It's perhaps easiest to define purpose by looking at its absence. The Inductivist recently reported on nihilism (as defined by agreeing with the statement that "life does not serve any purpose") and ethnicity, and that post served as the impetus to dig a little deeper into what the GSS reveals about nihilistic sentiment.
So, let's run the standard demographic gauntlet. The following tables display mean nihilism scores from the years 1998 and 2008, computed by taking participant responses to the 5-point scaled GSS item on perceived lack of purpose in life and inverting the averages for ease of reader comprehension. The higher the score, the more nihilistic the group is. One standard deviation is .76 points on the nihilism scale.
The first image that comes to my mind when conceptualizing a person who finds life devoid of meaning is of a person who is unhappy. But I attribute my own sense of contentment with what I see as purposes for my existence, so I have an obvious bias. The GSS also asks a question on self-described general happiness that was cross-referenced with the nihilism question:
|Not too happy||1.85|
Biased as I am, my intuition appears to be accurate. People who feel life has no purpose are more likely to be miserable people than those who see purpose in their lives are.
The next stereotype that comes to mind is a person who is irreligious but vaguely "spiritual" and likes to claim to be into mysticism, etc. They're awash in the sea of life, without anything firm to hold onto. Conscious atheists tend to be adamant that God is unnecessary for meaning or morality in life, not that, having disabused themselves of the notion of God, meaning and morality have consequently disappeared for them as well. And those who firmly believe in the supernatural have had the purpose of existence spelled out explicitly for them:
Two for two. But the differences are more modest than I'd have guessed. Parenthetically, to give a little more purpose (heh) to blogging, I always write up impressions of the issues at hand before looking at the relevant data as a way of trying to maintain transparency and also because it's more fun (drilling down through the numbers can have a numbing effect if one isn't careful about how he approaches it).
Bruce Charlton, professor, former medical journal editor, and Christian apologist, colorfully contrasts non-believers with believers:
For the modern hedonic atheist nihilist - to look at the Universe is to feel insignificance, despair, meaninglessness...To state with certainty that God exists is still the most common response to the question regarding God's existence (at least in the US), with nearly two-thirds of GSS participants doing so. But acknowledging the big guy in the sky and trying to live one's life in accordance to his wishes are hardly the same thing. Let's look at belief in the supernatural from a different angle, by comparing those who are "moved to praise and worship" with those who are not:
But the uncorrupted man sees the heavens as the work of God, is overwhelmed by gratitude, delight, amazement - is moved to praise and worship.
|Weekly or more||1.45|
|More than once a month||1.59|
|At least once a year||1.55|
|Less than once a year||1.70|
Each classification is exclusive, so the second should actually read "More than once a month but less than weekly or more", etc.
The differences are a bit more pronounced here, and trend in the expected direction, with those who make it a point to go to church regularly sensing more purpose in life than those who do not.
How about children? It's said that once you have them, your life changes forever. What's more important than the well being of one's own children, on both the emotional and biological levels?
|# of kids||Nihilism|
Swing and a miss. The number of kids a person has doesn't appear to influence the amount of purpose in existence. I guess passing the hot potato around a few more times before getting burned out doesn't necessarily give the silly game any additional meaning.
How about that beautiful organ, the brain, that separates us from beasts in the field? Excepting the supernatural, what thing possesses capabilities for discovering purpose that outranks those of the human mind? SWPLs love being driven by the things they are passionate about, the things that give their lives meaning. If life is devoid of meaning, engaging in abstract thinking begins to seem pretty pointless (even in a world where everything is already pointless, and... never mind). Or, turning it around, the ability to think abstractly allows one to perceive (or more creatively construct?) purpose. The inability to do so makes it difficult to see beyond immediate impulses and the steps needed to satisfy them. Do unintelligent people see a reason for existence? I don't know, do dogs?
The differences between those of middling to high intelligence and those at the left end of the bell curve are large, with averages that are more than a standard deviation apart. Some of the gap gets closed by those of modest but limited intelligence. Intelligence, more than anything else, appears to influence whether or not a person feels that life has no meaning.
I may be reading too much into marginal differences, but perhaps those at the right end of the bell curve have some tendency to fully grasp their seeming insignificance in the larger universe and hence minimize what otherwise is seen to give their lives purpose.
Maybe it's better that the least intelligent amongst perceive the least purpose in existence. When they opt out of the conventional, established methods of discovering meaning in their lives through religion or professional success, they are liable to create harrowing identities like the ICP-inspired juggalo 'movement'.
More practically, influential people with prestigious careers are in positions to make decisions and engage in behavior for which the magnitude of consequences is much greater than people in the underclass are, and both groups are aware of as much, at least to some extent. Well, maybe greater meaning in one's own personal actions relative to other people translates into the perception of greater meaning in life more generally:
Makes sense to me.
Liberals want to turn Western Civilization on its head, conservatives want to bring Calvinism back into vogue, and wishy-washy moderates don't know what they want! As noted earlier, those who don't know what they believe in or what they want don't know what Fate wants for them, either:
Another miss. Maybe politics just don't matter that much in the grand scheme of things.
Inductivist found that those of Mexican ancestry tended to be the most nihilistic of any ethnic group in the US. As the bulk of Hispanics in the US are of Mexican descent, we'd expect non-Hispanics of various races to be less nihilistic than Hispanics are:
Two-thirds of a standard deviation between the US' founding stock and its Great Society additions. Well, Manifest Destiny definitely insinuates purpose. The Great Cultural Mosaic or whatever the multicult mess will end up being called, on the other hand, is its own end-game, without much definable purpose beyond celebrating itself. We're the ones we've been waiting for, and when we get here, then... (Do I hear crickets chirping?)
I suspect women are less nihilistic than men for a couple of reasons. One, from an evolutionary perspective males are more expendable than females are, so there is less instinct for men to see a purpose in it all. Hell, even if there is a purpose, a bunch of them had no part in serving it! Two, the conventional societal response to the question of whether or not life is meaningful is yes, of course it's meaningful, and women are less comfortable violating social norms than men are:
Small difference in the averages, but as predicted men are more nihilistic than women are.
It's comforting to think that over time, as wisdom accrues and experiences accumulate, I'll increasingly come to perceive meaning in life. That vaguely seems to be the case so far. Yet I'm not oblivious to what the decaying process that is aging can do to a person's spirit. Once a week I spend a few hours with the elderly, and it's obvious that more than a few of them are donning thin disguises with happier visages that appear to be more at ease with what's in the not-so-distant future than the faces underneath those disguises betray. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. What's the point in that?
Looks like while we're young, we're still searching. As we settle into middle age, we come to terms with what we've found and accept it. Then, as the aches and pains creep up and the thrill of living recedes, backsliding begins.
In summation, happy, intelligent, middle-aged upper class white women who are found in the pews on Sundays (and sometimes Wednesdays) tend to see the most purpose in life. Young, dumb, pissed off underclass Hispanic guys who wouldn't be caught dead in a church unless it was to grab a handout see the least. Purpose is so passe! The future is nihilism!
* Respondents are broken up into five categories that come to roughly resemble a normal distribution; Really Smarts (wordsum score of 9-10, comprising 13% of the population), Pretty Smarts (7-8, 26%), Normals (6, 22%), Pretty Dumbs (4-5, 27%), and Real Dumbs (0-3, 12%)
GSS variables used: NIHILISM, HAPPY, WORDSUM, GOD(1)(2)(3-5)(6), ATTEND(0-1)(2-4)(5-6)(7-8), POLVIEWS(1-3)(4)(5-7), KIDS(0)(1)(2-3)(4-8), RACECEN1(1)(2)(4-10)(15-16), CLASS, SEX, AGE