Meaning making machines: what do people do all day?

 “It’s completely out of hand. But I can see what’s going on, he’s trying to make up a version of events in his mind where what he’s doing is OK. Or at least that’s how it seems to me. Is he? Why? And is that what I’m doing too?” 

Yes is the answer to all of these. Creating a coherent narrative, which makes sense to us (no matter what) is a central function of being human.

When I was younger, my favourite book (by Richard Scary) was “What do People do all Day?” It’s a very intriguing question that I still find fascinating. The short answer was all kinds of “stuff”. Going from one place to another, working indoors and outdoors, shopping, eating etc. But the bigger questions behind the record of activity loomed ever larger: what for and why? From a distance we can look like a swarm of bees briefly and busily striving, fighting, achieving for no clear purpose before a quick expiration.

But with us there is a point. We can find what we do meaningful. Look what we do when we genuinely consider it to be meaningless. On the whole we stop.

Where this sense of meaning comes from has been a major pre-occupation of psychologists in the 20th and 21st Centuries. It’s considered one of the main building blocks of the human psyche. A very brief summary would conclude that meaning comes from within you rather than without. In other words, concepts of objective meaning – God, country etc are not things that exist in the outer world in the same way for everyone else but instead exist in our individual minds. Clearly you can believe in the same things as someone else, but it’s your private version you believe in, that may not be the same as theirs. And any one thing is meaningful only because you consider it to be so, not because an objective authority somewhere has determined that it is.

This process of meaning making comes from the stories that we tell ourselves. The voice inside our head – the narrator – is constantly telling, re-telling and refining the story of our lives. And with one imperative: it is necessary that it makes sense. It can be distressing when we find something has no meaning. And we can keep on doing the wrong thing rather than allow for the possibility that it’s meaningless. Think of President Johnson sending more boys to die in Vietnam so that the deaths of those who’d gone before them couldn’t be seen as for nothing.

[The mind] has become, through an interlocking series of evolutionary accidents and coincidences, primarily a mechanism for constructing dubious stories whose purpose is to defend a superfluous and inaccurate sense of self.

 Guy Claxton, Wholly Human: Western and Eastern Visions of the Self and Its Perfection.

This imperative for our personal story to make sense can work out in many different ways. Often we want the narrative to be simple and coherent but at other times we want the narrative to confirm a deeper running meta-script. I expected the meeting to go badly and so it did even though everyone else though it went well. There is a sense of comfort in our story conforming to our expectations that can seem to others contradictory or even perverse.

Further we can stick to some interpretations of the world despite events suggesting we are wrong. Peter is always late for meetings so somehow he is now, even though he got here before me. He seemed to have arrived early but it was only because he got the time wrong so he’s not actually early. These circumlocutions have been described as “the sedimentation of fixed beliefs”. When our will for something to be a certain way makes us see it even though it’s not there.

The sense of anxiety that makes us cling to our interpretation of the world, come what may, is the primary obstacle we have to learning and developing. Conversely, when we let our guard down and open up to new interpretations we open the door to creativity and growth.

Understanding your own narrative – and further, understanding that it is a narrative and an act of interpretation – is at the core of self-knowledge. We can believe things that don’t stand up to scrutiny when they’re not being scrutinised. But applying our cognitive minds to feelings can clarify and illuminate. Private reflection is a vital part of this process but the role of speaking out thoughts out loud is too. When we explain something to someone else it changes it.

Further, understanding the stories that other people tell to themselves can be the key to understanding colleagues and anyone else that we come across in life. And we can do this simply by asking them and listening to what they have to say.

So not only is it true that everyone continually makes up a version of events in their mind where what they’re doing is OK, it’s in many ways our primary function. Illusionists and mentalists like Derren Brown use this insight to do the extraordinary things that they do, showing that people will literally go to the point of self destruction to maintain their sense of narrative.

I use a variety of techniques and approaches when coaching clients, but the longer I do it, the clearer is seems to me that that primary value in coaching is to help people recognise, understand and rationalise the stories they tell themselves and to understand how they function as a meaning making machine.

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