At any moment, someone’s aggravating behavior or our own bad luck can set us off on an emotional spiral that threatens to derail our entire day. Here’s how we can face our triggers with less reactivity so that we can get on with our lives.

Humans are the meaning-seeking animals. We have an unquenchable desire to understand how the world is connected. All cultures have myths and stories about how the universe was created and who has power over natural phenomena. In our modern world, we also have scientific theories about the factors that govern different types of processes. All humans, at some point, ponder the meaning of life.

Psychologists talk about the will to power and the will to pleasure. But the will to meaning is at least as strong. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, the physician and author Viktor Frankl writes: “Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a ‘secondary rationalization’ of instinctual drives. The meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone, only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning.”

From a cognitive point of view, an important question then becomes why we humans cannot help but strive for meaning in virtually everything we do. To answer this, one must understand why the human brain is built to search for connections everywhere, even in the most random events.

No other animals worry about meaning. So why must humans? If you want to follow Darwin and see humans as biological beings and a product of evolution, then our need for meaning has probably increased our chances of survival. A key question then becomes what humans have gained evolutionarily from their search for meaning.

Reducing one of humanity’s most profound qualities to counting the prizes in the evolutionary lottery may seem dry. Questions of meaning seem to be outside the domain of biology. In the modern debate, there is a conflict between, on the one hand, “biologists” who argue that the causes of human behavior lie in the biological substrate and, on the other hand, “humanists” who argue that it is culture and the search for meaning within culture that are the primary causes of human action. In my opinion, the two positions are not incompatible but complementary. Our biological conditions do not cause what we find meaningful, but they influence how we seek meaning.

It is strange that people are afraid that if you believe biology has something to say about what it means to be human, then there will be no meaning in life. Hence, if we can describe the evolutionary forces that have been at work during human creation and that have made us unique as thinking beings, we can better understand our existence. As Chekhov says, “Man will become better when you show him what he is like.”

In his book, Frankl gives a poignant account of the search for meaning among those in the concentration camps of World War II. The extreme hardships suffered by the prisoners led many to lose hope and purpose in life, to no longer see any meaning in their existence. They became apathetic and often succumbed to typhus and other diseases. Frankl notes that those who could continue to see a meaning to existence, albeit never so banal, were the ones most likely to survive in the camps.

Our unique position as meaning-seeking creatures derives from the fact that we are the only animal that can plan for the distant future and not just for our present needs. For this, we need some long-term goal to motivate us to think about future consequences and not just live for the moment. As a species, we have now reached the point where our existence is fundamentally determined by these ideas—we are obsessed with thoughts of the future.

Frankl writes, “It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future—sub specie aeternitatis. And this is his salvation in the most difficult moments of his existence, although he sometimes has to force his mind to the task.”

When animals and humans plan for their daily needs, the goals are proximate and their value is more or less obvious. But when we have to plan over longer horizons, the goal is distant—it may not even exist, or be of an unknown kind—and its value is much more uncertain. In such situations, we need more overarching values—moral, religious, ideological—to give meaning to the planning enterprise.

In other words, the need for meaning comes from the uniquely human capacity for foresight. The meaning of life becomes the ultimate goal. Our existential questions are outgrowths of the more general drives to find causes in everyday events and to find patterns in the world.

Peter Gärdenfors, Ph.D., is a professor of cognitive science at Lund University, Sweden.

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At any moment, someone’s aggravating behavior or our own bad luck can set us off on an emotional spiral that threatens to derail our entire day. Here’s how we can face our triggers with less reactivity so that we can get on with our lives.

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