In addition to periodic reports of new findings I am going to write a series of posts on some of what I believe to be the most important things to know about or from psychology. I will start with some of what psychology can and cannot do, then turn to some specific findings. This is the first of these posts.
I have taught introductory psychology for over a quarter century. Many students take the course to discover the meaning of life, to decide why they should get out of bed each morning.
My first class meeting I tell students that we can’t answer their question. It’s not our job. They should turn to philosophy or theology (or perhaps the Hitchhiker’s Guide) if they want an answer to the question of the meaning of life.
To understand this is to understand what psychology does. A rough definition is that psychology is the study of behavior and mental processes. Some might shorten this to the study of behavior given that mental processes are just one sort of behavior. People do things. We run laps and research studies, go to concerts and through existential crises, walk dogs and yoyos, watch leaves change and The West Wing, fall in love and in the pit…and I could go on. Psychology can describe what some of these things are that people do. (As I write this my behavior could be defined by the movements of my fingers, by my construction of words, by my attempt to write a cogent essay, by my attempt to lead a good life, and so on. How shall we describe it?) It can then talk about factors that help us or hinder us in these actions. (It’s easier to type with none of my fingers in a splint, and it’s easier to be cogent if I am not severely sleep deprived.) Causes can be explored at many levels. (What chemicals are doing what in my brain? Who just walked down the hall outside my office? What is my intention? What were my surroundings growing up?)
None of that description and explanation of behavior says a whit about why we should get out of bed in the morning, or more generally what the meaning of life is. To answer that question you have to have a concept of the “good.” Psychology can certainly describe what people think “good” is. (Human sacrifice? Veganism? Total immersion in politics? Excitement? Tranquility? Watching Silence of the Lambs?) We can tell you who has the most popular definition at any given moment. But we cannot tell you which definition is the right one.
Not our job. Not doable by our methods. How could it be? We can describe, including description of cause. That’s it. I like the comparison to auto mechanics. They can describe cars very well. They can make them work because they understand an important subset of the causes involved in being a car that travels. But a mechanic can’t tell you why you should prefer to drive to New Mexico vs. New York. Well, I guess they can, but why on earth should you privilege their answers over the answers of others?
I think about this a lot as I teach my course on Psychology of Happiness. At some level I cannot even say what happiness is, at least not as a psychologist. Is happiness leading a pleasurable life? (I am drinking a nice oolong tea as I write this.) Is it being deeply engaged in what one is doing? (As I wrote that sentence I suddenly realized how focused I had been on writing this.) Is it doing something meaningful? (I find meaning in sharing with others that beauty of psychology that I know.) Different people give different definitions. Who am I to judge who has the best?
We do not train psychologists to understand the meaning of life. We don’t have the skills to do that. Nonetheless, my sense is that it is to psychologists that people turn.
If you want to decide where to drive this summer read about different locations. Talk to those whose tastes are like yours. Reflect on your life and your values. I’d recommend any of those over talking to a random auto mechanic.
If you want to understand the meaning of life read some philosophy. Read some theology. Reflect. Once you have a definition you might learn some psychology to help you get to the end that you desire.