My approach to the question will, I fear, have to be a bit roundabout.
I’ll start with an observation: your life and everyone else’s is dominated by various bloodsuckers, a plenum of people who want something from you. Your boss — the human extension of the capitalist system — wants as much of your labor-power as he can extract. Other extensions of capitalism want you at the mall, the megastore, or online buying as much of the crap created by the labor-power of you and all the rest of the world’s working schmoes. Your priest/minister/rabbi/imam/whatever wants you to show up for weekly (or more) worship services and to drop a fat check in the collection basket when you do. The government wants you to pay taxes. Your parents want you to keep honoring their religion and generate grandchildren. The chattering class, the pundits and professors and their various administrators and hangers-on, want you buying their books, clicking on their links, paying their tuition, and so on. The whole spectrum of institutionally-enabled bullies, from your jerkass middle-school principal up to senators and presidents* want you and others to dominate. Add to this mix various grifters, petty and not-so-petty criminals, and miscellaneous creeps trying to cadge sexual favors, and you have a lot to bear.
A rational person, confronted with the bloodsucker army, might be tempted to give up entirely or, at the various least, go antinatalist and not bring new persons into the world where they would be subject to a lifetime of parasitization. But your giving up won’t the bloodsuckers at all. They need the game to keep going — on you and if it is to continue into the future, on your children. Given that there are probably limits on how much they can achieve just by brute coercion (slave revolts take the fun out of their game), they need an inducement. Happiness? True, some of the world’s more shameless con-men do offer happiness to their marks, but as an overall strategy of offering people happiness in return for their submission runs up against the hard fact that life is on balance suffering, and even the dimmest human beings tend after a while to notice that happiness isn’t something that’s happening in their lives. So promises of happiness, except perhaps those made of happiness in an afterlife (always and conveniently not accessible to our first-hand observation), tend not to work very well.
So what’s offered instead is “meaning,” a bit of hocus-pocus meant to convince the marks that even though they are mostly unhappy, their lives and the lives of their wretched offspring are somehow “worth it.” (What is often so insidious about “meaning” is that generating said wretched offspring — possibly as many of them as you can — is argued to be a part of “meaning.”) Keep working and procreating, citizen! Don’t grumble about being unhappy — your life has meaning.
In wartime, people can lose access to even simple things that make them happy. Butter and sugar, say. A national emergency dictates that they can no longer have butter and sugar, so a government rationing board provides them with ersatz products in their place: saccharine and and a foul-tasting industrial conglomerate of vegetable oils, say. People are mollified with the promise that if they work hard and sacrifice and win the war that real butter and real sugar will come back, but in the meantime they will have to make do with cheap synthetic substitutes.
“Meaning” is the cheap synthetic substitute that we are offered in place of real happiness. The difference between it and saccharine is that unlike the human condition, wars end.
*“Now who’s being naive, Kay?” Back to main text.