BOSS Blog 8: The meaning of life

BOSS Blog 8 - The meaning of life

By Gert Jan Hofstede, 2020 03 18

My father died happy

My father Geert died on 12 February this year, at age 91. He had lived through a difficult year. He’d drawn a bad lot: a debilitating disease gradually robbed him of the use of his hands, his legs, his other muscles, his speech. Yet, he died a happy man.

His life had been meaningful

Why? I think it is because he found his life to have been meaningful. He’d left a contribution to the world at large, and he was on good terms with all his family. He also received loving care from health workers in his last months, and the doctor helped him retain agency by shortening his suffering at his wish.

What is the meaning of life?

There is so much talk about the meaning of life. To me, it is simple. The meaning of life is what you mean to those around you. Who these people are and what this meaning could consist of, are endlessly complicated, fascinating, evolving issues.  This is what education, politics, art, humanities, social sciences and evolutionary biology are about.

Evolution and the meaning of life

Yes, also evolutionary biology. There is a direct line between what serves survival of our communities and what we consider to be good, worthy or ethical. Biology may not be on our mind, but it is in our mind. We may not be thinking about the survival of our species when we do good. Some things that we do with good intentions could actually damage survival; there will be selective pressure against these practices.

Corona and community: divided we stand, united we fall

Let’s take another example. Just after my father’s death, the Corona pandemic took centre stage. It throws a new light on familiar phenomena. In particular, it tightens the link between morals and species survival. Practices are good if they boost our collective survival, in a literal sense. The new slogan is: "divided we stand, united we fall". Millions of people in hundreds of countries follow it, even celebrate it.

Corona and culture

The way in which communities organize practices is cultural. That is how it should be. One size does not fit all. Leadership, paradoxically, only works if it follows what people expect and accept. That is why some countries have draconic measures in place while others rely on self-policing of citizens. In a crisis, leadership has to bend to the vox populi.

Corona and dimensions of culture

Do Geerts dimensions of culture have something to say on pandemic control? It’s too early to say something definite. It does seem that the 6th dimension, indulgence versus restraint (actually discovered by Michael Minkov in WVS data), plays a role. The countries with flatter-then-exponential curves, so far (see, are all at the restrained end of that dimension. They are also all long-term oriented in culture, which probably helps them being flexible in the face of a new threat. Of course, historically, a restrained, long-term oriented culture could be a carry-over from earlier epidemics.


Corona is a lottery. Whatever lot we draw this time, we’ll all die one day. Let’s give our lives meaning by being good to our local community and to the world at large. Then we can die happy when the time comes.