Celebrity and Romantic Love: “Meaning” in the Modern World

In our modern culture, a huge number of people seem to derive a sense of meaning in their lives through the worship of celebrity (combined with a longing to achieve personal notoriety) and/or the pursuit of idealized romantic love.  I’ve discussed these issues in my earlier posts on celebrities and love junkies; my good friend Marla Estes has also done extensive work on the subject of romantic love in the seminars she teaches.  I’d like to enlarge those ideas into a discussion of personal values and how we derive a sense of purpose in our lives.

You might have heard about Jake Halpern’s book Fame Junkies.  In a survey of several hundred middle-school students in upstate New York, Halpern found that just under 50 percent would prefer to work as a personal assistant to a celebrity over being a university president, corporate CEO, Navy Seal or U.S. Senator.  These students valued mere proximity to a celebrity over other kinds of prestigious work.  Another poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that the vast majority of 18-25 year-olds surveyed in 2007 listed fortune and fame as the top two goals for their generation.

I find these results discouraging but they come as no surprise.  Grocery store news racks, the ones at the check-out lines, mostly hold magazines with movie and TV stars on their covers.  The shopping public seems to have an inexhaustible interest in famous people and their love lives, even though such stories concern the same mundane events that vast numbers of Americans personally experience:  dating, starry-eyed romance that leads to an idealized wedding, followed by disillusionment, infidelity and broken families.  I’ll bet another survey would show that most people would prefer to be a wealthy celebrity going through a painful divorce than a schoolteacher basically satisfied with his or her marriage.  Most people feel that to be famous gives their lives meaning and rescues it from the uninspired realm of ordinary life.

TV reality shows give the average man or woman a chance to participate in that world of celebrity, if only for a brief time.  I believe this is why so many people are willing to expose the most personal and painful details of their lives on nationally-televised shows like Dr. Phil or Jerry Springer.  Quaint notions of privacy or appropriate shame have no force when overpowered by the lure of notoriety.  Maybe my empty life is a total mess, my marriage a shambles and my family alienated from me, but as long as I can be on television, it will nonetheless mean something!

Next to being famous, falling in love offers the next best hope of salvation.  Gauging from the continuing popularity of romantic comedies and romance novels, huge numbers of people long for a perfect, happily-ever-after kind of love despite the pervasive evidence that nobody has ever had such an experience.  Sleepless in Seattle exemplifies the dream:  two people who experience a spark of magic when they first meet in the movie’s final scene, recognizing that they were meant for each other.  Living happily ever after, that’s what life is all about.  No wonder the divorce rate is so high.  How are people to cope with the realities and disappointments of real relationships when love is supposed to offer salvation?

As you may know, romantic love is a fairly recent invention in human history; to this day, marriage in many cultures remains by necessity an economic partnership rather than a means to personal and emotional fulfillment.  Of course, we’d all agree it’s better to have an intimate relationship with your partner where you experience love and understanding, but to expect romance and marriage to make your life feel ultimately meaningful is to burden them with demands they can’t possibly meet.  An intimate relationship is but one source of meaning within one’s life, not the be-all-and-end-all of the human experience.

Many people derive a larger sense of meaning through their religions, others through commitment to improving society via philanthropic work or community service, but these are not the only sources of meaning.  I believe you can also derive meaning by participating in almost anything larger and more enduring than yourself:  a profession whose traditions and values you respect; a skill whose hard-working practitioners (like you) have been confronting the same challenges and experiencing similar rewards for ages; a tradition whose values are handed down from generation to generation, where you are one point in a
line from those who came before and those who will come after.

I believe that true meaning in life derives from participating in something larger than ourselves, whereby we can experience pride in fulfilling that tradition’s values, but also a sense of humility that we are not the most important person in the world.  Something larger than us will endure after we are gone.  The cults of celebrity and romantic love, with their emphasis on personal fame and fulfillment, seem to offer just the opposite:  narcissistic self-exaltation, the feeling that one has achieved a unique and superior state of perfection known to but a few, and it will last forever.

Finding Your Own Way:

How do you derive a sense of meaning in your life?  If you’re the sort of person addicted to Access Hollywood and American Idol, you might want to do a little soul-searching.

Not all of us are fortunate enough to have a job or career that provides such meaning; we may need to look elsewhere for fulfillment.  I study a musical instrument, participating in a long line of students and teachers going back several centuries.  My teacher passes on lessons she learned from her own teachers; I confront the same technical challenges students before me have confronted and students yet to come will eventually face.  It feels deeply meaningful to me; humbling, too.  What about you?  Do you have similar hobbies or interests you view in the same way?

I’m skeptical of people who insist that meaning comes exclusively from religion or public service.  Too often those people strike me sanctimonious.  I believe an athlete (and not just Olympians or NBA stars) who devotes him- or herself to honing skills over years can feel that the endeavor holds meaning.  Many people derive a sense of meaning from belonging to a cultural organization, learning to master the art of French cooking or developing an intimate knowledge of the wildflowers of Glacier National Park.  During his life, my father-in-law, though he professed to be a Christian, actually derived his sense of meaning from sitting on the boards for local arts and educational institutions he valued, satisfying his intellectual curiosity with  extensive and life-long reading about history, and through his passionate involvement with concert music as an audience member and director on the symphony board.

Maybe your involvement with similar loves and interests helps make your life feel meaningful.  The sources of meaning are endless.

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. I appreciate your take on this, it reminds me of Victor Frankl’s thoughts in Man’s Search for Meaning, whereby those that maintained survival mentally while in concentration camps were those that had meaning and purpose in their lives, whether that was a significant person in their life, a life’s work, music, intellectual pursuits, a family business or a dream yet to be achieved. I think far too often we limit ourselves to what we believe will bring us happiness and contentment, when in fact this is different for everybody and also can change throughout our lives, not always being one thing. When meaning is about something larger than ourselves it is always going to possess us in ways that expand us, not limit us. Thanks for your thoughts, I always enjoy reading them.

    1. Thanks for bringing up Frankl, Cass. It has been many years since I read that book (way back in graduate school) and I think I need to give it another look. And I agree with what you say about a larger meaning possessing and expanding us. Nicely put.

  2. Thanks for this, Joe! You know that it’s a subject very close to my heart…to me it’s a real challenge to keep some of the beauty of romantic love in our lives without falling into its illusions.

    1. When you write about the illusions involved in romantic love, you know how easy it is to sound cynical. As you say, the challenge is to keep romance alive as part of an authentic relationship where love is compatible with real knowledge (to use one of your expressions) of the other person .

  3. I’m not sure I agree that romantic love is a recent invention, Shakespeare and Jane Austen capture it in all its beauty far back in time. Perhaps the recent notion is expecting romantic love in a marriage, but why is this a bad thing? That people no longer accept chronic unhappiness in their relationships, tolerate emotional/physical abuse, or continue a charade (as in the homosexual who resigns him/herself to a heterosexual existence so as not to buck a societal norm), is a good thing. Also, the societal expectation that a relationship “should” last forever (or else you’re not working hard enough!) when our lives are ever changing and in some cases as partners may not change together is unrealistic and forces people to remain unfulfilled in this aspect of life. Of course one can seek fulfillment in other aspects of life, but the fulfillment, support, and satisfaction that comes from one’s relationships is central to happiness, quality of life, and ultimately longevity.

    1. Hi Sherry. I don’t mean to suggest that romantic love wasn’t around before, and you’re right, Shakespeare wrote about it (though mostly in cautionary ways, exposing the illusions involved and the impulsive, ill-considered behavior that often follows). Jane Austen, too. Contrast Marianne’s highly romantic relationship with Willoughby on the one hand (sensibility) and Elinor’s calmer but intense attachment to Edward (sense). The constant search for idealized romantic love causes problems and makes it difficult for people to have authentic relationships. I agree with you that expecting relationships to be happy and satisfying is a big step forward from the way things used to be; that’s not the same thing as the heady drug-like feeling of infatuation that occurs in the beginning of relationships. I also think that over time, the romance doesn’t go away entirely but gives way to other feelings such as companionship and abiding affection.

  4. Fully agree with you Joseph.

    I hope you won’t mind if I quote from this site:

    “Romance is a cultural invention, not a natural phenomenon.
    We have been so deeply indoctrinated into the romantic mythology
    that we have no awareness of the process of emotional programming
    that created our romantic responses.
    Popular culture provides the main ways we learn how to ‘fall in love’.
    Movies, television, popular songs, novels, & magazines
    all train our feelings into the wonderful delusion of romance.

    Our romantic games would be harmless if everyone knew
    that romantic love is a fantasy feeling.
    But while still under the influence of romantic illusions,
    some people make the life-altering mistake of getting married.
    Perhaps we guard against
    every form of political or religious mythology,
    but what about the most potentially-harmful myth—romantic love?”

    “Loving without illusions lacks the emotional high of romantic love,
    but for on-going relationships truth is better than fiction.
    Instead of projecting our pre-existing fantasies,
    we can get to know each other as we really are
    —and as the persons we are becoming.”

    1. What a fabulous quote! Thanks so much for adding it to the discussion. Just for the sake of argument, do you think there’s any value to romantic love? My therapist used to tell me that the process of beginning a relationship with a stranger is fraught with anxiety, for all sorts of good reasons, and that “falling in love” helps them bear with the anxiety of newness. The problem, though, as the quote makes clear, is that many people decide to get married in the midst of the romantic high, only to fall “out of love” a while later when they discover they’ve made a mistake. I like to say that a lasting relationship is one where you wake up from the dream of perfect romantic love to find that your partner is “pretty good.”

  5. Thank you Joseph. I was afraid someone would say “what a wet blanket”! L.
    You are right that the problem arises when people decide to get married in the midst of the romantic fog, unable to see anything clearly. You know the kind of frothy headline in certain magazines: ” Jessie and John married yesterday after a three-week whirlwind romance”. “We are madly in love” stated the smiling couple.
    Fast forward less than a year, same magazine. Jessie and John at each other”s throats in the divorce court.
    There is much to be said IMO for an engagement of at least a year.

    Sure, I do think love is a wonderful thing, and physical attraction is a fact of life. Thing is: physical attraction is too often confused with love, although of course it can be combined with love. And I also think “romance” is rather nice too where a married couple find time to go out together as they did when engaged, or do fun and pleasant things for each other

    Then there is this quote:
    Some love is fire: some love is rust:
    But the fiercest, cleanest love is lust.
    (Joseph Moncure March – from a poem)
    Maybe so.


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