The importance of understanding our significance in the world
"I don’t want to sound too dismal"
We are born. We do stuff. We die. What does any of it matter? Isn’t that the great problem we all wrestle with?
And isn’t that question also what drives us as human beings – the strange species we belong to, that is at the same time earth-bound animal and soaring, imaginative spirit? Our animal side may not give a monkey’s, but our spirit sides want, even need, it all to matter.
And that is what my most recent book, The Significance Delusion, is all about, that need for things (including ourselves) actually to matter; and not to have been nothing at all, living in no more than an accidental, a nothing, universe. We want to feel Significant.
And though I would like to feel able to say – along with millions of others – that I believe in some higher being, some higher purpose, that is not what I see as the ‘truth’ of the matter – all ‘truths’ being pretty much subjective anyway.
What I argue in my book is that we are essentially a mutant species, and also an essentially delusional one – which is not a criticism, and especially not pathologising of the entire species. I see our delusional state as benevolent, as keeping us ‘on message’ with the rest of our personal tribes, if not with the entirety of our species. We share things through delusion and delusion keeps us safe from meaninglessness.
So, looking at the evidence from modern science, I find that Significance is the outcome of millions of years of evolution; millions of years which have made our brains hyper-connect and want to see meaning, or significance, in experience. We want to feel that life matters, and we want to feel that we, ourselves, matter. Significance makes us special and puts us firmly centre stage in the drama of our lives, letting us feel that we are more than bystanders, more than ‘extras’ lurking in the wings. We are the drivers of the action, and that lets us feel we have some control over our lives.
Of course, if everyone has absolute control over their life, if everyone is some kind of tyrant with the capacity to whip the rest into submission, then… I hardly need to spell out the chaos that would follow. And I do argue in my book that an overly delusional sense of one’s own significance in the world is one of the root causes of mental health problems, and that Western society’s fixation with self (‘because we’re worth it’) is driving the current mental health crisis, and in particular the crisis affecting adolescents, who have been brought up by and large to believe that achieving things for the self, is the purpose of life.
However, I don’t want to sound too dismal about all of this, because understanding the way Significance works is also the way to protect ourselves against mental health problems. By understanding this strange mutant human need we can develop resilience in the face of the challenges in life that try to make us feel worthless, hopeless, unlovely, or simply pointless.
By knowing how our strange brains have come to be, we can also recognise it when our personal drive to feel significant and experience significance in life is damaging to others, and ironically helping to undermine that very social instinct which is actually our best protection and route to our potentially happiest state – that of engagement with other people. So, although science, and in particular neuroscience, may seem very reductive routes to wellbeing, and happiness and self-fulfilment, I truly believe that they can do more to help us make some kind of sense out of the essentially unknowable nature of life, than anything else.
Significance, like all the other delusions we hold dear – that something that comes out of a pot can make us look beautiful, that algorithms can find us the perfect love, that our cats care tuppence about our feelings – is both fundamentally dishonest, and fundamentally necessary. We are an essentially delusional species, and being so we need to know how to work with our delusions, and if we can achieve that state of understanding, then we can not only be better people, and better members of society, we can also make our own personal lives both happier, and much more fulfilling and fulfilled.
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