5 Pieces of Evidence Suggesting a Growth-Centric View of Meaning
The growth-centric view of meaning is a relatively new model that has come after years of focusing on ethics, utility, or happiness in philosophy, economics, and psychology (respectively). However, there have been hints of this view for centuries in science and business but had not been seriously considered because of the natural "Why? To what end?" responses from philosophers. Here are five examples (in chronological order) of where science found support for this model but, given which field found it, did not draw any philosophical conclusions about meaning:
- On the Origin of Species (1859; link) – Darwin's Theory of Evolution started with the idea of Natural Selection by means of life forms' struggle for existence in competition with other organisms and facing environmental factors. Dubbed "Survival of the Fittest" in 1964 by Herbert Spencer to convey the idea that the most fit are the ones best able to compete given those factors, this idea is based on a key insight and a key assumption: that the surviving organisms have the skill to survive and that they have the will to survive. The former is what the Theory of Evolution is based on, but the latter is assumed but not stated because a scientist would not want to necessarily claim intent since you can't directly measure motivation. However, it's clear from basic study on the behavior of life forms that they are competing to survive so that they can grow and reproduce. Since reproduction is the final measurement of "selection" in this case, the growth to become the fittest is overlooked. But since growth is the foundation of fitness and all organisms are striving for the conditions and resources to grow, it is not a leap in logic that all organisms have an intention to grow, which is one of the core definitions of the term "meaning" when discussing the meaning of life. Without the will to be fit, the organism wouldn't (be able to) reproduce, and the Theory would not be true.
- Freud's Pleasure Principle (1895; link) – Freud was trying to understand the basics of the mind, and he did deduce that, at a fundamental level, life instinctively seeks pleasure and avoids pain. Pleasure and pain, of course, are the body providing signals as well as rewards and punishments to the brain to provide feedback as to whether its behaviors were enabling growth or leading to harm. If you eat a fruit that tastes good, you feel pleasure and continue eating until your body tells you to stop. If you grab a thorn bush, the pain of the thorns will tell you not to do that anymore. The reason for these signals, however, is to achieve growth and reproduction and avoid harm and death. Growth is the point for having the pleasure, so living organisms are continually seeking growth-enabling opportunities.
- "The Effects of Choice and Enhanced Personal Responsibility for the Aged" (1976; link) – A simple, elegant study on whether the elderly would see any benefits from having responsibility. In one group, residents of a nursing home were told about their personal responsibility and given a plant to take care of. In the other group, residents were told that they would be taken care of and given a plant that was taken care of by the staff. The increase in personal responsibility had them demonstrate overall improvement in well-being, whereas 71% of the other group became more debilitated in as short as three weeks. It was the freedom, choice, and responsibility from the difference in environment that gave them more fulfillment in life. Being responsible for their own lives as well as others' (even, in this case, a plant's) gave them a much greater sense of meaning and happiness. Life and growth require active participation, and so the passive lives of the residents who were not treated as if they were capable quickly led them to respond with the degradation that you would expect of something that was dying, not thriving.
- Mindset (2006; link) – Probably the most direct and conclusive on this list, the research of Dr. Carol Dweck analyses the relationship between your beliefs about whether you can grow and improve and the likelihood that you will succeed in what you set out to achieve in life. Clearly, if you want an outcome and will face adversity, you have to believe that you will overcome it or you will give up. The "Fixed Mindset" mentioned in the book is the one in which you believe that any adversity is an indicator that you have reached your potential, while the "Growth Mindset" is the one in which you believe that you can learn, improve, and overcome the adversity. The difference in the success of people who overcome that adversity from those who don't is discussed repeatedly in the book, demonstrating the importance of believing you can get better. It's reasonable to conclude from this wealth of research that pursuing growth will help you achieve your goals, and that you will feel successful and fulfilled when you overcome those obstacles and see the improvement you had to make to succeed. The difference in outcomes for people who focus on growth to those who do not is possibly the greatest evidence to support the meaning in growth.
- The "Career Lattices" View of Career Development (2011; link) – Research done on the most effective career development approaches found that the traditional promotion-based model was unsustainable. Shooting for the next title missed possible skill sets that could make someone well-rounded, didn't factor in an employee's long-term interest, and also did not enable staff with changing needs and interests to continue to develop at the organization. As a result, many staff would have to get promoted within a single role or leave to go somewhere else (or, worse, take a career setback internally to develop a different skill set in another department). The superior approach to the "career ladder" found by successful organizations was the "career lattice" or model where staff could move more fluidly upward, sideways, or diagonally to gain new skills and take the next steps in their career. While the immediate impact was broader skills in organizations' staff and greater retention, there's and interesting insight with longer-term impact: a growth-centric view of development. Rather than seeing staff as a combination of skills and qualifications for a role, many organizations took an experience-based approach of identifying and pursuing growth opportunities so that the staff felt that they were continually moving forward and progressing in their career. That cannot be done in a promotion-based model. After centuries of evolutionary biology and psychology, even HR departments found that a growth-centric view of staff development gave their employees the best chance of success and fulfillment in their roles.
There are many more scientific examples of how prominent figures in both science and business are coming to this growth-centric conclusions of what drives human meaning and fulfillment. While basic biological drives were the focus of scientific fields and greater meaning was the subject of philosophy and theology, it seems that there is finally a possibility of uniting these fields around a growth-centric view for both a scientific explanation of what organisms are trying to do and an existential question of why. Because growth is perpetual, it may not just be the means through which someone achieves a goal but the point itself as well. Hopefully, more research will continue to prove (or fail to disprove) this model as well as some of the key drivers of finding meaning in human existence.