In my most recent series of articles on men’s happiness, published here on Health Web Magazine, I write,
“The third level [in the evolution to happiness] is meaning. In the meaning state, a man has transcended his own body and mind and now seeks to go beyond himself, to achieve something higher, in a selfless and beneficient way. Meaning gives him a higher purpose in his life, and ennobles him.” (DKT, Men’s Happiness: Part V – Conclusion & Vision)
Right on the heels of the final installment of Men’s Happiness, the Pew Research Center published their report on What Makes Life Meaningful?, and I am including parts of that report in this article.
You may have noticed, I’m using that same title for this article. Not an accident.
Meaning and purpose, central themes throughout Men’s Happiness and essential motifs in our daily lives, continue to be poorly defined and less adequately characterized in current scientific literature.
Putting a finger on meaning is like shooting at a moving target because it is so multidimensional and varies significantly from individual to individual.
Psychology has made the attempt and has floundered; the social sciences have not fared much better.
Spiritual traditions — particularly those that approach the individual from a triadic perspective; that is, in terms of body, mind, and spirit as opposed to those traditions that degrade the physical — provide us with a more circumspect and inclusive perspective on this chameleon of life states.
The Pew report covers a wide range of sources of meaning and posed the open-ended question to nearly 19,000 persons in 17 countries, “We’re interested in exploring what it means to live a satisfying life. What aspects of your life do you currently find meaningful, fulfilling, or satisfying?”
Because I am most interested in the psychospiritual aspects of meaning rather than the sociological, economic, or political sources covered in the very comprehensive report, I will focus my remarks on those sources that I would include in my systematic teachings on the spirituality of masculinities.
1. Religion or Spirituality as An Important Source of Meaning
As a spiritual counselor and mentor, I often point out that the way one asks the question determines the answer one gets.
That heuristic applies even more strongly in survey work. I mention this because one of the concerns raised when I was reading the Pew report was not only the principal question, “What aspects of your life do you currently find meaningful, fulfilling or satisfying?” but also the definition given for spirituality, faith and religion as a source of meaning: “’Spirituality, faith and religion’ includes mentions of the importance of religious faith, one’s own relationship with God, religious activities like attending church and praying, or more general feelings of spirituality and connectedness” and which was expressed as “% of adults in [country] who mention spirituality, faith and religion when describing what gives them meaning in life.” Terms like religious faith, God, religious activities, attending church, praying, and particularly language like “general feelings of spirituality and connectedness” as well as the instructions given for categorization of responses, raise red flags of bias for people like me. I mention that because sensitivity to bias will color my remarks.
Interestingly, Americans are much more likely to mention religion as a source of meaning in life than other publics, but there are differences between right and left ideologies.
Pew appears to lump faith, religion and spirituality into one topic, and notes that the topic is also one on which societies notably differ.
Pew notes that “[o]utside of the U.S., religion is never one of the top 10 sources of meaning cited – and no more than 5% of any non-American public mention it.
In the U.S., however, 15% mention religion or God as a source of meaning, making it the fifth most mentioned topic.
15% of Americans mention religion or God but what about spirituality, are those individuals who are not religious or do not believe in “God,” but are nones or dones or just “spiritual?”  Should we assume that if they were to be added to the religious or the believers, the percent would increase? Pew is silent on these individuals. I would daresay that the percent would increase significantly.
American adults are particularly likely to find religion, spirituality, faith to be important sources of meaning, and plays a significant role in giving their life meaning.
Religion might include direct references to God, references to religious communities, church attendance, or more general expressions of spirituality or connectedness to a higher power (transcendence)
– Woman, 70, Taiwan
With 15% of all U.S. adults mentioning religion, Americans cite religion most frequently, and it is the fifth most frequently mentioned topic there.
The frequency that adults mention religion remains about the same regardless of age, income, education or gender.
2. Nature, Creation as a Source of Meaning
Despite the fact that humankind is part of nature, of creation and not some sort of overlord — a part that exists only in the mind of humankind —, Nature remains a vast source of abundant meaning to most men with whom I am acquainted both within the Homoerotic Tantra ℠ kula (कुल) or community and outside it.
Nature, however, doesn’t even make the top ten sources of meaning in the American group of respondents and comes in at No. 13. with only 4% of respondents mentioning it.
That figure was not only surprising but disappointing, since Nature plays such an important role in homoerotic yogic tāntric life. Moreover, it’s tantamount to disowning one’s roots but given today’s groundedlessness, I suppose I shouldn’t be overly bemused.
Another surprising finding is that the United Kingdom, Australia, France, New Zealand and Sweden stand apart for the relative emphasis they place on nature compared to many other places surveyed. In each of these countries, nature is one of the top eight sources of meaning.
— Man, 18, New Zealand
3. Learning Provides Satisfaction in Life
Education and learning are sources of meaning. A number of respondents also mentioned education and learning when discussing meaning in their lives.
People mentioned formal education, being aware and informed, and the general pursuit of knowledge as sources of meaning.
This is not inconsistent with the philosophy of Homoerotic Tantra ℠ in terms of ongoing learning and capacitation.
I would note that the US ranks 12th (5%) in mentioning learning as providing satisfaction in life. That might provide some stuff for reflection.
— Man, 54, Italy
4. Relationships with Others
Community or as we call it in Homoerotic Tantra ℠, saṅgha (सङ्घ), is a major element of meaning in life. Substantial numbers identified others in their life as a sources of meaning.
Family is mentioned in almost all survey publics, and appears within the top five sources of meaning in every group surveyed.
Some people also cite life partners, friends, and the larger community as significant sources of meaning.
Not everyone canvassed limited himself to the humans in his life – some also made a point to mention their companion animals as sources of meaning.
I have frequently mentioned the importance of face-to-face, flesh-and-blood relationships as important elements in health and well-being, and I have written volumes on the pathology of social media and Internet disorders.
Real, not virtual, relationships are natural and healthy sources of meaning.
5. The Conditions that Promote Meaning
There are certainly discrete conditions that enable us to live fulfilling, purposeful, and meaningful lives.
It is noteworthy that almost all of the 17 publics surveyed in the study, material well-being, stability (groundedness), and quality of life rank in the top five sources of meaning — and let’s not neglect the importance of basic necessities and even luxuries as components of what enables a person to find meaning.
I would also like to include importance of physical and mental health as well as freedom (liberation) and independence (autonomy) as important enablers of positive life meaning.
6. Confronting Challenges in the Quest for Meaning
It is to the credit of the lead researchers in this study that they included the negative sources, the life challenges, as contributors to meaning.
While the crux of the study was what makes life meaningful and fulfilling in a positive sense, some respondents rose to the opportunity to mention challenges that have intervened in their search for happiness.
Note I did not write interfered but intervened because, while some people might struggle to think of anything meaningful in their lives, some assess such challenges as opportunities for growth.
In fact, many respondents’ negative remarks do not focus on personal difficulties but rather on external social and political factors, and even the CoVid pandemic.
As a woman in the U.S. put it,
While one can read frustration or even despair in those quotes, the Tāntrika (तान्त्रिक) will see the challenge to create positive potential and opportunity for growth.
Apart from the benefits of yogic Tantra in the modern world, the good news is that the majority of respondents do not focus on negative situations overall – approximately 10% of people mention them – but it must be noted that there is wide variation among the cultures surveyed.
For example, in the UK, only 4% of adults mention negative circumstances or challenges; in contrast, negative responses are more common in Italy (21%), the U.S. (17%), and South Korea (14%).
Once again, I must wonder why Americans should focus on negativity, since they — or at least their handlers — claim such superiority over other advanced economies.
I can conditionally commend the results of the study as they pertain to modern, capitalistic, materialistic societies.
I am also rather pleased the Pew results support many of my statements and conclusions regarding the many crises resulting from alienation of the spirit and overreliance on external sources of meaning, while neglecting the inherent sources within us.
Even a general review of the sources of meaning mentioned by the almost 19,000 respondents from 17 advanced economies would persuade and convince the most spiritually skeptical observer that the overreliance on the impermanent and material sources is deranging humankind’s ability to find meaning and purpose in their lives.
The Pew study is informative in many ways but most importantly it represents a wake-up call to awareness and the necessity of returning to the true source of meaning, the Self.