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Does Our Economy Run On Junk Meaning?

Brian Sherwin July 5, 2019

How should we judge the quality of an economy? When it comes to satisfying our basic physiological needs (food, shelter, clothing, infrastructure), modern economies clearly provide an abundance of high-quality products. We could also give our modern economies high grades for the quality of technology and variety of entertainment.

But we humans also have a profound need for meaning and purpose, so shouldn’t we also assess an economy by the quality of meaning it produces?

Maybe you think this isn’t the job of an economy, but consider that most adults spend most of our waking hours and vital energy on economic production, i.e., work. Given that work takes up so much of our lives, what are we supposed to do if we aren’t able to satisfy our meaning needs at work?

Discussing meaning might seem like a luxury, especially for people who are struggling to make ends meet, but there are two critical reasons why meaning should be at the center of our economic discussions:

  1. most of us (in all types of professions) are dissatisfied and disengaged with our work, and,
  2. our frenetic, energy-gulping global economic activity is threatening the very biosphere we depend upon.

In other words, we’re driving, economically, towards the extinction of our species, and we’re bored doing it.

Some miraculous new technology may yet save us from global climate change, but that’s a big chance to take. Our more fundamental problem is the inability of our economic systems to produce rich, high-quality meaning that can satisfy our core psychological needs.


There is nothing more threatening to our global economic system than a satisfied soul — especially if that satisfied soul has disposable income.

Beyond the provisioning of our basic physiological needs, too much of the modern economic activity of the wealthy depends on humans staying in a perpetual state of psychological dissatisfaction, which is especially driven by the way we work.

Gallup has been tracking employee engagement for about 20 years and has shown that most of us are disengaged. In the US, only about 30 percent of the employees in a typical company are actually interested and engaged in their work. Globally, the number is even worse: just 13 percent engagement. Further, when we’re asked if our jobs make a meaningful contribution to the world, 50 percent of respondents replied “no” or “I’m not sure.”

Disengagement is estimated to cost the US economy up to $550 billion per year, but consider the human toll of spending most of your working (waking) hours doing something that isn’t emotionally meaningful. The psychological angst and the physical and psychic exhaustion many of us experience at work sets us up to be seduced by the consumption side of our economies.

Consumer spending drives a whopping 70 percent of modern economic activity, and much of this — in wealthier countries — includes buying lots of things we don’t really need. The US economy, the envy of much of the world, consumes 25 percent of the earth’s oil — and we’re only 5 percent of the population. The richest 7 percent of the globe’s population is estimated to be responsible for 50 percent of carbon emissions.

It isn’t our growing global population that most threatens our survival; it is wealthy consumers who lack fulfilling meaning. A sizable portion of the modern economic activity of the wealthy involves the burning of fossil fuels in attempts to address unmet psychological needs. Psychological dissatisfaction is the more fundamental fossil fuel that drives our economy and we won’t solve climate change without addressing it.


Recent studies have been establishing, in a scientific manner, something that Viktor Frankl (author of “Man’s Search for Meaning”) proposed long ago: that meaning is essential for human wellbeing. In fact, some researchers have demonstrated that people who have a strong sense of meaning live longer than those who do not. A strong sense of meaning is also connected with delayed onset of Alzheimer’s disease in seniors. And researchers have even shown, via fMRI scans, that meaning is better for our wellbeing than happiness.

So how, exactly, do we establish a strong sense of meaning in our lives? From a philosophical perspective, this is a deep and complicated question, but from a psychological perspective, there is a relatively simple theory that can help us cut through the noise and focus on what matters.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is one of the most validated frameworks of human behavior and motivation. According to this theory, humans are not passive beings seeking homeostasis, but are always actively seeking to fulfill three universal needs: 1) a coherent sense of self, “Autonomy”, 2) satisfying connections with other people, “Relatedness”, and 3) experiences of growth and development, “Competency”.

We’ll look at each of these needs in more depth, but for now, the important point is this: our psychological wellbeing and our sense of what is “meaningful” are inextricably linked. Think of it this way: satisfaction of our three universal needs causes us to experience psychological wellbeing, and activities that we find interesting and engaging are those activities which most effectively satisfy these needs. For most of us this happens unconsciously — we just know that we enjoy certain activities and people more than others.

Conversely, when our satisfaction of these core needs is thwarted, we have unpleasant, unsatisfying psychological experiences. A common way we describe this is to say that an activity or a relationship has “lost its meaning.” Consider carefully what we are saying here. We’re not indicating that an activity or a relationship has no intellectual meaning; we are communicating that it has become emotionally unsatisfying.

For many people, work is an example of this: our job may make perfect intellectual sense (it fits our skills and experience, and we need the money to pay our bills, etc.), but if the experience of going to work each day lacks emotional meaning (i.e., the satisfaction of our psychological needs), then intellectual meaning isn’t enough to make up for it, and so we become disengaged.


As Yuval Noah Harari notes in his bestselling book “Sapiens,” the greatest invention of our species is not technology like the wheel or the computer, it’s fiction: the stories we create and tell about our world that imbue it with meaning and allow us to trust others and create organizations, economic systems, and, ultimately, civilizations.

Some of the most basic components of our economies, like money, are pure fiction. If all of us agreed tomorrow that the US dollar had no value, it wouldn’t. We give basic economic concepts like “money,” “value,” and “investment” all the meaning they have.

While each of us is responsible for attempting to create emotionally rich meaning in our lives, as social beings we rely heavily on the meaning provided and supported by our cultures and institutions — especially the institutions where we spend most of our time. Compare the amount of time and energy we spend at work to the time we spend at church, with families, and in civic engagement.

Every day, employees at every company in the world are showing up with the hope that their need for emotional meaning will find some fulfillment at work. So, like it or not, every company — and our economy as a whole — is in the meaning business.


Simon Sinek made a big splash with his idea that companies need to have a great “why” in order to give meaning and purpose to what they do. But what if the why for most companies isn’t, well, very meaningful? Apple’s why is supposedly being “rebellious” — but are practices like working employees to exhaustion and cleverly dodging taxes meaningfully rebellious activities? Are fancy little tweaks to iPhones, like facial recognition and new colors, driven by a deep and meaningful why?

Junk meaning is similar to junk food: both may give the appearance of nourishing us, but they actually leave us unhealthy and unsatisfied. In the case of junk meaning, it’s our hearts and souls that fail to get nourished.

Remember, we’re talking about emotionally rich meaning here. Solving tricky business problems like how to make an app more addictive or finding ways to sell more soda to kids may be intellectually interesting challenges, but feeding our intellects and feeding our hearts and souls are different things.

Consider the meaning captured in the idea that the main purpose of a company is to “make a profit.” From an intellectual, financial perspective this might make some sense. But by positioning profit as a supreme value, do companies create an atmosphere in which people can establish a strong sense of self, make emotionally satisfying connections, and experience deep personal growth? Based on our level of engagement, it doesn’t appear so.

In our economic system, we have come to accept the idea that human beings are “resources” for companies. Consider how psychologically toxic this meaning is. When we consider ourselves “human capital” or “assets” for companies, what sort of sense of self does that foster? These are not just semantics — these terms reflect a meaning system that is, unfortunately, broadly accepted.

From the perspective of emotional meaning, the economy should be a resource for human beings to meet our psychological needs. If our companies and our economic systems are failing to do so, it is time we recognized the evident truth that we can and should change them.


As human beings, we yearn for meaningful lives. When our meaning systems produce low-quality meaning, we disengage and lead lives of quiet desperation, as is reflected in our statistics on work engagement. When meaning is absent from people’s lives, we see frightening phenomena like the current opioid crisis in the US. So, far from being a luxury, high-quality meaning is a requirement for our wellbeing.

High-quality meaning systems do at least three things well: they help us build a deep sense of self, they nurture emotionally fulfilling relationships, and they provide structure and support for transformational personal growth.


In Self-Determination Theory (SDT), “autonomy” includes achieving a sense of control (agency) in one’s actions, but it is also about having a coherent experience of who we are and our place in the world. Meaning systems and environments that support us in discovering activities that intrinsically interest us nurture healthy autonomy, whereas command-and-control environments that dictate what we must do, and provide external rewards and punishments, tend to thwart it.


“Relatedness” is the need to both care about and be cared for by other people. We are naturally able to sense when people want to connect with us for ulterior motives (e.g., to sell us something), and we yearn for relationships with people who value us for who we are. Companies that care about nurturing deeper bonds between employees will need to radically rethink the pace, length, and structure of their workdays. It’s also easier to make deep connections with other people when your company provides a supportive environment for personal growth.


We all want to have a sense of competence in our professional lives, and while building skills is an important part of this, so is personal growth. As covered in the Q4/Fall 2016 issue of this magazine, companies like Next Jump are building meaningful personal growth into the very fabric of their daily work practices. This approach of becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization is built on having an understanding that adults, not just children, go through developmental cycles and need continual growth and development — which dovetails nicely with SDT. Companies that take personal growth seriously will need to commit to approaches like this.

The intent of this article is to kick-start conversations about quality meaning in our workplaces and in the broader economy. We’ve got plenty of high-quality technology, but we are in desperate need of meaning-entrepreneurs, and a global open-source meaning project. Rebuilding our economy around the fulfillment of our core psychological needs and environmental sustainability won’t be easy, but it has the potential to be highly engaging!

The author would like to thank Osman Parvez for his contributions to the ideas in this article.

Stakeholder Capitalism
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