I try to think rationally about the world around me, and I think most people would say the same. However, I know that what I mostly do is create a narrative of the world, of how people interact, and of what is positive or negative for the world. I sort out things that I observe based on the narratives that help me understand the world. I try to be objective and rational, and I believe those ideas play a role in my overall calculus, but science has demonstrated that it is likely that narratives based on my limited set of experiences and knowledge shape my understanding of the world more than my attempts at objective rationality.
This can be a disappointing conclusion, but it can also mean that we can tap into our narratives to help us find happiness in our lives. It means we can work to develop narratives for ourselves that are more helpful than harmful. Regarding meaning, happiness, and narratives in his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “the scientists who says her life is meaningful because she increases the store of human knowledge, the soldier who declares that his life is meaningful because he fights to defend his homeland, and the entrepreneur who finds meaning in building a new company are no less delusional than their medieval counterparts who found meaning reading scriptures, going on a crusade, or building a new cathedral.” In each case mentioned above, for modern individuals and their medieval counterparts, their sense of meaning is tied to a narrative. Harari claims they are all delusional because they are operating and basing their lives on a narrative that isn’t entirely based on reality. They are giving their lives meaning by working toward shared social goals that are in some ways based on myths and hypothesis about what will make people happy and what will therefore be good. None of them is more or less delusional than the other, at least in Harari’s eyes.
Harari continues, “as long as my personal narrative is inline with the narratives of the people around me, I can convince myself that my life is meaningful, and find happiness in that conviction.” Science is very objective in ways that religion is not, but the goals and priorities of science are not always objective (a wealthy individual provides a grant to research the rare cancer their mother died from rather than give a grant to research malaria). A soldier fights for a nation, a fictional concept that we bring to life through shared beliefs and narratives. An entrepreneur works for money, within the market, to expand the economy, all concepts that are in some ways based on myth and shared social constructions.
We tie our narratives together with other people and coordinate our actions accordingly to find meaning in our lives. Without shared narratives and coordinated efforts between them we would be isolated individuals without a purpose. This can be depressing and scary, but it can also give us hope. We can work with others and develop narratives together to create lives and roles that will bring us meaning. We don’t have to be stuck with a single narrative and a single role for our life. We can work within social systems and structures to reshape our narratives to find new meaning and new purposes for how we want to live. Our happiness depends on our narratives which we can all shape both individually and collectively.