Throughout human history, people have always tried to assign meaning to their lives. Believing that the world was created by a God who lets everything happen on purpose is extremely comforting. However, with the decline of religion and the rise of science, a vacuum developed that is difficult to fill. Therefore, I am asking myself how do we deal with meaning in a world where we know nothing for sure? And why does meaning remain so fundamentally important to us? To find answers, I look at the popular culture TV show Rick and Morty, which offers an interesting yet somewhat problematic approach.
The philosophy behind Rick and Morty
Rick and Morty, a successful sci-fi cartoon created by Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland, circles around a paradox of meaning. Rick is the smartest scientist in the Universe. He recognized that the enormous universe he lives in has an infinite number of dimensions with infinite realities. While he travels with his grandchildren between these dimensions and goes on adventures, they all struggle with its complete randomness and meaninglessness. Rick, who is lost in the vacuum of nothingness, is an extremely cynical and careless alcoholic almost incapable of forming healthy relationships. Rick is by far no isolated case. Numerous studies in positive psychology, a paradigm that devotes itself to the study of well-being and factors that help us to be satisfied with our lives , show that people who report low levels of meaning in their lives are less happy, have more often depressive and anxiety symptoms, are more often associated with alcohol or substance abuse and have more often suicidal thoughts compared to people who say their life is meaningful .
The show plays upon the philosophical stream of “Absurdism” which deals with the inherent paradox within humans to seek meaning in life but simultaneously being incapable to find any purpose with certainty. The influential philosopher Albert Camus compared the situation to the Greek Mythology of Sisyphus. Searching for meaning in life is like having to push a boulder up a mountain, but when you almost make it, it becomes impossible and the boulder rolls all the way back down into the valley .
What makes meaning so important in our lives?
In science, a number of scholars use the motivational need theory , which suggests that there is a need for meaning. Thus, because humans are spiritual beings, they feel an innate need for meaning and feel well if they are able to satisfy the need and frustrated if they cannot. The scholar Frankl goes as far as to say that those people who are not capable of finding any meaning or purpose in their life sometimes just give up on life. If living life means nothing, then why bother being here.
Let’s go back to Rick and Morty and see how they deal with an infinite multiverse whose purpose they will never be able to understand. In the show, Rick realizes that if nothing has meaning and everything is only random, then the only thing that he can do is to enjoy the things right in front of his nose. For him, that is science and the related adventures in which he is able to connect with his grandchildren. And indeed, Rick can actually get happy when going on adventures with Morty. In a way, the message of the show is that doing what we enjoy, and spending time with family and friends is more meaningful than solving unsolvable questions of the universe. In that way, Rick makes a distinction many social science researchers of meaning do as well. And that is to differentiate between the meaning of life and meaning in life. One can never truly understand if the universe has meaning, why we are all here, and ultimately what the meaning of life is, however, one can still find meaning in life thus one’s personal life. Surely, people differ in what they find meaning. For Rick that is doing science and spending time with his family. This shows that finding meaning makes life enjoyable.
Research very clearly and homogeneously points out that finding meaning in life is essential for a good life. People with meaning are not only happier, they have less often depressive and anxiety symptoms, have higher self-esteem, report themselves that they are in better health than others, and also live longer . Furthermore, not only show people with meaning fewer signs of stress, some studies indicate that those with meaning in life can better cope with stressful situations such as losing a job . Some hint that burdensome situations might then be actually beneficial because, with the help of meaning, people can actively learn and grow from these . All in all, having meaning in life is so important for us because it fundamentally contributes to various pillars of our well-being.
Inequality in the search for meaning
The moral of the show is surely meant in a comforting way since the suggested solution to the paradoxical absurdum is to celebrate the absurd by finding meaning in one’s subjective life. Simply put the message is: relax and do what you enjoy. However, there is a major problem with that logic. It does not take the importance of the social context and class into account. The social background of people is known to largely affect well-being indicators such as health .
From studies, we know that the most common sources of meaning are one’s occupation and relationships . Occupations, for example, provide meaning to us when we can express ourselves through work or when we have control over the work process. Hence, we can see that it will be easier to find meaning in life for those who have better jobs than for people who have to perform alienating work in a bad environment. Also, when it comes to relationships, people from a lower class are more often dissatisfied with their quality. They marry less often, divorce more often, and have more often severe relationship problems than individuals from a higher class .
The problem with Rick and Morty’s narrative is that while it suggests that anyone can find meaning in one’s own life by just embracing the absurd and looking at what is in front of one’s own eyes, it is almost cynical that it forgets that this is much easier for individuals from secure, reliable social settings that have a functioning, nurturing relationships and perform jobs that they actually like. As we have seen above, meaning in life is crucial to an individual’s well-being. However, if the path to finding meaning in life is actually more difficult for people from a lower social class, then we not only have a social inequality in the quality of life but also what many consider to be the most important issue in life – the search for meaning.
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