are happy, but even then questions about meaning arise. We may, for example, be disturbed that our happiness will not last. And most philosophers do not think that happiness and meaning are synonymous, even though both are goods.[ii] Here is why.

Meaning and Happiness – It is easy to imagine a happy life that isn’t meaningful. You could be happy connected to a futuristic happiness machine, but we would hesitate to call such lives meaningful. Alternatively, one’s life might be meaningful but unhappy—some people are unhappy when doing their duty. Maybe then the moral life is the meaningful one. But that does not seem right either, inasmuch as lives can be meaningful without reference to morality. I may find meaning collecting coins or rooting for a sports team, but neither are moral actions. Perhaps then lives are more meaningful if they are also happy or moral. Perhaps. But this does not mean that happiness, morality and meaning are the same. Meaning seems distinct from both happiness and morality. Meaning is sui generis.


[i] Sigmund Freud, The Letters of Sigmund Freud (New York: Basic Books, 1960), 436.

[ii] Thaddeus Metz, “Happiness and Meaningfulness: Some Key Differences,” in Philosophy and Happiness, ed. Lisa Bortolotti (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

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One thought on “Do We Ask About Meaning Because We Are Sick, Decadent, or Unhappy?

  1. Curiosity, the desire to know or understand, seems a good thing, the number of cats allegedly killed because of it notwithstanding. Would we have modern civilization, the division of labor that separates us from hunter/gatherers, modern medicine, etc, without it? Very doubtful.

    Then why should any direction curiosity turns be a bad direction? Looking for meaning is a hard endeavor, however, fraught with the tendency to error that the DESIRE for meaning can cause. (Hint – religion, etc.) The human brain has a great capability to produce that which is desired of it, whether that construct is illusory or not.

    Any kind of grand scale human meaning seems ludicrous in contrast to the incomprehensible vastness of the universe and what small specks we are in it.

    Hence my own adage: Theology is a vast endeavor undertaken by half vast minds.

    That by no means negates the value of finding our own sources of meaning and value appropriate to the scale of our experience.

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