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Secularism and the Science of Well-Being

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and Keywords This chapter draws from emerging research areas in positive psychology, the study of well-being, to consider evidence-based recommendations helping to fill some of the psychological and existential gaps in secular society. It discusses the development of positive psychology and its shift toward a meaning-oriented conception of human well-being, as well as scientific findings about meaning and its role in a flourishing life. Further, it argues for the importance of the humanities, alongside the methods of science, in exploring subjective and personal aspects of meaning. The chapter also discusses the study of self-transcendent experiences and how they can provide profound joy and meaning while influencing the relationship between the self and the world at large.
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Abstract and Keywords
This chapter draws from emerging research areas in positive psychology, the study of
well-being, to consider evidence-based recommendations helping to fill some of the
psychological and existential gaps in secular society. It discusses the development of
positive psychology and its shift toward a meaning-oriented conception of human well-
being, as well as scientific findings about meaning and its role in a flourishing life.
Further, it argues for the importance of the humanities, alongside the methods of
science, in exploring subjective and personal aspects of meaning. The chapter also
discusses the study of self-transcendent experiences and how they can provide profound
joy and meaning while influencing the relationship between the self and the world at
large.
Keywords: secularity, positive psychology, well-being, human flourishing, self-transcendent, humanities
THE world becomes more secular with each passing year. Variously defined, secularism
refers to the separation of religion from the center of political, social, or personal life. The
many benefits of secularism have been articulated by scientists and scholars. Some argue
that the expansion of secular thought and policy has contributed to making this the most
peaceful time in the history of our species and has helped foster unprecedented scientific,
medical, and technological advances (Pinker 2011; Wright 2001). In addition to reducing
religious violence, secular society enhances personal liberty, which is robustly associated
with happiness (Diener and Tov 2007).
Despite the myriad benefits of secular society, many also describe the troubling
consequences from the decline of traditional religion in community life. As traditional,
ready-made systems of meaning become less available in modern society, people have
grown less confident that they have all the answers or that their lives are valuable.
Specifically, increasingly individualistic cultural trends have contributed to a decline in
Secularism and the Science of Well-Being
David Yaden, Jonathan Iwry, Emily Esfahani Smith, and James O. Pawelski
The Oxford Handbook of Secularism
Edited by Phil Zuckerman and John R. Shook
Print Publication Date: Feb 2017 Subject: Religion, Religion and Society
Online Publication Date: Jan 2017 DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199988457.013.34
Oxford Handbooks Online
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community connection and an increasingly prevalent sense that life has little meaning
(Durkheim 1912; Haidt 2008). The World Values Survey shows a steady decrease in
meaning, even in countries where wealth and happiness are increasing. We call this “the
meaning gap.”
Can the meaning gap in secular life be filled? In this chapter, we draw from emerging
research areas in positive psychology (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi 2000), the study of
well-being, to consider evidence-based recommendations that might help to fill some of
the psychological and existential gaps in secular society. We discuss the development of
positive psychology and its shift toward a meaning-oriented conception of human well-
being, as well as scientific findings about meaning and its role in a flourishing life.
Further, we argue for the importance of the humanities, alongside the methods of
science, in exploring subjective and personal aspects of meaning. We also discuss the
study of self-transcendent experiences and how they can provide profound joy and
meaning while influencing the relationship between the self and the world at large.
(p. 555) Secularism
Although secularism is not necessarily responsible for this decline in meaning, secular
thought thus far has largely been about the negation of religious influence. To the extent
that secular movements have striven for new and substantial contributions to
nonreligious life, most focus solely on ethics. Some argue that an important next step for
secularism is to restore the joy and connection that religion at its best can provide. As
secularism continues to shape modern life, new sources of fulfillment may complement or
replace religiosity. Put simply, there is still room for a “positive secularism”—one that
affirms well-being, rather than simply denying dogmatism, and that asks not just what we
ethically owe one another but what we can do to enrich our lives together.
In the absence of meaningful structure and guidance, some might look for alternative
ways of distracting themselves from existential anxieties, including superficial but
alluring hedonic goals. Yet most of us desire more constructive lifestyles—a healthy,
realistic engagement with our lives and the universe in which we live. It should be
possible to create new pathways to meaning, cultivating a sense of belonging and
purpose in everyday life. And while the search for meaning might be partly personal and
philosophical, there is reason to believe that the study of human behavior and experience
will yield tangible guidance for people of all backgrounds, believers and nonbelievers
alike.
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Secularism, in a broad sense, involves the separation of religion from political and legal
institutions. Notably, secularism does not itself judge the validity of religious doctrines,
though agnostics and atheists often take secular positions based on their deep skepticism
toward religion. Secularism does not argue for the abolition of religion—only that faith-
based organizations should not wield state power and that the freedom to hold, practice,
and pursue all personal religious beliefs should be protected equally under law. Thus,
secularism is not atheism, as some mistakenly believe; rather, it is most usefully
understood as a concerted effort not only to protect the state from religion but also to
protect religion from the state. Neither is secularism equivalent to communism, which
has been intolerant of religion altogether. Additionally, secularism can also be thought of
more broadly as a general reaction against the dominant role of organized religion in
society.
Secularism has become a dominant force both politically and socially. It can be seen in
the constitutions and policies of democratic countries (and other forms of government in
some cases), in which citizens are free to observe their own religions while respecting
their neighbors’ right to do the same. Citizens and governments in secular societies
approach questions of public welfare nonreligiously (at least in theory), basing their
decisions on universal interests rather than on beliefs about divinity. Many of these
countries have also experienced a shift away from religious culture, in the sense that no
one religion or set of religious rituals is the explicit center of social life. In Scandinavia,
for example, members of the nonreligious population still gather at churches to observe
holidays that have transformed from religious to cultural traditions (Zuckerman 2012).
The influence of secularism can be also be found in the rise of naturalistic worldviews,
which seek to understand and explain reality strictly in terms of natural forces, rather
than through gods, souls, or miracles. Secular philosophers and scientists take
empiricism and logic as their central methods and distance themselves from supernatural
accounts. Some (p. 556) scientists identify themselves as religious in private life (Ecklund
2010) but, regardless of their private metaphysical beliefs, use reason and evidence to
guide their work in the professional scientific community.
Many argue that the rise of secularism has brought clear and tangible advantages to
human life. There are fewer religious wars, fewer atrocities committed in the name of
gods, and less civic strife overall (Pinker 2011; Wright 2001). Regions where secularism
is prevalent tend to have lower murder rates than those with widespread religious
influence (Zuckerman 2012). Secular governments have become commonplace across the
developed world, and while voters might no longer enjoy the comfort of having the
particular values of their religious tradition dominate public life, they have less reason to
fear religious coercion—by members of their faith or any other. In addition, developed
countries reap the countless benefits of scientific and technological innovation. From the
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systematization of medicine to the origins of modern computing, the Scientific
Revolution’s emphasis on reason and evidence as sources of knowledge triggered an
unprecedented and ongoing increase in both span and quality of life (Seligman 2004).
Secularism’s political and scientific advancements, however, are not without their costs,
such as the meaning gap, which was likely caused, at least in part, by the departure of
religion from the center of people’s lives. Although secular philosophers argue for
nonreligious moral systems and for the importance of creating loving communities, and
both important sources of meaning, it is hard to deny that giving up the readily accessible
pathways provided by religion makes doing so a lot more challenging. The public forum is
no longer brought together by singular visions of an absolute system of moral and social
order, leading to what Weber (1918) described as a spirit of “disenchantment.” Can
secular society become “re-enchanted” with meaning and community connection? Can
the meaning gap be closed?
Meaning
What is the meaning of “meaning”? Because of its inherently subjective nature,
“meaning” has always suffered from roundabout definitions (which is ironic, given how
familiar and central it is to our personal lives and how often the term is used). Perhaps
meaning is less a single category than a set of related concepts bearing a “family
resemblance” (Wittgenstein 1953). In Meanings of Life, psychologist Roy Baumeister
(1991) recognizes the diversity of definitions of meaning but ends up characterizing
meaning as a connecting concept. Elsewhere he writes, “the essence of meaning is
connection” (Baumeister and Vohs, 2002: 608). Meaning can connect a word to an idea,
events in a story to one another, or an object to a deeper significance. In other words,
meaning is about the relationships between things and people.
In an existential sense, meaning comes from a connection to something that lies beyond
the self. In the words of Martin Seligman (2011), the founder of positive psychology, in
the meaningful life, “you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve
something you believe is larger than the self” (p. iv). The more self-transcendent that
“something” is, the more meaning it gives (Seligman 2011). For people leading
meaningful lives, meaning comes from the knowledge that they have done something
worthy with their lives and, therefore, that their lives matter (Stillman et al. 2009). For
psychologists, the meaningful life has two chief characteristics: coherence and
significance.
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(p. 557) Meaning has come to refer to a form of well-being complementary to, but distinct
from, hedonic happiness. While traditional notions of happiness depend on the
satisfaction of needs and pleasure-based desires, meaning is associated with acts of
kindness toward others, self-expression, and self-realization. Unlike hedonic pleasure, the
pleasure of meaningful pursuits is long lasting and stems from the accomplishment of
personal goals and realization of personal values. Meaning has more to do with how we
see ourselves as individuals and members of communities than with merely pleasurable
experiences; it taps into a combination of beliefs and powerful emotions, and it seems to
require a self-awareness that mere pleasure does not.
Meaning is also fostered by communities (Wong 2013) and relationships (Stillman et al.
2009) in which people feel a sense of belonging. People affiliate with others not just out
of personal interest but also because they identify with one another’s values and because
they themselves want to feel valued and accepted. This is why researchers have found
that the top sources of meaning in people’s lives are their relationships—with
relationships to friends and families being especially paramount (Lambert et al. 2013).
Meaning is shared both in the sense that people form communities based on what they
consider meaningful and also in the sense that being part of that community feels
meaningful in itself. Social groups depend greatly on their constituents’ ability to build a
system of meaning that can foster collective identity, belonging, and motivation—a task
to which religion is particularly well suited.
The spread of secularism has brought with it a rise in individualist thought and culture.
On one hand, individualism generally contributes to greater personal freedom and
emphasizes people’s right to pursue their own well-being (Diener and Tov 2007). On the
other hand, it can prioritize the values of personal fulfillment over those of family,
community, and duty (Durkheim 1912; Haidt 2008). While secularism does not directly
imply individualism, it does imply the removal of traditional social adhesives from public
life. As religion becomes less prevalent, people feel less tied to absolute systems of
morality and order. A world of increased personal freedom holds new possibilities and
encourages individual ambition, and the commitment to community life and values loses
their sacredness. The upside is an aversion to conformity; the downside is a reduced
appreciation for selflessness.
Even worse, people might feel that they have nothing left to live for. Sociologist Emile
Durkheim ([1897] 1951) observed that as societies grow increasingly individualistic,
people become more likely to commit suicide. He attributed this tendency to “anomie,” a
condition in which social norms, moral guidance, and community bonds are largely
absent. Durkheim’s research has been confirmed by more modern empirical researchers,
such as Eckersley and Dear (2002), who found that suicide among young people is
associated with several markers of individualism, such as personal freedom and control—
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values often associated with secular societies. Other research by Oishi and Diener (2014)
has found that poor countries where people reported high levels of meaning, as in many
African nations, had low suicide rates, while those in countries with low levels of reported
meaning, like many in western Europe, had high suicide rates. The researchers also
found that poorer countries are more religious. “As society becomes wealthier,” they
write, “religion becomes less central to people’s life. As religion becomes less central to
people’s life, more people lose a sense of meaning in life” (427).
This trend is hardly new. Public thinkers have been skeptical about the modern shift
toward secular, individualist, industrial societies ever since its inception. When Friedrich
Nietzsche ([1882] 2001) declared that “God is dead,” he meant not that God had literally
died (p. 558) but that the idea of God had lost its place as the primary fixture of the
Western worldview. Jean-Paul Sartre ([1943] 1956) claimed that if humans were created
without a creator, and thus without purpose, then we are “condemned to be free.” Albert
Camus (1955) explicitly discussed suicide in The Myth of Sisyphus; he compared the
human condition to that of Sisyphus—a Greek mythical figure doomed to repeatedly roll a
boulder up a mountain for eternity—and claimed that the absurdity and apparent
pointlessness of existence makes suicide a not irrational response. Though not all were
addressing religion directly, the point of these thinkers rings clear: our old structures of
meaning and security are being overturned. As religion becomes less central to public
life, people risk growing disillusioned with the apparent lack of order or meaning.
Religion can tap into seemingly universal aspects of the human condition—and can
provide some accessible answers. It can give people a sense of significance and purpose
(Koenig et al. 2001). It creates common ground between individuals and across
communities. It can provide the impression of order and security both during and after
earthly life, as well as unconditional love by an omnipresent guardian. It makes the
universe intelligible and welcoming and imbues everyday life with meaningful qualities.
The challenge of secularism is finding a way to preserve or create meaning in a society
that has lost its traditional means of doing so.
Secular Meaning-Making
Proponents of secular society and culture argue that while existence might not have
intrinsic meaning, that does not mean our lives are doomed to meaninglessness. Rather,
it is up to individuals and communities to take ownership of their condition and create
meaning. Even those who are religious in private life can benefit from the collective
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endeavor to create new meaning. Secular people adopt a variety of views and lifestyles in
order to do so.
Some nonreligious people find meaning in, essentially, not being “duped” by religion.
Such individuals consider themselves free from dogma, arguing that human life might
indeed be meaningless and that they would rather confront it with dignity. This view is
often hostile toward the religious and seems to treat the pursuit of meaning with an
emphasis on personal pride over collaboration. At worst, this is a conceit, since individual
atheists can be just as closed-minded and dogmatic in their beliefs. At best, it is merely a
negative source of meaning—a consolation for not having something more robust to
value. Most secular people would argue that there is a great deal more to aspire toward.
A more constructive approach involves a deep sense of wonder for the natural world as a
source of meaning. Scientists often view their practice as a path along the journey to
make sense of who and what we are. Similarly to the way that Boyle and Galileo
considered science a method of deciphering God’s voice, many scientists of the secular
age, including the late Carl Sagan, see its potential for awe and believe that learning
about the universe and its contents can bring meaning to our lives by helping us
appreciate physical existence. Nature, they argue, is mysterious and enchanting enough.
Some thinkers have suggested that a nontheistic religion could provide more meaning
and community connection in secular society. Auguste Comte (1851–54) attempted to
develop a secular church—an institution with liturgy, holidays, and other rituals. This
“Religion of (p. 559) Humanity” was meant to carry the structure of the Catholic Church
into a secular context, providing followers with a source of meaning and community
without requiring belief in a divine entity (though his religious aspirations were often met
with ridicule, they did pave the way for more recent attempts at secular organizations).
Author Alain de Botton (2012) expresses a similar vision in Religion for Atheists,
suggesting that certain practices and rituals from organized religion can be applied to
secular contexts in order to cultivate virtues such as meaning, wisdom, kindness, and
community. While he offers generally insightful observations about organized religion
and human nature, an urgent need for empirically validated interventions remains. A
cross-cultural classification of practices and rituals from every major world religion is
currently underway through a collaborative project between the University of
Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center and Tsinghua University’s Positive Psychology
Center.
Some secular movements work explicitly to inspire meaning and purpose. The Ethical
Culture movement, founded by Felix Adler, a disillusioned rabbi-in-training, in 1876,
promotes the separation of morality from theology. The movement also endorses “deed
not creed,” supporting concrete acts of social activism over abstract philosophizing about
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the good. Similarly, the American Humanist Association, founded in 1941, advocates a
nonreligious life stance and oversees educational and lobbying efforts for secular
humanism, as well as engaging in social activism and legal representation for religious
minorities.
Doing the right thing, however, is only one part of the challenge for a successful secular
meaning system. While focusing on human morality and the intrinsic value of doing good
might help to reduce the pragmatic and political costs of individualism, it does little to
address the human desire to feel connected with others. Not only that, it also fails to
supply the most elusive, subjective aspects that can come from religious faith: feelings of
sanctity and transcendence.
Evidence-Based Approaches to Meaning
Empirical methods have become a primary source of knowledge in developed cultures.
Positive psychology provides an example of a scientific field that empirically evaluates
concrete and practically applicable approaches to pursuing meaningful and happy lives.
In a world with developed and still-developing methods of secular investigation, science
offers exciting pathways for understanding and cultivating meaning in modern life.
Positive psychology (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi 2000), known broadly as the study of
well-being, offers to meet the scientific challenge of Comte’s positive philosophy. The
body of research and scholarship produced by this field addresses a wide range of issues,
including the unique characteristics of meaning and how it correlates with health and
other aspects of well-being. Positive psychology might inspire interventions to increase
sense of meaning in life for the religious and secular alike. Positive psychology emerged
as a response to what some considered the field of psychology’s overemphasis on
pathology. It began in the late 1990s, when Martin Seligman, who was then the president
of the American Psychological Association, founded a movement dedicated to the
scientific study of human happiness. Though psychologist Abraham Maslow (1964) had
conceived of “positive philosophy” decades earlier, Seligman insisted on a more
quantitatively empirical approach. He and his (p. 560) colleagues believed that
psychology had focused for too long on the negative aspects of the human experience—
depression, deviance, neuroses, and so on—at the expense of humanity’s more elevated
features, such as positive emotions, meaning, engagement, and healthy relationships. If
features such as these are valuable to us, then we should search for ways of attaining
them, rather than just avoiding the things that plague us. Put simply, instead of only
studying dysfunction, scientists ought also to study healthy functioning.
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Seligman (2012) expanded the aim of positive psychology from happiness, as measured
through life satisfaction, to well-being—a broader conception of the defining quality of a
life well lived. While a holistic conception of well-being was part and parcel of positive
psychology from the beginning, early researchers tended to focus on more hedonic
aspects of “happiness.” Gradually, researchers shifted their attention to more
eudaimonic, meaning-based aspects of well-being. Philosophers, artists, scholars of the
humanities, and day-to-day observers of everyday life assert the centrality of deeper,
more satisfying virtues that cannot be reduced to hedonic pleasure (Pawelski and Moores
2013).
Mood and pleasure by themselves fail to account for most of what makes a life well lived,
both empirically and culturally, and chasing after them is often futile. Neither do all of
the things we consider worthwhile lead to obvious forms of happiness; some pursuits
might even reduce our happiness for a time, depending on how we define the term. For
example, taking care of a dying family member for months on end would cause most
people anguish, yet most would agree that helping others, especially family, is
worthwhile. Helping people to live well required expanding the psychology community’s
conception of the good life to include engagement, community, and other elevated
qualities of well-being. This shift is apparent in more recent positive psychology research.
This distinction is characterized nicely by Deci and Ryan (2008) as the distinction
between hedonic well-being on one hand and eudaimonic well-being on the other.
Hedonic well-being covers moment-to-moment experiences of cheer and pleasure, while
eudaimonic well-being is defined in terms of meaning, purpose, engagement, growth, and
autonomy. Ryan and Deci made it clear, pointing to both empirical research and Greek
sources such as Aristotle, that the good life goes beyond basic happiness. In order for
people to lead whole and full lives, they must also experience eudaimonic well-being—
that is, they must also find meaning and human connection in their lives.
In making the transition from happiness to well-being, Seligman (2012) identified five
characteristics essential to well-being, all collected under the acronym PERMA. Positive
emotion, the most obvious of the five, encompasses feelings of enjoyment and
contentment—those that most immediately reflect the quality of one’s life (Fredrickson
2001). Engagement refers to our ability to immerse ourselves in our actions, engage the
world, and, to some extent, lose our self-awareness—a state of being epitomized in
Csikszentmihalyi’s (1990) notion of “flow.” Relationships play a considerable role in well-
being, as people build much of their lives around maintaining strong personal bonds with
others (Reis and Gable 2003). Meaning is characterized here as being part of something
larger than oneself and having a sense of purpose to guide our actions in worthwhile
directions (Park 2010). Finally, accomplishment refers to our drive to better ourselves,
complete our goals, and experience the self-affirmation of success (Linley and Joseph
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2004). Seligman’s definition of meaning here is somewhat particular. Depending on how
one uses the term, “meaning” in its ordinary sense might include a wide range of
experiences in which we feel a sense of connection or the general class of things that
people consider (p. 561) most important. Seligman’s characterization is useful to the
extent that it interacts with other elements of PERMA and allows psychologists to
examine how these broader qualities factor into a eudaimonic life.
One instrument for studying meaning is Steger’s Meaning in Life Questionnaire (Steger
et al. 2006), which asks those being surveyed to rate how strongly they agree with a list
of statements concerning meaning and purpose, such as “I understand my life’s meaning”
and “I am seeking a mission or purpose for my life.” In recent years, empirical research
on meaning and eudaimonic well-being has taken off. While research on meaning had
already been underway (Wong 1998; Ryff 1989) prior to 2001, there was a flourishing of
empirical research on meaning after 2001. Baumeister and his colleagues (2013), for
example, did a longitudinal study trying to understand the difference between meaning
and happiness and found that when the two forms of well-being are isolated, the
meaningful life is associated with more selfless and giving behavior, while the happy life
is more associated with self-interested behavior. Fredrickson et al. (2013) have found that
eudaimonic well-being, unlike its hedonic counterpart, is more associated with health.
Sources of Meaning
Psychologists are now on their way to understanding the building blocks of meaning.
Steger et al (2006) argue that the benefits of meaning are numerous and extend across
emotional, cognitive, and physiological levels of analysis. Huta and Ryan (2009) argue
that both eudaimonia and hedonia play important roles in determining general well-being
but that people who are more oriented toward meaningful lives experience greater well-
being in the long term. Research has also found that a sense of belonging with regard to
family and friends is a major source of meaning in life and that a strong sense of meaning
and purpose at work—a calling—is correlated with job satisfaction, productivity, and well-
being (Lambert et al. 2013; Wrzesniewski 2003; Yaden et al. 2015). Another pathway to
meaning for secularists is through community involvement. This might include
community service, political advocacy, or other forms of leadership; purposeful
interaction; and giving (Morrow-Howell et al. 2003). Doing so would help secular people
to be part of something larger than themselves, help them put their efforts to good use,
and bring them into a community defined by shared values.
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In public life, certain social structures can promote public institutions that counteract the
saturating effects of hedonism and materialism (Galbraith 1958). This might include
creating more opportunities and institutions for people to engage each other in
meaningful ways, such as expanding community service initiatives and encouraging
involvement in local leadership and advocacy. We could strive to generate what Robert
Putnam (1995) calls “social capital,” creating richer networks of interaction and
emphasizing the “horizontal” ties with peers, friends, and family that expand the
individual’s sense of communal identity. Overall, the goal should be promoting the
message that there is more to life than pleasure—or even one’s own happiness—and
giving greater emphasis to the value of community involvement. As positive psychology
researchers continue to study how meaning works, including what causes it and common
outcomes, ways of optimizing meaning in secular society will become increasingly clear.
Quantifying meaning might be difficult, but a science devoted to the (p. 562) careful
analysis of subjective qualities like meaning can both improve the quality of our lives and
lay a foundation for future research into the mind and human nature.
Science has much to offer by way of studying empirical aspects of human existence, but
other avenues of understanding might evade its grasp. The firsthand qualities associated
with meaning—how it feels and how it fits into broader worldviews—seem to be more
accessible through personal, subjective methods of investigation. If we aim to understand
meaning from the standpoint of the individual person, self-expression and the study of
self-expression can provide equally powerful insights. By studying cultural artifacts
associated with seeking meaning in life, the humanities offer a way to bridge the
perspectives of science with the existential goal of understanding and even promoting
fulfilling secular lives (Pawelski and Moores 2013).
Some believe that science and the humanities are necessarily at odds—even radically
opposed to one another. C. P. Snow’s (1959) infamous “Two Cultures” lecture, the
“science wars” of the 1990s, and the increasing specialization of advanced knowledge
have led to a popular impression of a standoff between scientists and scholars of the
humanities. Science is stereotyped as either cold and oblivious to the meaningful
qualities of human life or a prophet of progress among uninformed skeptics and luddites.
The humanities, in turn, are stereotyped as either nonsensical rambling about cloudy
concepts or the final bastion of meaning and humanity in a world of mad scientists and
heartless computation. However, what might seem to many like an impenetrable divide is
really just a caricature.
Evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson’s (1998) Concilience advocates the unification of
different fields of investigation—including between the humanities and the natural and
social sciences—to solve comprehensive problems relevant to human affairs. Stephen J.
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Gould (2003), in even more outspoken defense of the humanities, wrote in The Hedgehog,
the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox that the humanities need not be absorbed entirely into
the sciences for them to cooperate and that the two disciplines might instead
acknowledge each other as fellow travelers whose goals and methods are often
coextensive. The humanities, like the sciences, could shift toward a renewed appreciation
for questions of well-being, happiness, and the good life (Pawelski and Moores 2013).
Like the sciences, the humanities deal extensively with difficult and often dismal
elements of human life. In doing so, however, they have often treated eudaimonia as
something to pathologize or ignore. Although many consider literature a source of
comfort and personal growth, literary studies in particular have fallen into a tendency to
approach texts with an air of suspicion—one that aims to cut through what many consider
the deceptiveness of rhetoric and narrative in order to expose hidden realities,
particularly those reflecting political motives.
For this reason, some might argue that literary study risks losing touch with a
fundamental aspect of what makes literature valuable. Literature’s potential for
subjective investigation extends beyond suspicion and critique; it can be used to analyze
how well-being manifests itself and relates to other aspects of human experience. Rather
than focusing strictly on attacking the negative, using the critical methods of literary
studies and other disciplines in the humanities to interpret and analyze, eudaimonia can
help us to better understand well-being and how to make it a stronger presence in
personal and public life (Pawelski and Moores 2013). When reading a nineteenth-century
poem, for example, a Marxist critic might analyze the text’s implicit portrayal of class
identity or false consciousness. A postcolonialist critic might analyze the narrator’s
imperialist rhetoric. A psychoanalytic critic might argue that the narrator’s ostensible
happiness is simply a manifestation of latent anxiety or (p. 563) self-directed guilt. While
each of these suspicion-oriented lenses might be fruitful in its own right, none of them
addresses the ways that well-being might be expressed or examined proactively in the
text. Rather than continuing to rely on interpretations targeted toward illnesses and the
sinister, scholars can add perspectives seeking to affirm the good. Perhaps it is time to
shift the humanities’ efforts toward studying those elements of personal expression that
embody, to put it one way, our will to flourish.
To clarify the importance of a “eudaimonic turn” in the humanities, Pawelski (2016) offers
a thought experiment: imagine that one was granted superhuman powers but then had to
choose between the power to vanquish threats to well-being and the power to bring about
causes of well-being. Eliminating violence, disease, and other active sources of despair
would do a great deal of service, but doing so would not automatically bring about
harmony, meaning, justice, or most of the other forces that make life valuable to begin
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with. If fostering the beneficial, on the other hand, would bring value to our lives and
enhance well-being, it would also reduce much suffering a fortiori.
One particular advantage of the humanities is their ability to inform our formal
approaches to increasing eudaimonia. Researchers, therapists, and other undertakers of
communal improvement depend on preexisting notions of the good on which to base their
work. Yet the terms we use today are understood quite differently than they were in
times past. Intuitive though they might appear, our language and philosophical outlooks
have evolved over millennia of use; “eudaimonia” meant something more spiritual and
lasting to the Greeks than the meaning of the modern English “happiness” with which it
is often equated. Studying the intellectual history of concepts such as happiness, well-
being, and pleasure—as well as their interrelationships—can help us situate our
understanding of these concepts and the ways in which we use them today, including as
scientific constructs.
Perhaps secularists would benefit from strengthening the role of the humanities in public
life. Promoting education in the humanities—alongside the sciences, of course—might do
substantial good by way of acquainting students with questions and themes relevant to
the good life and the meaning of their other pursuits. The hope is that young people will
become familiar with concepts of well-being early in life and that eudaimonia will become
a strong framework for how they think about themselves and interpret their cultural
surroundings as they develop. Studying and discussing well-being among their peers
would help to foster a community oriented toward questions of meaning, and while
jadedness and resistance to the drudgery of school are sometimes an unfortunate fact
about education in general, presenting these as issues of both intrinsic value and
personal importance might generate a greater sense of purpose and motivation for
students to engage the humanities. This emphasis on eudaimonia and culture could be
extended to private life as well. Secular adults might turn to arts and letters to create
greater meaning in life. Reading and the arts enable us to tap into perspectives beyond
our own and incorporate the viewpoints of others into our identities; they are a
substantial way of being part of something larger than ourselves. Book clubs, museum
outings, and general involvement in groups that appreciate the arts can not only help to
cultivate meaning but also bring people together in searching for meaning and provide a
sense of community.
Promoting self-expression is also a promising direction to increase meaning through the
humanities. One of the ways that communal interactions provide meaning is by enabling
individuals to express themselves and reflect on their experiences and values with others;
in increasingly individualistic societies, creative work gives people a powerful outlet. This
(p. 564) could be applied both publicly—such as through workshops and programs for
communal creative participation—and privately. Expressive writing, for instance, asks
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individuals to think about a personally significant or troubling issue and write their
deepest feelings out in free form. Pennebaker (1997), for example, found that people who
engaged in expressive writing considered the exercise personally meaningful and showed
greater subsequent physical and mental health. Forms of self-expression like writing
interventions can help people evaluate their priorities and reorient themselves toward
other, more meaningful pursuits.
Meaningful Experiences without Religion
Those interested in finding meaning outside of religion might take inspiration from
experiences traditionally relegated to religious interpretations. Many experiences that
include perceived unity or contact with the divine are more than mere beliefs—they feel
like something. Sources across the humanities have long described experiences related to
feelings of ecstasy, epiphany, and self-transcendence. The reality of these experiences
has been explored through personal descriptions of these experiences in William James’s
(1902) classic Varieties of Religious Experience and established through empirical
methods in anthropology, sociology, psychology, and neurology (Durkheim [1912] 1951;
Hood et al. 2009; Newberg and d’Aquili 2000). Whether or not these experiences are
divinely inspired, and despite the fact that some may contain pathological elements, they
are often potent sources of meaning in life. These experiences are often counted
alongside marriage and childbirth as among the most meaningful experiences in people’s
lives and are robustly associated with a number of other long-term positive outcomes
(Griffiths 2006, 2008; Miller and C’de Baca 2001).
Such experiences come in a variety of forms that often differ significantly. The fact that
they are grouped together, though, is not an accident; they tend to converge around
several key aspects. Specifically, religious, spiritual, and mystical experiences (RSMEs)
often involve feeling connected to the world, transcending one’s sense of self, and
meaningful feelings of awe, ecstasy, serenity, and other intensely positive states
(Beauregard 2011; Hood et al. 2001; Newberg and d’Aquili 2000). Some people even
leave these experiences with a new sense of calling—a sense of purpose or directive has
been revealed to them, whether by supernatural forces, subconscious epiphany, or
conscious self-reflection (Yaden et al. 2015). RSMEs tend to have features relevant to
one’s preexisting belief system (Katz 1992), though some experiences seem to have
broader, perhaps universal qualities (Hood et al. 2001). Even without believing in God,
secular people often undergo experiences with self-transcendent, even mystical qualities,
similar to those experienced in association with religion (Yaden et al. 2015b). People who
meditate or take psychedelic drugs, such as LSD, psilocybin, DMT, or mescaline,
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sometimes report feeling at one with the world and with other people, as well as having
intensely surreal and subjective experiences capable of profoundly altering fundamental
categories of experience such as one’s sense of space, time, self, or language (Yaden and
Newberg 2014).
One particular type of experience has been formalized as “self-transcendent
experiences” (Yaden et al. 2015b). These are temporary mental states of perceived unity,
which can range from gentler, more routine experiences of “getting lost in the music” or
awe to more intense and potentially transformative forms, such as peak or mystical
experiences (Yaden et al., 2016). (p. 565) Among the varieties of STE—consisting of
mindfulness, flow, self-transcendent positive emotions, awe, peak experiences, and
mystical experiences—all are generally associated with well-being, and many have even
been related to altruistic behavior. These aspects of so-called spirituality are well known,
are well studied, and require no particular belief system to enjoy. Such experiences can
certainly have positive and transformative effects. For example, people who had mystical
experiences in laboratory settings by consuming psilocybin experienced increased
positive mood and prosocial motivation for at least eighteen months afterwards. Two-
thirds of these participants listed their experiences among the top five most meaningful
experiences of their entire lives (Griffiths 2006, 2008).
Unfortunately, secular society offers little by way of encouraging self-transcendent
experiences. Although people claim to have them rather frequently, they are often written
off as theobabble, reduced to hallucination and pathology, and regarded with a mixture of
confusion, suspicion, and disdain (Hay 1990). Secular society has often looked down on
experiences described in mystical or spiritual terms. According to Ehrenreich, Conrad
exemplifies this trend in his Heart of Darkness, which depicts fictional African natives
working themselves into ecstasy through ritual dancing as European pilgrims watch in
horror. To many, altered states of consciousness and the collective rituals used to evoke
them come with primal, savage connotations, and those outside of such traditions might
react to them with fear or feel above them. This trend manifests itself in contemporary
society, Ehrenreich claims, and is apparent in the lack of public festivals and gatherings
devoted to self-transcendent states. Yet, in her words, “if we possess the capacity for
collective ecstasy, why do we so seldom put it to use” (2007: 20)?
Even prominent figures in atheist communities have begun bringing interest to
experiences such as these. Atheist author Sam Harris (2014) discusses the potential of a
secular spirituality in Waking Up, which chronicles self-transcendent experiences he had
spontaneously, while meditating, and while using psychedelic drugs. Ehrenreich (2014),
also an avowed atheist, details a number of personally significant spiritual experiences in
Living With a Wild God. This phenomenon has led to an extension of the “spiritual but not
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religious” label to “mystical but not religious or spiritual,” a view exemplified by Harris
and Ehrenreich (Yaden et al. 2015). As more and more secularists recognize the
subjective fact of self-transcendent and related experiences, skepticism and disregard are
rapidly giving way to a call for understanding.
Preliminary research on the neurochemistry of religious and spiritual experiences has
already begun to assemble a scientific account of how such experiences are
neurobiologically mediated. For example, Newberg and colleagues (2001) conducted a
neuroimaging study in which they asked advanced meditators and Franciscan nuns to
induce peak feelings of unity through meditation and prayer. They found that brain
regions associated with the representation of one’s physical self decreased in activity
during self-transcendent states. Other meditation studies have shown similar alterations
of self-boundary-modeling regions (for a review, see Hozel et al. 2011). It is important to
keep in mind that neurological explanations of spirituality cannot comment on the
existence of a spiritual or religious realities; neurological data can only help explain how
the brain mediates these experiences. The ultimate cause of such experiences is a
philosophical question about which reasonable people might disagree, regardless of
empirical findings. Nonetheless, coherent scientific accounts can help us understand at
least certain aspects of religious and spiritual experiences, as well as how they might be
enhanced and made more attainable in other, possibly secular settings.
(p. 566) Psychology, too, would benefit from taking these types of experiences seriously.
Until now, such experiences have hardly been celebrated in the field. Freud ([1930] 2005)
(reluctantly) acknowledged that the “oceanic feeling” described by those who have had
experiences of oneness were impossible to ignore, but he struggled to find a suitable
explanation beyond neurotic regressions to the womb. Despite the efforts of psychologists
such as James, Jung, and Maslow, this pathological perspective has been the norm in
mainstream psychology. Only the most recent editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual of Mental Disorders have acknowledged that such experiences can be positive
(Lukoff et al. 1992). Perhaps the shift toward an interest in optimal functioning
represented by positive psychology will change that. As well-being, prosocial behavior,
and meaning continue to grow prominent in contemporary psychology, so do questions of
how altered states of consciousness and aspects of everyday life enable people to access
those virtues. Seligman (2004), for instance, defines meaning as belonging to and serving
something beyond oneself. But how does one get beyond oneself in the first place? Might
self-transcendent experiences offer us insight into how the boundary between self and
world dissolves—and how we can learn to enhance this process for seekers interested in
embracing the greater whole (see Yaden et al. 2015b)?
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Research into varieties of these experiences offers intriguing possibilities for increasing
the sense of meaning and community among secular people. Using meditation as an aid
in self-reflection could be an effective way of harnessing STEs and their positive
outcomes. Secular people might consider using prayer-like visualization practices,
mantras, and related techniques to make their attempts at self-transcendence more
substantial—reaching out to their conception of the divine as a metaphorical conduit to
feeling at one with the world. Psychedelic drugs offer similar possibilities, though they
remain controversial. Future research will hopefully shed light on whether these and
other substances might be safely harnessed to create or contribute to meaningful
experiences, both on a personal and interpersonal level (Yaden and Newberg, 2014).
Particular types of meditation might serve different advantages. One, called loving-
kindness/compassion meditation, might help secular people to feel closer to others. It
asks practitioners to imagine the people they care most about, focus on their own feelings
of benevolence toward those people, and gradually extend those feelings outward to
encompass strangers, enemies, and, eventually, the entire world. This exercise has been
shown to make practitioners more sensitive and responsive to the emotions of others and
even shows changes in affective processing on the neural level (Lutz et al. 2008). Perhaps
loving-kindness/compassion meditation could facilitate the growth of loving communities
among secular people by helping individuals to dispose themselves to altruistic behavior,
orient themselves toward the concerns of others, and foster a view of personal well-being
in which other community members play an active role.
Secular people might also choose to participate in communities that make use of group
rituals, particularly those that require synchrony. Engaging in cooperative patterns of
action with other people has been shown to boost affiliation between participants (Hove
and Risen 2009), and communal events such as nonreligious holidays and celebrations
would provide places in which to bring people together through ritual, capitalizing on the
social benefits of religion while letting secular people assemble for causes that they
identify with. Some might even gain inspiration from the self-transcendent qualities of
religious settings; attending religious events might have the added benefits of fostering
unity between religious and nonreligious people, boosting feelings of belonging and,
perhaps, paving the way (p. 567) for cross-cultural understanding and cooperation in
ways that would themselves provide meaning for all involved.
Conclusion
The departure from singular and dominant sources of religious authority has had
significant effects on the public and private lives of many modern people, and many of
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these changes will likely continue into the future. While many of them are surely for the
better, cultural secularism must also grapple with the loss of universally accessible
sources of personal and shared meaning in everyday life—what we call the meaning gap.
We have proposed some candidate pathways to closing the meaning gap in secular
society. These methods involve the combined efforts of science and the humanities to
inform our understanding of what meaning is and how to pursue it through functional,
evidence-based practices in both private and public life.
This is not a call to overthrow individualism or replace it with a collectivist outlook. Any
serious democratic society must decide how best to reconcile the goals of individual
identity and freedom with the merits of collective belonging. It is a call to study ways in
which secular society can be augmented with certain evidence-based ways of pursuing a
purposeful, connected, and fulfilling existence. To this end, the study of psychology,
health, the humanities, and related aspects of the human experience offer new and
promising insights into how we might proceed. There is reason to believe that a
eudaimonic turn in the culture of secularism will enhance human flourishing.
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David Yaden
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David Yaden is a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology at the University
of Pennsylvania. He works in the Positive Psychology Center, the Center for
Cognitive Neuroscience, and he participates in research on the psychology and
neuroscience of self-transcendent experiences. He also serves as a Humanist
Chaplain at Rutgers University.
Jonathan Iwry
Jonathan Iwry is a research assistant in the Department of Psychology at the
University of Pennsylvania. Besides his academic research, he is an online
contributor to About.com on public policy topics, and he writes a weekly column for
The Daily Pennsylvanian on topics at the intersection of religion, politics, and public
thought in American life.
Emily Esfahani Smith
Emily Esfahani Smith holds a master’s degree in applied positive psychology from
the University of Pennsylvania. She resides in Washington, DC., where she writes
about culture, relationships, and psychology for The Wall Street Journal, The
Atlantic, The New York Times, and other publications. She is the author of The Power
of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters.
James O. Pawelski
James O. Pawelski, Positive Psychology Center, University of Pennsylvania,
Philadelphia, PA, USA
... However, other triggers of RSMEs should also receive additional empirical investigation. Meditation (Newberg & d'Aquili, 2000;Newberg et al., 2001), prayer , rituals (Yaden, Iwry, Smith, & Pawelski, 2016), noninvasive brain stimulation (Yaden, Anderson, Mattar, & Newberg, 2015;Yaden & Newberg, 2014), and other experiences involving intense awe (Yaden, Iwry, Slack, et al., 2016) may all provide feasible methods to facilitate further study. ...
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