Nihilism and Social Policy

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 10.1 million job openings on the last day of August 2022. Meanwhile, the number of unemployed people clocked in at just over 6 million. This mismatch—many more job openings than there are people to fill them—is part of an ongoing trend often referred to as the Great Resignation, and has only sharpenedin the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2021 alone, more than 47 million Americans voluntarily quit their jobs. But as eye-catching as that number is, it’s just the latest in a trend of increasing year over year voluntary quits through the past decade.

Even if people aren’t quitting outright, there is a growing sense of disengagement from the jobs they do have. An August 2022 article in The Economic Times encourages “quiet quitting”—simply doing the bare minimum at work—and argues that it might actually be good for employees and employers. The article notes that the trend has caught on with younger workers and has taken off on TikTok. Similarly, the online Reddit community r/antiwork, a hub for complaints about modern employment, memes deriding employers and bosses, and extolling the “virtues of idleness,” has grown to nearly 2.3 million members.

Complaints about work are nothing new, but these recent trends are indicative of how the economy is being affected by a broader cultural shift. The idea that paid work could be a meaningful endeavor that contributes something important to society and serves as a mechanism through which a person can use and grow their talents for the benefit of others as well as themselves reads as hopelessly naïve to a growing number of people, especially younger Americans.

But it’s not just paid work that no longer seems worthy of time, effort, and attention. Signs of a general retreat can be found both in the economic and non-economic spheres of life. Individual examples of this have been studied and theories about their causes abound, each likely containing some important truth. But diagnosing each of these issues individually, while helpful in some cases, risks missing a common thread. Across a variety of institutions and spheres of life, an increasing number of people—and men in particular—are simply opting out. This undercurrent of retreat is itself deeply troubling, but it also presents a complicated puzzle for the way we understand the goals and methods of social policy.

Meaning and the Great Retreat

At the time of writing, there have been more than 300 mass shootings so far in 2022. In probing the question of “why” behind the rise in frequency of mass shootings, Katherine Dee pushes past the shallow political slogans and draws on the perpetrators’ writings and self-described motives to grasp the real problem that must be confronted:

The real reason for our mass shootings—hear me out—is that we have a nihilism problem. …

In the swirl of confusion, nothing has meaning. Meaning is elusive. Nihilism—the rejection of the possibility of meaning—is the water in which we swim and the darkness that has enveloped our way of life in ways we haven’t even begun to comprehend.

The perpetrators of mass shootings are simply the most visible and violent emblems and exponents of our nihilism. Not always, but often, they are the ones who cannot see the value of civilization or society or even life itself. They are suffocating under the weight of what they view as the purposelessness of it all.

While Dee focuses her analysis on the most tragically destructive and visible examples of this cultural force, more mundane manifestations can be found across a culture that is struggling in new and profound ways. Asserting that nihilism—the rejection of the possibility of meaning—even a soft version, is a through-line that runs under the various examples of the great retreat from social life that we now observe is a strong claim; one that fits uncomfortably in a public discourse much more attuned to economic data than psychological phenomena.

However, incorporating insights from existential psychology and the study of meaning are essential to addressing the unique challenges we now face. A more comprehensive understanding of meaning, how human beings experience it, and its connection to social bonds and individual flourishing will be an indispensable tool for properly integrating it into more traditional models of public policy analysis.

Psychologist Clay Routledge, director of the Human Flourishing Lab at the Archbridge Institute and co-editor of this publication, has spent a significant part of his academic career studying the nature of meaning and its relationship to flourishing. Summarizing the different cognitive capacities that give humans the ability to search for and experience meaning, he writes:

Combined, these capacities for self-reflective, temporal, and imaginative cognition make the human pursuit of meaning distinct. We aren’t just trying to make sense of the physical world around us. We endeavor to make sense of our own inner lives. We can ask questions about why we are here, what purpose we serve, and what happens when we die. We can look back on our lives and ask what made them worthwhile. We can look toward the future with aspirations to make a difference. And we can define the self in ways that offer transcendence. In short, these cognitive capacities orient us towards striving to be significant contributors to a meaningful cultural drama.

The narrative nature of meaning is a key insight. Much of what we care about, how we understand ourselves, our goals, and our identity are conceived of in terms of modeling ourselves across time and in relation to others. Being a good father, husband, friend, or colleague is more a matter of seeing ourselves as agents acting within a series of arenas than seeing ourselves as independent forces acting in a world of objects. This is the space where meaning is made and recognized—a space in which our actions matter and are inextricably linked to the context of our social bonds. Explaining how social bonds are connected to meaning, Routledge continues:

In other words, bonds that promote a strong investment not just in our own lives, but in the lives of those we care about, situate us in meaningful social narratives. Such connections also help facilitate meaning because they involve temporally transcendent self-conceptions. Studies show, for instance, that when people think about the finitude of their own individual existences, they shift to a more expansive view of self that includes the social and cultural identities that are larger and longer lasting than any one individual’s mortal life. Humans don’t just want to matter in the present. We long for enduring meaning. We want to make a mark on the world, leave a legacy, be remembered by those we leave behind, and feel like part of who we are lives on through our social and cultural affiliations.

These types of meaningful social bonds come from a variety of places, but chief among them is the family. Surveys show that relationships with family members and close friends are the most meaningful. A recent Archbridge survey on the State of the American Dream even found that a majority of Americans (79 percent) regarded “having a good family life” as an essential feature of the American Dream. It’s easy to see why; meaning isn’t just a matter of being socially connected or feeling as though we belong, it’s also about relationships in which it’s clear that our actions truly matter. That is the essential component of meaning. Being surrounded or liked by others isn’t enough, we want to matter to them and recognize that we have a significant impact on their lives.

As rates of marriage and family formation decline, the primary social bonds through which people develop and experience meaning also shrink. Trends in the American family over the past several decades present a picture of dwindling opportunities for meaning. The number of Americans living alone has risen sharply. Manhattan Institute Scholar Kay Hymowitz summarized some key changes that have even severed or strained social connections within the family:

In 1950, 20 percent of marriages ended in divorce; [in 2019], it’s approximately 40 percent. Four in ten American children are now born to unmarried mothers, up from about 5 percent in 1960. In 1970, 84 percent of U.S. children spent their entire childhoods living with both bio-parents. Today, only half can expect to do the same.

Like many of the trends that comprise this great retreat, family breakdown seems to have a uniquely adverse effect on men. Rob Henderson, a Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge, highlights these connections in an article titled, “No One Expects Young Men To Do Anything and They Are Responding By Doing Nothing.” He writes:

Absent fathers and broken family units are major factors for many social ills. It’s obvious but no one wants to talk about it. …

Norms were loosened around being an absentee father. So more men took the option.

But nobody wants to admit it because it upsets people.

Instead, we retreat to discussions of poverty and economics because talking about family and parenting makes people feel weird and judgmental.

But young men will only do what’s expected of them.

And a lot did use [sic] to be expected. There were social norms to work hard, provide, take care of loved ones, and so on.

Today, these norms have largely dissolved.

Young men have responded accordingly.

In his new book Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do about It, Brookings Institution scholar Richard Reeves notes that, “In the U.S. for example, the 2020 decline in college enrollment was seven times greater for male than for female students.” Reeves joins others, such as Warren Farrell, author of The Boy Crisis, in sounding the alarm about the deteriorating state of men and their dwindling social and economic prospects.

It’s not just existing families and marriages that are increasingly falling apart, fewer Americans are choosing to have kids in the first place; fertility rates are at historic lows. Perhaps no other relationship provides such a stark and obvious example of the immense way in which an individual’s actions matter than a parent attending to a needy newborn.

Friendships are another kind of social bond that can be extremely meaningful, but here too, Americans are retreating. In 1990, only three percent of Americans reported having no close friends and 33 percent reported having ten or more. By 2021, the percentage of Americans reporting no close friends quadrupled (to 12 percent) and the percentage with ten or more close friends fell by more than fifty percent (to just 13 percent). Similarly, fewer Americans reported having a best friend in 2021 than in 1990. Americans have been bowling alone for years now.

Outside of family and friends, work has often provided a place to cultivate meaningful relationships with coworkers and colleagues. But here too, more Americans are opting out. For years, scholars have sought to understand the steady decline in male labor force participation. According to Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the book Men Without Work, the labor-force participation rate for men between the ages of 25 and 54 was 96.9 percent in 1961 but fell to 88.2 percent by late 2021.

Even for those in the workforce, forging meaningful social connections has become more difficult. A survey of more than 10,000 adult workers conducted in July and August of 2019 found that “More than three in five Americans are lonely, with more and more people reporting feeling like they are left out, poorly understood and lacking companionship.”

Moreover, jumpstarted by the pandemic, an increasing number of professional jobs have embraced remote work, eliminating opportunities for casual social interaction with colleagues. There are signs that the trend toward remote work for professionals is likely to continue, with some experts estimating that a full 25 percent of professional jobs in North America will be remote by the end of 2022. Some commentators, including former sports writer Ethan Strauss, have made the case that working from home might actually improve the wellbeing of remote workers by allowing for more time to spend with family, interact with neighbors, or just be outside.

However, in a rare and admirable moment of public introspection, even Strauss confessed that he has his doubts. In a subsequent podcast conversation, Strauss reads a comment on his original article that epitomizes the downsides of the shift to working from home. The full comment reads:

An interesting take that captures the sentiment of most of my older coworkers and leaves me cold. I’m a 26 year old white-collar worker at a big financial services company. Work from work is optional and it seems like it’s just me, the call center people, the divorced people, and leadership there. All the people with a sufficient amount of social capital such as yourself work from home and are trying their hardest to keep it that way. These people had formative experience of working in close proximity for years. Many met their spouses, closest friends, or just a bunch of golf buddies. Now they have those friends and connections, and working from home affords them an autonomy they’ve never had before. I get why they like it. Their castle is full so they can pull up the drawbridge.

For young professionals, a work from home regime is catastrophic in the long-term. It makes it very hard to accumulate the social capital and the organizational know-how the 30+ crowd take for granted. Zoom is for communication, but it really has no room for communion (Yuval Levin makes this point). Most of my peers work from (their parent’s) home. It’s stultifying, drives the very atomization decried in this article, and will lead to the rising generation of knowledge economy workers being worse equipped than the ones who came before to take on life and work.

One more thing: if it weren’t for the office I wouldn’t be here commenting. My parents met at their first job out of college. So you’d be down at least one subscriber Ethan!

Indeed, a 2018 report studying years of data from remote workers in the UK and Switzerland did find that married couples in particular were much happier to work from home. While more data is surely forthcoming, it seems likely that a move toward even more remote work will negatively affect the opportunities to grow social capital and develop the social bonds that foster meaning—especially for younger workers.

Even in the absence of strong social connections with family, friends, or coworkers, for some, religion or spiritual practices can be a source and preserver of meaning in difficult times. Routledge writes:

Research in the psychology of religion further highlights that meaning is about mattering and in ways that endure beyond our brief time as mortals. Religion helps people grapple with life’s biggest existential questions and provides a path to transcendent meaning. A large body of research documents a strong link between religious faith and meaning in life. Theists are more likely to view their lives as meaningful than atheists, and highly religious individuals are more likely to view their lives as meaningful than those who are less religious. The more people engage in religious rituals and practices, the more they view their lives as meaningful. When facing difficult life events and tragedies, religious faith helps preserve meaning. And when people feel alone or marginalized, religious faith and the practices that facilitate a connection to the divine (e.g., prayer) provide that needed sense of mattering.

Unfortunately, religious beliefs, communities, and practices have not escaped the broader social retreat. According to Gallup, church membership among US adults fell to 47 percent in 2020, down from almost 70 percent just twenty years ago. Moreover, the Pew Research Center reported a significant decrease in regular attendance of religious services and a nearly 70 percent increase in the religiously unaffiliated “nones” from 2009 to 2018/2019. While there is reason to think that the abandonment of traditional religion has not necessarily led to a surge in secular rationality, the spiritual substitutes often prove to be less community-oriented and more internally focused.

Whether these trends are influenced by improvements in entertainment technology, effectively raising the opportunity cost of socialization outside the home, or by a kind of extreme risk aversion that functionally delays the actions necessary to forge deep social connections, the drift of modern social life is clear: Americans are forming fewer social bonds and becoming more atomized. As this great retreat further isolates individuals, the opportunities to cultivate and experience meaning are also receding.

The Water in Which We Swim

Nihilism is more than just the absence of meaning though, it’s a stronger rejection of its possibility. At the same time in which the felt social bonds that are necessary to establish meaning on a personal level are declining, cultural and intellectual forces are mounting more abstract challenges to the cultivation of meaning. Naturally, an essential precondition for the development and recognition of meaning is a belief that your actions matter—that you have the ability to find and maintain meaning in life. This belief is what Routledge refers to as “existential agency,” and it is strongly connected to meaning.

The bedrock understanding that we have control over our lives and our actions is now hotly debated at the highest levels of our intellectual culture. Philosophers have long argued over whether humans actually have free will, whether we can influence events, whether they’re indeterminately random, or whether they’re simply determined already. But these arguments are increasingly finding their way out of the academy and into the mainstream—especially among young men. Sam Harris is a popular author and speaker who wrote an entire (non-academic) book arguing that free will is an illusion. His podcasts regularly boast more than a million downloads per episode. Harris also has a popular meditation app and hosts in-depth Q&A sessions with subscribers, offering advice on navigating through a life we don’t ultimately control.

In one such Q&A session, Harris answers a question from a meditation app user about mindfulness and memories; specifically, how to deal with embarrassing, unpleasant, or painful memories. His advice culminates in properly internalizing the fact that rather than the memory being unresolved, it’s this “feeling of being a self” that is unresolved and that “you, as the conscious witness in this moment, are truly unimplicated.” Pastor and YouTuber Paul VanderKlay points out that this formulation of “materialism and happy nihilism” is an underlying theme in a considerable amount of current popular culture as well, highlighting the exhortation that “Life is a dream,” at the climax of the Netflix series Midnight Mass.

Another illustrative example can be found in a recent episode of Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville, a comedic take on Star Trek-style futuristic space exploration often infused with moral lessons from a secular materialist perspective. During the conclusion of an episode titled “Mortality Paradox,” a hyper advanced immortal being reveals to the ship’s crew what the ultimate culmination of civilizational progress entails, explaining, “You outgrew your gods and your nations as we did, you left your training wheels behind and you made it to the stars. Your next hurdles are really no different. You simply must outgrow self.” These questions of agency, determinism, and how to properly blend a non-agentic scientific worldview with concerns of how to live are being probed openly in an ongoing cultural dialogue.

Even beyond questions about science and agency at a physical level, there are further challenges to agency with regard to social and economic systems. With the rise of academic “anti-racism” and slippery discussions about the nature and extent of systemic racism, a de facto soft determinism can emerge. In his recent book Agency: The Four Point Plan (F.R.E.E.) for ALL Children to Overcome the Victimhood Narrative and Discover Their Pathway to Power, entrepreneur and American Enterprise Institute senior fellow Ian Rowe describes this as a “blame the system” narrative, in which “any undesirable outcome in a person’s life has nothing to do with their individual situation but rather is a result of oppressive forces rigged against them.” Economist Glenn Loury criticized this view as he understood it being advanced by the author Ta-Nehisi Coates, saying:

And, as I said, existentially, in some deep philosophic and spiritual foundation, we have to be responsible for our own lives. So, teaching our children that there’s nothing they can do, that’s what’s wrong with [Coates’ book] Between the World and Me. That’s what’s so catastrophic about the cultural bearings of this society: what they are and what they have done. We can’t be teaching our children that their future is outside of their hands. That the depredations of white supremacy are such that we have no room for maneuver.

This kind of soft determinism can run the other direction as well. Personal and professional achievements are explained by appeals to identity-based “privileges” rather than hard work, perseverance, or other admirable virtues. Individual choices, habits, and actions are glossed over as explanations for success in favor of social forces beyond the reach of any single person. Clearly, social forces influence our opportunities and prospects of success or failure, but the growing preference for softly deterministic explanatory narratives has pushed the role of individual action further into the periphery.

Skepticism about our ability to address major societal problems is not just limited to questions about race and economic opportunity. A 2022 survey of college students found that, based on what they had learned in college, only 27 percent were optimistic about the future of the world, compared to almost 40 percent who were pessimistic. When asked about their own prospects to make positive change, 25 percent were pessimistic about their ability to make a difference in the world.

A further intellectual challenge to the development of meaning has less to do with the existence of existential agency and is instead concerned with a rival conception of flourishing altogether. Rather than advocating for a more holistic view of flourishing, which emphasizes the meaning cultivated through social bonds and relationships, an increasingly popular framework for action prioritizes suffering avoidance. While perhaps superficially similar, these goals often diverge in practice.

In his most recent book, The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning, psychologist Paul Bloom makes the case that suffering, particularly chosen suffering, is an essential component of a full and meaningful life. Prioritizing its avoidance above all else is to miss much of what it means to truly flourish. But Bloom is aware that his view is not the only one on offer. In a discussion on the Econtalk podcast with Russ Roberts, they examine Robert Nozick’s famous “Experience Machine” thought experiment to highlight the difference in viewpoint.

The thought experiment posits a machine that people can choose to be connected to which will simulate a life of wonder, satisfaction, pleasure and triumph. Furthermore, once you’re in the machine, you won’t remember choosing to go in, that becomes your experienced reality. And yet, despite the feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment, none have actually occurred, you’re lying inert on a table. Bloom explains, “But, Nozick says we do not want such a thing. We don’t want to think we climbed Mt. Everest: we want to climb Mt. Everest. We don’t want to think people love us: we want people to love us. The experiences only get value because they reflect realities.” The heart of the experiment asks whether the experiences themselves matter or if they matter because they reflect realities.

Some popular thinkers take it as a given that the experiences are all that matter and that there are no meaningful realities to be reflected. Author Yuval Noah Harari flatly asserts, “In all cases, the meaning we ascribe to what we see is generated by our own minds. It is not really ‘out there’.” This belief is foundational for his argument that new technologies and sweeping social support programs will likely be needed to entertain and pacify a coming “useless class” of “economically redundant people.” Appealing to the reigning authority of the age, Harari continues, “To the best of our scientific knowledge, human life has no meaning. The meaning of life is always a fictional story created by us humans.” Such bold assertions about human existence being devoid of purpose and meaning are betrayed by calls to construct systems of “deep-play” in service of establishing a better, more compassionate, or more just social order. Despite this apparent dissonance, a bedrock assumption that human existence is meaningless and purposeless opens the door to further suspicion of human life more generally.

If the experiences themselves are all that matter (or are all there is), prioritizing suffering avoidance seems a logical conclusion. The philosopher David Benatar is something of a leading figure in a movement known as anti-natalism. In his 2006 book, Better Never to Have Been, Benatar argues that “coming into existence is always a serious harm. People should never, under any circumstance, procreate.” Fears of climate change, existential risk posed by artificial intelligence, or a utilitarian calculation that a person can “do more good” (which is to say, reduce more suffering) by foregoing children in service of other pursuits are gaining popularity. Some strident advocates even opt for sterilization, throwing “sterilization celebrations” to mark the occasion. Whatever the reasoning is, the ethic is clear: Human beings were either a mistake to begin with or at least making more is morally impermissible. The assertion that life is meaningful despite the risks and suffering is rejected.

In an article exploring anti-natalism in social movements, Nadia Asparouhova focuses on diverging views of agency. She writes:

We can observe, however, that these social movements share the position that having children is either a drain on civilization’s resources, or that they will be victims in a global struggle for survival. In both cases, children are portrayed as a cost, rather than an asset. If we prod a bit at the underlying assumptions here, I find that a major difference in anti- versus pronatalist social movements is a belief in the lack of personal agency. In other words: do people believe that we have the ability to solve, or at least influence, the world’s biggest challenges?

Taking Asparouhova’s question one step further, one might ask whether human beings are merely Harris’s “conscious witnesses” to experiences and events over which they exercise little or no control, or are they agents acting in an arena of significance? Are humans capable of actually doing good in the world or are we already essentially trapped in Nozick’s experience machine, which we should seek to optimize to whatever extent possible? There seems to be no cultural consensus on the answer to these questions, and those answers have a deep influence on the design of social policy.

Meaning, Motivation, and Agency: Prerequisites for Social Policy

Taken together, these trends present an enormous challenge to the traditional ways in which social policy is designed and understood. This great retreat is severing the connection that people have to meaning, a fundamental cornerstone of a flourishing life. Intellectual and cultural movements cast doubt on beliefs in agency and, in turn, meaning. This loss is far greater than measurable drops in income, fertility rates, or professional contacts might suggest on their own and represent the prime challenge facing social policy today.

This separation from meaning or, in some cases, a rejection of its possibility pose novel problems for a public policy model that has historically been much more narrowly focused on resource deficiencies or gaps. This meaning deficit results in a myriad of disadvantages that are difficult to address via policy interventions. People who view their lives as less meaningful are at greater risk of depression, suicide, and substance abuse. But beyond these risks, belief in the ability to live a meaningful life, or existential agency, motivates self-regulation and goal-directed behavior.

In other words, meaning is just as much of an input to individual flourishing as it is an output. This is a key reason why its absence can be so destructive to a person’s life. The building blocks necessary for achievement and betterment, such as motivation, self-regulation, and goal-oriented behaviors, depend upon existential agency and meaning.

Most social policies are designed in ways that assume those key building blocks are intact. Programs primarily reallocate resources to fill gaps in a person’s otherwise economically productive life, subsidizing education or childcare, addressing transportation needs, offering retraining opportunities for certain classes of workers, or even in some cases providing vouchers to move to more economically vibrant areas. Building or repairing those basic building blocks is a much tougher challenge for public policy and is less a matter of budget size. Brent Orrell, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, put it simply, “If you don’t have the ambition, then the resources don’t matter.”

So far, solutions to these problems have been elusive. A further complicating factor is that truly effective solutions seem to be hyper individualized—less suitable to a more detached and resource-focused government intervention. Pushing back against the pull of nihilism, purposelessness, or hopelessness is a matter of individual and cultural transformation rather than one scalable public policy.

Still, there are some public policy changes that seem like low-hanging-fruit in terms of making a significant positive impact. First and foremost, state policymakers should work to end the benefits cliffs built into welfare programs that disincentivize marriage by substantially raising the financial cost of getting married. According to a recent survey, “More than 1 in 10 unmarried Americans whose income falls below the median reported they were not married for fear of losing ‘access to government benefits.’” Removing these existing roadblocks should be an easy place to start the process of reviving family formation and restoring opportunities for the most meaningful social bonds.

Another beneficial policy is to adopt “Reasonable Childhood Independence” laws at the state level, following the examples of Utah, Oklahoma, and Texas. Equipping kids with a strong base of socio-emotional skills is important both for success in the modern labor market but also for building up the kind of grit and resilience that will serve them throughout their lives. The absolute best way to do this is not through any kind of top-down educational program but actually giving kids a chance to learn and play on their own, or with their peers, in an environment free from the (often well-intentioned) influence of adults seeking to maximize enrichment or resolve disputes. These laws essentially protect parents from “violating” overzealous child neglect laws by allowing their children the independence that was common just a generation ago.

Additionally, policies that more generally promote employment and reduce the barriers to entry into new fields and industries are also likely to be beneficial. Reducing the burden of occupational licensing regulations, for example, would make it easier to change careers or start a new business. Safeguarding the ability to work as an independent contractor or participate in the gig economy preserves flexible and low-commitment opportunities to earn income and build skills.

On the other hand, there are some public policy ideas currently on offer that are likely to make the problem much worse and should be dutifully avoided. Development, rather than (false) security, should be the goal. Policies that further isolate individuals, separating them from the need to pursue education, employment, or training risk pushing recipients into a downward spiral. The growth in recipients of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) far above the growth in disabilities offers one such cautionary tale. Whether there is a causal relationship between the growth of SSDI recipients and the drop in male labor force participation is worth investigating but functionally irrelevant. When asked about this relationship, Nicholas Eberstadt noted that it’s difficult to assess whether the growth of SSDI recipients caused the drop in male labor force participation, but it at least financed it.

Whether public policies are causing a retreat from work and education or whether they’re merely financing it, open ended resource redistribution is a recipe for isolation, alienation, and meaninglessness. Universal Basic Income (UBI) is the ultimate policy fuel for nihilism in an already struggling culture. Its permanence and universality entrench a toxic status quo for anyone relying on it; both enabling an unhealthy tolerance for atomization while also cementing feelings of meaninglessness by declaring any individual effort unnecessary. Conversely, limits on government assistance, whether temporal, income based, or dependent upon individual action (like searching for employment or developing skills) recognize the significance of individual action. Anyone might need some assistance at one point or another, but limitations or requirements disclose an important truth: Your participation in society is needed, what you do matters.

While the most potent and lasting solutions are likely to be found outside the realm of public policy, the crucial task is to reorient our thinking toward a flourishing mindset. In practice, this means filtering policy ideas through the lens of their likely impact on meaning and the fostering of social bonds and existential agency that make it possible. This is a useful strategy for nongovernmental institutions to consider as well, and the earlier it begins the better.

Focusing on agency and building strong social bonds is especially important for kids, teens, and young adults. In addition to giving kids the opportunity to learn and grow on their own by allowing a healthy amount of unsupervised free play, even the more structured parts of education can take the lead in emphasizing agency. This means letting kids discover and follow their passions and learn to work cooperatively to solve difficult challenges. For more details on what this looks like in the real world, check out Staci Hetzel’s “On Agency, Lost and Recovered” (Profectus, 2022).

And emphasis on teaching these skills early has many benefits. Kids learn the increasingly important soft skills, habits of grit, and power of perseverance that can help them succeed economically and socially throughout their lives. More than that, inculcating these habits early and creating the opportunities to exercise agency can inoculate individuals against the nihilistic forces they are likely to encounter in the culture. They will know that they can make a difference in their lives and the lives of others because they already have. Even when facing tough times as they get older, which will inevitably happen, they can reflect and draw strength from their past experiences and meaningful social bonds. Of course, the emphasis on existential agency and the cultivation of social bonds shouldn’t be exclusive to the young; as the data reflect, there are many adults young and old, struggling with a lack of meaning. Here, as with so many other deep and complex problems, there is no silver bullet, yet there is hope.

A Leap of Faith Toward a Restoration of Meaning

Meaning, existential agency, and the experienced significance of social bonds are not easily quantifiable concepts. Moving toward a more meaningful life is the realm of personal transformation; and flourishing can be a difficult concept to grasp for a culture accustomed to hard data and measurable inputs like income, size of professional networks, or years of education. The temptation to dismiss the importance of transformation or meaning as irrelevant or functionally incomprehensible must be resisted if any kind of progress is to be made. Psychological research has made some important strides in clarifying our understanding of these concepts, but at least some aspects are certain to remain fundamentally ineffable.

Furthermore, this habit of precise calculation and data collection can actually be an obstacle to achieving a more meaningful and flourishing life. In his new book, Wild Problems, Russ Roberts makes the case that for many of the most important decisions in our life, the standard method of gathering and analyzing data to guide our decisions is not only ineffective but can lead us astray. In a particularly insightful section of the book, Roberts offers some practical wisdom for personal transformation: pretend and practice.

Take the actions that a person living a meaningful life would take first, rather than waiting for the careful analysis of a pros and cons list to spur motivation. Actions, habits, and participatory relationships are generators and definers of meaning more than a given mental state at any snapshot in time. Too often, we rely on the “right” motivations or “conducive” states of mind to manifest before going out and taking action in the real world. Instead, our default pattern of action should be to reverse this. Do, and see what happens. Uncertainty should not be allowed to paralyze. Take the leap without knowing what the results will be. With enough pretending and practicing, we might just find ourselves transformed anyway.

Ben Wilterdink
Ben Wilterdink
Ben Wilterdink was the Director of Programs at the Archbridge Institute from 2017-2024. He helped found Profectus Magazine and served as one of its editors until January 2024.   Follow Ben on Twitter @bgwilterdink.
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