Ask a person on the street what the meaning of life is and you’re likely to be met with a blank stare.
That’s because, while we’re living longer than ever before and enjoying comforts that would have been the stuff of dreams only 100 years ago, society has yet to get to grips with the underlying question that’s on everybody’s minds: what’s the point of it all?
Austrian psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl coined the term ‘the existential vacuum’ in his seminal 1946 book Man’s Search For Meaning and identified it as “the feeling of the total and ultimate meaningless of [our]lives.”
As humans, we have gained the ability to question life; something that goes beyond the instinctual drives of our animal ancestors. At the same time, our traditional subsistence culture and its very narrow viewpoint has been replaced with one that provides us unlimited choice and opportunity.
No longer are we compelled to follow our forebears; we can be whatever we want to be.
And yet, this then begs the question: what do we want to be?
In order to begin to answer this, we look to society for guidance and, on this charge, society is failing.
It is doing so in a multitude of ways, but here are the 9 most serious:
1. The Pursuit Of Happiness
I think we all seek happiness in one form or another and I’m certainly not against such a pursuit; on the contrary, I believe it can be a driver for positive change in an individual.
My misgivings are targeted squarely at our society and the underlying message that it seems to broadcast; the message that anything other than happiness is illness. That we cannot be sad, we cannot feel lost, and we cannot be seen to be struggling.
American society seems especially vulnerable to this ideal, to the extent that it seems almost ingrained in the collective spirit of the nation.
The problem lies in the fact that you cannot force happiness upon people. Thus, when you are feeling discontented, disengaged or just plain sad about something, the result is a sense of isolation and shame.
The vast majority of people seem to want more from life, regardless of what they already have. They want to buy more things and nicer things in an attempt to feel complete.
Whether you call it consumerism or materialism, there is a strong argument to say that it is both cause and symptom of the existential vacuum.
Our never-ending quest to acquire meaning through consumption is evidence of the existence of a vacuum. It could also be that we are in a metaphorical arms race with our peers to out-own them and we see our position in the materialistic league table as a sign of our success in life.
Of course, there is an abundance of companies out there who are more than happy to provide us with a constant stream of new and exclusive “must-have” items and this only contributes to the self-perpetuating cycle.
3. Social Media
It used to be that you’d have a small circle of friends with whom you communicated and that to do so required speaking to them on the phone or meeting them in person.
Fast-forward to today and you can speak to pretty much anyone, anywhere, at any time. Social media has allowed us to collect “friends” and “followers” at such a rate that many of us can now connect with hundreds or even thousands of people at once.
Sure, such instant communication can drive change – just look at the role Twitter played in the Arab Spring – but it also gives us a window into the lives of so many more people.
By witnessing the lives of more people, you inevitably judge yourself more harshly. There are people with better jobs than you, better looking partners, better houses, better cars, nicer looking holidays, more money, and a happy family life; there is no end to the ways we can compare ourselves to others.
The more people you “know”, the more people you’ll see as doing better than you are. Before social media, you might only be able to compare yourself to your friends, family members, and perhaps famous people. And because your close friends are likely to be of the same socioeconomic background as you, the differences in wealth and monetary success were relatively small. That’s all gone now though.
4. The Rise Of Celebrity
Modern society places more of an emphasis on celebrity and, thanks to social media and the speed at which things move, it is possible for anyone to gain a level of celebrity status in a relatively short space of time.
What’s more, we now have even greater access to celebrities thanks to a 24/7 media, TV shows based entirely upon the concept of celebrity, and advancements in technology.
We seem to be so obsessed with these public figures, spending more and more of our time engaging with them, that our own lives begin to seem less fulfilling. That plague of comparison rears its ugly head once again as we strive to be like our idols in whatever ways we can.
5. Traditional Media
The vast majority of air time and column inches in the traditional media mediums of radio, television and print are dedicated to stories with a negative sentiment.
There is some suggestion that this comes about partly because of our preference for doom and gloom headlines – our negativity bias – which the media merely meets demand for.
But, could the media’s leaning towards the downbeat side of life be making us feel less happy in general? After all, a high propensity for negative news stories may lower the expectations you have for the future.
If all you ever hear and read about is murder, war, famine and a looming environmental catastrophe, you may start to ask yourself what the point of it all is.
Whether at the level of government, community, or individual, there is a tendency to focus more on the problems and issues we face rather than on potential solutions.
Unfortunately, when all you do is look at problems, the common response of many is to blame someone or something else. This creates a culture of resignation and helplessness.
This culture is quick to spread among populations as they seek to collectively shirk responsibility. As an attitude is adopted by more and more people, so too does it become more acceptable to turn a blind eye.
This is precisely what is happening on issues such as climate change, poverty, inequality, and war.
Yes, there are people among us who are striving for solutions to these, and other, major issues, but they are few and far between.
But, for most of us, a sense of helplessness soon leads to hopelessness and we begin to suffer mass existential crises.
Instead, we need a society that encourages and enables us to enact real change through our actions; only then will we start to seek solutions rather than problems.
7. The Breakdown Of Families
It’s a sad fact of the modern age that as many as 50% of marriages will end in divorce depending on where you live in the world. What’s more sad is that many of these separations will involve a child or children.
While some divorcees may find the situation empowering, many others will experience shame, loneliness or emptiness. And there is evidence to suggest that children of single-parent families are more prone to anxiety, depression and substance abuse in their adult lives (signs of the existential vacuum that Frankl himself identified).
In whichever way the family unit breaks down, the effects are, in general, negative for those involved. Modern society, however, is far more accepting of “incomplete” families, so the likelihood is that more and more people will grow up in such a home.
8. Failure Of The Education System
While universal education isn’t yet a reality across the world, where it is available, it is found wanting.
Far too often, modern education systems concentrate on equipping a student with the necessary skills they will need to find a job. The irony is that, despite having qualifications, many people struggle to get and hold down a job.
That’s because the system focuses too much on information and training, and far too little on knowledge and what I call true education. Individuality is stifled, creativity is not nurtured, and questioning the status quo is not seen as a positive.
Young people graduate from the education system with a brain full of hows, but very few whys. They may be able to suitably fill a role, but they are not always the mature, rounded individuals that employers look for.
If the education system spent more time and resources developing the spirits of students, I think they would be better able to choose a path that suits them. Instead, they are funnelled along like cattle through a fairly restrictive structure that does nothing to help them find their true identities.
No wonder the existential vacuum is strong among the youth of the world.
9. Treatment Of The Elderly
In many westernized cultures, the value placed upon the elderly is fairly low. Once they become unable to look after themselves, the old are packed off to retirement communities where they are isolated from family and friends.
Compare this to many traditional cultures – particularly those in the Far East – where older generations live with, and are cared for by, their adult children. Here they remain an active part of family life.
Could this explain why mid-life crises are more commonplace in the West? Do we look at our ageing relatives and seek to avoid the realization that we, too, are getting older with every day that passes?
Whatever the causes, there is no question that the world is facing a crisis in meaning; too many of us suffer throughout our lives due to a lack of it and it is our collective responsibility to shift our direction of travel to pursue a more meaningful existence.
Are you suffering an existential crisis, or have you been through one previously? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts and experiences.