Now that Westerners no longer have to fight for their existence, they have more time and inclination to ponder it. The resulting existential arguments are perhaps more prevalent than ever in a time where technology, leisure, resources and freedom make pursuing whatever an individual finds meaningful a real option.
New quantitative psychological research suggests a considerable percentage of the population can’t be bothered by these ambitious if ambiguous questions, and when pressed don’t really care that they feel their lives, in the big picture, are meaningless.
Tatjana Schnell, a research psychologist at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, surveyed perceived meaningfulness in a modern population. She found, as many might intuit, that many find no meaning in their lives, and those actively wrestling with meaning suffer from increased anxiety, depression and dissatisfaction with life. But this either/or result — either meaningful or meaningless — is over-simplified, Schnell argues; it’s not just a matter of someone feeling their life has meaning or no meaning, but whether they care that their life has no meaning.
The research, reminiscent of a European art-house flick, puts numbers to something humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow cited as a “valuelessness” in Western societies, “a rather bleak, boring, unexciting, unemotional, cool philosophy of life.” Psychologist Victor Frankl referred to an “existential vacuum” due to a lack of commitment to values. Empirical psychological research has avoided the topic, partly because meaningfulness is hard to measure while the detachment generally congruent with its absence is subtle compared to outright psychopathology — is this hipster irony or mild depression?
Participants were surveyed using the SoMe scale, which measures people on a scale from those who believe they have a total lack of meaning in their lives to those who feel their lives are full of meaning, and breaks down individuals into four groups. Schnell categorizes people in this way:
• High meaningfulness, low crisis of meaning (meaningful)
• Low meaningfulness, low crisis of meaning (existentially indifferent)
• High meaningfulness, high crisis of meaning (conflicting)
• Low meaningfulness, high crisis of meaning (crisis of meaning)
The meaningfulness value is based upon one’s appraisal of life as “coherent, significant, directed, and belonging.” The crisis of meaning variable measures absence or presence of suffering drawn from meaninglessness.
Looking at a sample of 603 Germans, Schnell found that 61 percent were “meaningful,” 4 percent suffered a “crisis of meaning,” and 35 percent were “existentially indifferent,” those who “neither experience their lives as meaningful nor suffer from this lack of meaning.” So of the people who felt their lives lacked meaning, it really only bothered one in 10 of them.
Schnell found no strong trend in gender or extent of education among the indifferent, but age did matter. The indifferent skewed younger, on average five years younger, than those who found meaning in their lives. Think: The Graduate's Ben Braddock floating in his pool after returning home. And for those who hadn’t graduated — adults who were students — existential indifference was present in 53 percent.
Relationship, or the lack of them, also mattered. Singles and those living with a partner could go either way, but the married were much more likely to be in the meaningful category (70 percent). Schnell hypothesizes that marriage provides an individual with belonging and commitment, “direction through the implicit aim of building a home and raising children” and a sense of responsibility for children that all promote a feeling of meaning in one’s life.
Crises of meaning, on the other hand, occurred most often among those married but living apart and singles. Maybe taking out the trash when she tells you to is a meaningful endeavor after all.
Employment status, however, was not a solid predictor — 58 percent of unemployed and 59 percent of employed saw their lives as meaningful, although the unemployed were the most likely to have a crisis of meaning. Schnell posits that work is a potentially great source of meaning, but the shift in labor toward temporary and short-term jobs does not encourage the commitment and identity employment once provided.
The academics identified 26 “sources of meaning” in their study, and noted that the indifferent lacked sources like love, social commitment and unison of nature. They were especially low in self-knowledge, spirituality, explicit religiosity and generativity, even compared to those in a crisis.
Schnell stresses the low self-awareness among the apathetic. They do not face their own personal strengths and weaknesses because they are of little importance to them. Exceedingly little energy is invested in reflecting on themselves, their needs and motives.
Those in a crisis showed greater self-knowledge. As Schnell describes, “Combined with the awareness of a lack of meaning, the active search for self-understanding might more likely lead to the detection or construction of meaning than the passive and disinterested condition of existential indifference.”
On the other hand, Schnell noted that overzealous self-analysis can impede the path to good mental health. Just ask Woody Allen!
Ironically, the indifferent still found life satisfying (more so than those suffering a crisis of meaning), though still less than those with meaning in their lives. The indifferent experienced less anxiety and depression than those with a crisis of meaning, and those traits measured similarly to those who viewed their lives as meaningful.
The existentially indifferent appear to live a life of complacency, with few highs and little or no introspection. As Schnell puts it, “Without commitment to sources of meaning, life remains superficial. But superficiality is not necessarily a state of suffering.” They aren’t classified as having “psychological stress,” but they “can hardly be viewed as living a life of health and well-being,” according to Schnell. An existentialist would say they are asleep.
“Existential philosophers and psychologists, from Heidegger to Frankl … have discussed distinctions between an authentic, complex life and a shallow, ‘everydayness’ mode of existence,” Schnell comments. The existentially indifferent characterize this “everyday” mode of existence, and as if to defy existentialism, are perfectly fine with it. To replace meaningful pursuits, they have a wide array of superficial weaponry. “Surrogates for meaningful commitment abound: They range from material possessions to pleasure seeking, from busy-ness to sexuality.”