Meanings of Life

Meanings of Life

Meanings of Life

Meanings of Life


Who among us has not at some point asked, ``what is the meaning of life?'' In this extraordinary book, an eminent social scientist looks at the big picture and explores what empirical studies from diverse fields tell us about the human condition. MEANINGS OF LIFE draws together evidence from psychology, history, anthropology, and sociology, integrating copious research findings into a clear and conclusive discussion of how people attempt to make sense of their lives. In a lively and accessible style, emphasizing facts over theories, Baumeister explores why people desire meaning in their lives, how these meanings function, what forms they take, and what happens when life loses meaning. It is the most comprehensive examination of the topic to date.


During the seven years I have spent writing this book, I have come to realize that there are several unusual difficulties peculiar to a project of this sort. There is no commonly accepted pattern for social science works on broad topics such as life's meaning, and indeed even interdisciplinary literature reviews do not necessarily follow the same lines that more conventional (intradisciplinary) reviews do.

I have had some previous experience with interdisciplinary writing. Indeed, it was during the writing of a previous book, Identity, that I began to realize that the logical next step would be a work on the meanings of life. I began collecting materials for this next project while I was still concentrating on identity. That way, by the time I was doing the final revisions, indexing, and other wrapping-up exercises with that book I was already working seriously on the meanings of life.

Still, this project turned out to be more complex and difficult that I had anticipated. One sign, perhaps, is that two other books were completed in the meantime, both of which were in some ways spin-offs from this one. I had hoped that phenomena such as masochism and suicide would shed valuable light on how people find meaning in life, but it gradually became apparent that the solutions to those puzzles led in quite different directions.

Let me now offer some general and technical observations for readers who are professional social scientists. The work that this book represents is an attempt to bring social science knowledge to bear on a very broad problem that is, indeed, a philosophical one in the general sense. There are two components of this work: first, a series of interdisciplinary literature reviews that assemble the facts, and second, a conceptual structure that attempts to impose order on the welter of research findings and to answer the fundamental questions that form the book's focus. Each has its peculiar challenges and requires some explanation.

The interdisciplinary literature review is not a widely practiced art. Ideally, I suppose, and interdisciplinary reviewer should hold advanced degrees, preferably doctorates, in every specialty he or she covers. Hardly anyone holds such . . .

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