In Search of Meaning: Nationalism, Identity, and Well-being



Friedrich Nietzsche is famously remembered for having stated that “God is Dead’.  However, while many take this as a triumphant assertion, the remainder of this quote demonstrates that this was not a celebratory exclamation, but one of fear; fear that this eventual realisation by others would lead to despair and nihilism.  Nietzsche was not alone in worrying about what the death of god would mean to people.  Hegel, for example, wrote about how the death of god left an abyss in man; while Kierkegaard, considered by some to be the father of existentialism, found his meaning in faith[1].

This is not to say that god or religion are necessary or sufficient for meaning.  However, a sense of connectedness to others – the idea that you are more than just an individual but part of a larger whole seems to be vital.  Indeed, people find meaning in things like their family, community, country, or their jobs. But these too have been crumbling. People rarely get to know those that live on their street, opting instead for online communities.  Good and meaningful jobs are becoming more difficult to come by, but even those that exist, still lack the security they once had.   Families have become more spread out, with individuals often moving away for school or to find work.

I recall listening to Richard Dawkins answer a question about how one is to find meaning without god and he laughed at the query, detailing the beauty that life has to offer and the wonder that comes from exploring it scientifically.  However, Dawkins, who for over 40 years, has been a well-respected, highly published author and scientist, has clearly not had to face the dread that comes with worrying about whether you matter[2].  Adding to the culmination of knowledge in such a significant way, clearly imbues one with a feeling of purpose and connectedness. Although one may be able to draw meaning from the beauty and wonder of nature, it is not something that comes inherently.

The underlying motivation for meaning is that[3] knowledge of our mortality causes an ultimate sense of psychological conflict and terror. Knowing we are going to die, and not wanting to die motivates us to either avoid this thought (e.g. we don’t actually die, we go to heaven) or to make some significance of our life.  We create art and monuments.  We also build meaning systems, identities, and cultures, connecting ourselves as important pieces in some greater path.  We need to feel as if our existence is meaningful, that the beliefs we hold are the right ones, and that our goals have inherent value. ‘Democracy vs. Communism’ or ‘Axis Vs. Allies’. Ultimately, we get our sense of self and our sense of meaning from connecting ourselves to some greater cultural whole, believing in the superiority of that cultural worldview, and by living up to or excelling within the standards of that culture.


This universal search for meaning helps to explain the large cultural shifts we’ve seen across the globe.  Small communities may be gone, but large nation states remain.  Cultural and religious identities may be waning, but ethnic and gender identities have endured.  Individuals may not get the sense of success that comes with a hard day’s work, but they can undergo a 10-hour grinding session to level up their online characters.

Consider the rise of the alternative-right (alt-right), characterized as right-wing individuals who reject mainstream conservatism, while supporting nationalism, anti-immigration, and men’s right advocacy.  Economist Jeffrey Tucker has argued that to the alt-right “identity is everything and the loss of identity is the greatest crime against self anyone can imagine” In a time, where globalization has moved towards a more relativistic view of culture, feminism has advocated for greater equality between genders, while we’ve also seen the diminished importance of religion, family, community, and the feeling of being a useful member of society, it is no wonder that there is pushback.  Many people need a sense of order, hierarchy, and the sense that they are on top.  It’s not just us vs. them; it’s ‘us’ are better than them.

The great irony is that the largest antagonist to the alt-right, the so-called, ‘social-justice warrior’ (SJW) liberal, is the other side of the same coin. While the right is clearly equally concerned about their identity, social-justice warriors are often attacked for their identity politics.  However, whereas the alt-right have sought meaning by doubling down on their national, gender, or their religious/cultural identity, SJWs have focused on a belief system of multiculturalism, diversity, and an emphasis of vindictive protectiveness.  These extreme-left individuals draw their meaning and identity from this shared system of beliefs. This organizing set of beliefs becomes akin to a religion and failure to pay homage to it, or worse, challenge it, leads one to be shamed as a bigot or racist. It’s not just us vs. them; it’s ‘us’ are better than them.


Louis C.K. once joked that everything is amazing and no-one is happy. Indeed, suicide rates have surged in the past 20 years – with an average of 121 suicides per day in the United States (and white males making up about 70% of that). While the joke resonated with many, it failed to take into account the importance of meaning on an individual’s well-being. In the West, we have had been told to focus on happiness – that things or experiences can satisfy these needs.  However, not only does attempting to be happier, typically make us less happy, but being happy does not necessarily correspond with being psychologically well.

People need more than just fleeting hedonic happiness.  Rather, the feeling that one is living up to their potential or that they are living in accordance with some true nature is vital for human flourishing.  For example, the enjoyment I receive writing this blog post is fundamentally different from the enjoyment from a delicious meal.  Similarly, it would be silly to compare the happiness one gets from raising a child to the happiness of an orgasm.  While the latter may lead to a fleeting hedonic happiness, the former typically results in a greater well-being as a function of a greater sense of purpose, connectedness, and meaning.

We now live in a world where many of the simple pleasures of the past are hard to come by.  Rarely do neighbours stop by simply to lounge around with friends and family, share a meal, or tell stories.  Religious and cultural rituals which often help connect us have also taken a backseat.  For example, in the Jewish tradition, not only are you required to pray three times a day, but that you ought to do it communally with at least ten men. Regardless of your religious beliefs, meeting up and sharing an experience with at least nine other individuals, three times a day, would ostensibly help alleviate feelings of a lack of connectedness and thus provide a greater sense of meaning. One time I was in a situation where I was needed to come be the tenth person.  Although I’m not at all religious or even a believer, simply being needed to achieve this silly goal provided a small sense of purpose and subsequent wellbeing.

It is no secret that many individuals feel disconnected.  Take a ride on a bus or a subway and you’ll see a group of individuals sitting as far away as possible, not talking, or even making eye contact.  Even the thought of striking up a conversation fills us with dread.  Rather, it is easy to fall back into the security of our cell-phones and our belief that our solitude makes us happy.  However, this assumption is wrong – People feel happier after talking to a stranger compared to sitting by themselves. 

We live in a world where despite a constant search for meaning, we seem to continue losing it.  Those that haven’t relegated themselves into a new community of shared beliefs, like the alt-right or the SJW-left, tend to feel lost with no obvious path out.  It is ironic that in a world with technology that is more connected than ever we feel more alone. Rather, we use this technology to temporarily avoid and distract from our feelings of meaningless and connectedness, rather than by deeply satisfying it.  The steps we need to take may feel awkward but they are not challenging. Invite a friend over for dinner and talk to a stranger on the street.  Find a shared interest: join a sports team or an art-club or go to the dog park with your dog.  Or Find a passion: Learn a skill, study a subject, go back to school.  Ultimately, we need to change this societal norm of individualistic solitude and banality and redefine what it means to be part of a collectivistic group with goals.  By feeling like an important part of a whole we can find our sense of meaning.


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[1] Kierkegaard’s view of faith argued that faith was not a dogmatic regurgitation of religious doctrine, but rather a subjective passion that could not be taught by a priest.

[2] Although one can’t fault Dawkins too much, he is not a psychologist, and so understanding why the wonderment of life would not suffice for the average person may not be something he has thought about to deeply.

[3] The main and most validated hypothesis


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