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Professor Rens Bod: “Everyone needs to put together their own palette of meaning”

Sterre van der Hee,
27 oktober 2023 - 11:41
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In his latest book, Why Am I Here? A Small World History of Meaning, former Folia columnist and professor Rens Bod (Professor of Digital Humanities) provides a historical overview of meaning around the world. How do we give - and give meaning? “You would expect a handbook to exist for something so important.” 

Why did you want to write this book? 

“I've always been interested in writing about topics on which no books yet exist. It was like that in 2010, when I thought: Why isn't there an overview history of the humanities? That became The Forgotten Sciences, a History of the Humanities. Meaningfulness was initially thought by many people to be a very boring subject, religious and Christian. But if you look at meaning worldwide in different historical periods there are all kinds of ways in which people have given purpose and meaning. There was no survey history of that, so I started searching as many sources as I could with translations of words like “life purpose,” “meaning,” and “sense.” I studied 400 million sources semi-automatically, from newspaper articles to scientific publications and books from all kinds of countries, from Japan to the Netherlands, from Mexico to Indonesia.

Amongst the Semai people in the Malaysian state of Malacca, the highest form of meaning is the notion of punan: never impose your own desires on others

What remarkable forms of meaning did you come across? 

“I summarized nearly two hundred forms of meaning in the book and categorized them into 30 themes. One form of meaning that appealed to me personally comes from the Semai people in the Malaysian state of Malacca. Their highest form of meaning is the notion of punan: “Never impose your own desires on others.” Among other things, this is expressed during the game of tennis, where the goal is not to win but to play the ball back as well as possible so that the other person can hit it easily. A very different premise than in our competitive society. It leads to more mutual cooperation and connection - by the way, a principle we could also put to good use in science.


Another form of meaningfulness is Japanese shokunin. It means “to focus on something with complete dedication,” so that you become ever so slightly better at certain activities, such as hobbies such as origami or flower arranging, but also scientific research. Although we may be familiar with the idea here, we do not have a separate word for it in the Netherlands.


Throughout the centuries, occult forms of meaning have also existed. For example, a group of alchemists tried to turn lead into gold in medieval and early modern times. If successful, it would have been the basis of an elixir of life and yield immortality. The church condemned these activities, yet many alchemists undertook the quest alongside their “ordinary” religious activities that made more sense. So these forms could coexist.


You write in the book that there is an enormous wealth of meaning. Yet 1.2 million Dutch take antidepressants, secularization continues and there are more life coaches than ever. Are we in the Netherlands suffering from meaninglessness? 

“I think so. The field of ‘meaning studies’ does not exist, but research by the Central Bureau of Statistics arrives at only four forms of meaning in the Netherlands: religion, social contacts, personal growth, and transcendence - feeling connected to something big and meaningful. At the same time, researchers argue that people who engage in meaningful activities live longer and are healthier and happier. So meaningfulness is incredibly important; you'd expect there to be a handbook for it. Self-help books usually focus only on one form of meaning, such as the Japanese philosophy of life, wabi-sabi. Arjan van Veelen wrote in De Correspondent about a ‘crisis of meaning’ in which demand far exceeds supply. My book shows that the reverse is the case.”

How does meaning relate to happiness? 

“Meaningfulness and happiness are not the same thing. Fighting for a more sustainable climate does not necessarily make one happy. Meaningfulness can even turn into agony, as with resistance fighters in World War II. Neurological research shows that you can also measure the difference between the two: An experience of happiness results from the production of chemicals in the brain, including norepinephrine and serotonin, but in the case of meaningfulness, those chemicals are not always detected. Meaningfulness is actually not well understood neuroscientifically.


Yet people have always sought meaning, so I think it must have something to do with a hormone. Of course, the biological notion of meaning is nil. The theory of evolution shows that evolution is a purposeless and directionless process and that it's only by chance that you exist, but that doesn't take away from the fact that people themselves can and do give a purpose to their lives.”


Out of all these forms, how do you choose the way of meaning that suits you? 

“There is no unique formula or form of meaning by which everyone can fulfill their needs. Everyone has to put together their own meaning palette with at least some altruistic form, where you do something for society, and a selfish form, because if you don't love yourself you can't give anything. In doing so, you need short-term and long-term goals. Over the course of your life, those goals can change each time.

Win a book

Folia may give away two copies of the (Dutch!) book Why Am I Here? A Small World History of Meaning. Want a chance to win? Then answer the following question:

The American demographic research firm Pew Research Center distinguishes sixteen forms of meaning. Which one is not among them?
A) taking care of pets
B) maintaining social relationships
C) understanding the world

Send the correct answer and your address information to before Nov. 10. Winners will be notified after the closing date of the contest.

For example, for me, an intrinsic long-term goal is ‘understanding the world,’ both the natural world and culture. That's what I hope to stay busy with throughout my life. An achievable short-term goal for me is ‘getting the best out of others,’ which includes teaching: completing a lecture that teaches students something or gets them excited. When the lecture is over, I still have the long-term goal so that the meaning jar is not completely empty. Two things are important here: the forms must be combinable and reversible as much as possible. By this I mean, for example, Doctors Without Borders working in war zones, or caregivers who used to go to work on an island with lepers and became lepers themselves. I can imagine that such activities give meaning, but they are often irreversible forms of meaning. 


Has writing this book given you meaning? 

“Of course, but in the short- or medium-term. It takes a few years, after which many people fall into a bit of a hole. Then a new purpose will have to come again, so I guess I know what's in store for me.” 


Why am I here? A Small World History of Meaning was published this month by Prometheus Publishers (available in Dutch only: Waarom ben ik hier? Een kleine wereldgeschiedenis van zingeving).

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