George E. Vaillant, M.D. has studied adult development, including the lives of 800+ men and women for over 60 years as a Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. His past books highlight many of his results in this field. His current book, Spiritual Evolution (2008), demonstrates the necessity of positive emotions for human development and survival.His other articles are here.
If we are to find meaning in life, we must pay as much mind to our limbic “hearts” as to our neocortical cognitions. Our positive emotions evoke thought-action tendencies in humans that broaden human attachment to others and to community service. From thence comes meaning and purpose.
Are there reliable ways to create lasting purpose or meaning? You bet. We need to begin by paying attention to one of the great discoveries of late 20th century cognitive psychology: “Don’t Believe Everything You Think.” Both cognition and emotion are important in creating meaning, but sometimes the limbic system is ignored in favor of the neocortex. We need to ask ourselves: Does the meaning in our life come from the development of limbic love and compassion or does meaning come from cognitive purpose, efficacy, values and self-worth?
Cognitive scientist Michael Gazzaniga’s work on “split brains” has demonstrated that our linguistic facility and logical analysis—everything that academics hold dear—are localized in the left hemisphere. However, this does not make ideas causal to behavior. Rather it is the limbic emotions that drive the thought-action patterns that lead to behavior. Michael Gazzaniga has demonstrated that what he calls the “left brain interpreter” sometimes sees only the “trees” instead of the “forest.” Let me explain. A woman whose right brain was surgically separated from her left-brain was shown a film vignette that depicted one person throwing another into a fire. She [that is her surgically separated left brain hemisphere] responded: “I don’t really know what I saw . . . Maybe some trees, red trees like in the fall. I feel jumpy. I don’t like this room, or maybe it’s you getting me nervous.” As an aside to a colleague, she then said, “I know I like Dr. Gazzaniga, but right now I’m scared of him for some reason” (Gazzaniga, 1988, pp. 13-147). The left hemisphere was unaware of the woman’s emotional reality and had to grope for answers. That is the trouble academics have with meaning.
Many associate finding meaning in life with four main conscious ideas (Baumeister, 1991):
- Purpose: Present events draw meaning from their connection to future outcomes—objective goals and subjective fulfillment.
- Values: Beliefs that can justify certain courses of action
- Efficacy: The belief that one can make a difference
- Self-worth: Reasons for believing that one is a good and worthy person
Where are the positive emotions in all this? To see meaning as due to purpose, values, self-esteem and efficacy is to judge the brain book by its cover. Positive emotions, not cognitions, are the engines that drive meaning.The positive emotions that create meaning are love, compassion, hope, awe, gratitude, trust and joy.
For example, Values are lost in post-modern relativism and historical change; only our positive emotions that under-gird values are immutable. Similar to the vitamins and basic food groups that provide true nourishment to the globe’s conflicting diets, positive emotions do not change.
Experiencing and giving love ignites the sense of our own Efficacy as no belief in self-importance can. In the words of Viktor Frankl, “Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self” (Frankl, 1959, p. 37). Attachment and compassion create positive satisfaction and the sense of fulfillment. But such meaning is emotional and based on limbic valence and salience, not cortical Purpose and Values.
Despite the promise of the Western Enlightenment to liberate the individual from the dominance of community, as the lives of Narcissus, King Midas, Howard Hughes and Paris Hilton illustrate, there is little lasting meaning in achieving Self-worth. The essence of finding meaning is not to think more (or less) of ourselves but to think of ourselves less. The essence of meaning is not what we admire in ourselves, but what others love about us.
An American mountaineer was building a school for an isolated village in East Pakistan. Because the village headman, Haji Ali, agreed with building the school – and he was going to educate girls – he was threatened by neighboring Islamic fundamentalists and had to give twelve village rams to the powerful neighbors. The American felt terrible about the village’s sacrifice, but Haji Ali beckoned the American to sit beside him at the fire.
He picked up his dog-eared, grease-spotted Koran and held it before the flames. “Do you see how beautiful this Koran is?” Haji Ali asked.
“I can’t read it,” he said. “I can’t read anything. This is the greatest sadness in my life. I’ll do anything so the children of my village never have to know this feeling. I’ll pay any price so that they have the education they deserve…long after all these rams are dead and eaten, this school will still stand.”(Mortenson and Relin, 2007) (p.153).
Haji Ali’s’s life had meaning, love, hope and compassion; and it arose from his limbic “heart.”
Vaillant, G.E.: Spiritual Evolution. New York: Broadway Books, 2008.
Frankl, V.: From Death Camp to Existentialism. Boston: Beacon Hill, 1959.
Baumeister, R.F.: Meaning of Life. New York: Guilford, 1991.
Gazzaniga, M.S.: Mind Matters – How The Mind and Brain Interact To Create Our Conscious Lives. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988, p. 13-14.
Mortenson, G. and Relin D.O.: Three Cups of Tea. New York: Penguin, 2007, p. 153.
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