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The Meaning of Life (part one)

August 24, 2009

themeaningoflife

Recently I’ve been reading Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, a best-selling book described as ‘A classic tribute to hope from the Holocaust’. Frankl was a psychotherapist who developed his own theory, logotherapy, and the second half of this book is a description of logotherapy ‘in a nutshell’.

What struck me was the number of similarities between Frankl’s theory and some of the discoveries I’ve made and conclusions I’ve come to during my own brief time on this planet. According to logotherapy, the primary motivational force for humans is striving to find meaning in one’s life. However, though many of us in Western society have the means by which to live (eg a roof over our heads, food on the table) not many of us actually have real meaning in our lives. The result is that an unprecedented number of people are living in what Frankl calls an ‘existential vacuum’.

In both my personal and professional life, I have encountered way too many people – including myself – suffering from the effects of this miserable condition. Frankl states that ‘the existential vacuum manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom’. I spent much of my youth complaining that I was bored but not really sure why, or how I would relieve this overwhelming feeling of ennui. Why did I feel this way? Because I’d completely lost touch with my authentic self – and as I’ve now realised, in order to know what brings meaning to your life and therefore avoid being in the vacuum, you first have to know who you really are. Unfortunately, to paraphrase Frankl, most of us either choose to do what other people do (conformism) or succumb to doing what other people tell us to do (totalitarianism). Who we really are and what we really want is insignificant and irrelevant in the face of society’s demands.

What our society seems to demand today is anything which adheres to the economic values set up by the most powerful people. We are constantly told that life is about ‘getting a good job’ and that success is not measured by who you are (and how fulfilled you may be) but by your status and what you have. When we meet new people, one of the first things they ask is ‘what do you do?’ and we are immediately judged by how economically viable that position is, despite how important our actual contribution is in terms of society’s wellbeing. So the wealthy professional/businessman is admired, but the dedicated stay-at-home mum is looked down upon. Even as small children we are conditioned to value ourselves and others in this way, with the routine question ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’(although I do recall that when I was 7, I went through a phase of telling people I wanted to be a ‘lady boxer’ – that usually shut them up.)

Frankl conducted a survey amongst his students, which highlighted that 25% of his European students ‘showed a more-or-less marked degree of existential vacuum’, whereas amongst the American students, the result was 60% – the dark side of the American dream. Of course, the British government has closely followed the American economic system rather than the models administered in Europe (and look how that’s worked out for us, as we flounder in the worst recession in recent history), so it’s small wonder that so many people – in particular in the UK and the US – feel out of touch with their real selves and lack meaning in their lives. As Frankl says: ‘…the feeling of meaninglessness resulting from a frustration of our existential needs… has become a universal phenomenon in our industrial societies.’

It’s also not surprising that there’s been an increase in depression, aggression and addiction, three issues which Frankl states are a direct result of being trapped in this existential vacuum. It’s been well documented how depression has increased in our society – 1 in 4 people have had depressive symptoms and the number of  prescriptions written for anti-depressants is at an all-time high of well over 30 million a year. Depression can often be anger turned inwards so when that anger is instead expressed externally, the result is aggression. I don’t think I need to quote any violent crime statistics to prove this point as I’m sure all of us have either been on the receiving end of some form of aggression in the course of our existence – or have become frustrated and disillusioned enough to lash out inappropriately and disproportionately ourselves.

The final issue, addiction, leads me into the next point. Frankl talks about people in the camps who suffered what he labels ‘give-up-itis’:

‘…those who one morning…refused to get up and go to work… Nothing – neither warnings nor threats –could induce them to change their minds. And then something typical occurred: they took out a cigarette…and started smoking. At that moment we knew that for the next forty-eight hours or so we would watch them dying. Meaning orientation had subsided and consequently the seeking of immediate pleasure had taken over.’

Doesn’t this sum up beautifully the ‘instant gratification’ culture of our society today? So many of us are struggling to plug that vacuum, be it with substances such as drink, drugs or food; with meaningless sex and/or porn; with easy entertainment provided by TV and technology; or with the desperate pursuit of money and consumer goods. All these things give a quick fix but none of them will ever make you feel fulfilled or permanently hide the fact that you’re effectively dying inside. And by constantly relying on these modern day opiates to make the emptiness temporarily subside, we’re slowly but surely paving the way towards an unhealthy state of dependence.

I personally spent many unhappy years inside this existential vacuum. I swung from depression to aggression and back again, and tried to fill the void with all manner of things. In my desperate search for meaning – though I wasn’t aware at the time that this is what I was actually seeking – I tried on a number of different identities by altering my external circumstances (new career/house/relationship/clothes and so on) but ultimately that was about as effective as changing seats on the Titanic. How many times did I tell myself ‘If only I had this… then I’d be happy’ only to end up feeling exactly the same once the initial euphoria of achieving my superficial goal had worn off? And how many other people have I watched struggle with the same dilemma? Are you really as happy as you claim if you feel the need to crack open a bottle of wine every evening or have huge credit card debts because you just had to have that new dress/car/techno-gadget? ‘Meaninglessness’ is a malaise which is spreading fast at all levels of our society so what can we do to stem the tide? I’ll address this in part two.

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5 comments

  1. I found your blog via “Notesalongthepath.” Very interesting post, I will have to read Frankl. I’ve started a research project looking at consumerism, politics, and militarism. Are you acquainted with the work of Chris Hedges, who wrote “War is a Force that Gives us Meaning?” (He argues in the book it’s ultimately a false meaning). I believe that modern capitalism has become a system whereby powerful economic actors can use advertising to build a culture where people believe meaning will come from more possessions (note how brands are now sold as ‘lifestyles’). This feeds hyper-consumerism as meaning from consumption is at best short term, and boredom quickly replaces the rush of the purchase. This tendancy was first noted during WWII by German Jewish exiles in the “Frankfurt School,” which saw ominous similarities between German fascism and the rise of American consumer capitalism. Psychology is an important part of this whole dynamic, I think. Anyway, sorry that my first comment on your blog is rambly!


  2. Hello, Scott, and welcome to Empathic Guidance!

    Thank you for your comments – you make some relevant points about capitalism, consumerism and the abuse of the media which I actually address in the first part of the book I’m currently working on. There’s something almost patronising in the way that the powers-that-be believe we’re easily distracted by ‘shiny objects’… I could talk about this all night, but I’ll save it for the book and perhaps a future blog entry, and for now just say that I wholeheartedly agree with your comment.

    I haven’t heard of Chris Hedges but I will check him out – always up for book recommendations!

    Part two of this article will be published on here soon, much more positive and optimistic than part one…

    Thanks again

    Warmest wishes

    Sharon


  3. Great — I look forward to your book! I’m working on a research project that (at this stage) plans to look at two “problems” in society: the economic crisis, and the rise of militarism, and tie them to the way we think, culturally. We think in a way that cuts off a real quest for and understanding of the importance of meaning. I see this as a problem with the way the enlightenment privileged one way of thinking (abstract, rational) over another (sentiment, empathy). Anyway, I look forward to reading more, glad I found your blog.


  4. Great article Sharon (haven’t read part two yet), and absolutely on the money… it is frustrating to watch people flounder for meaning through consumerism, substance abuse or unhealthy relationships when one comes to the realisation that existentialism is so often neglected, or blunted with unquestioned faith in a religion or (uneducated) Nihilism.

    I think the search for a deeper meaning can be initially unsatisfying when you realise that you will never truly possess the answers to your questions, merely a plethora of anecdotal, arbitrary or downright wrong beliefs. This is what puts people off; the thought of drowning in a sort of mental black hole. But… then I also think that this realisation becomes liberating when you accept that it’s a journey with no end, a constant search for a deeper understanding that, while constantly elusive, provides us with better knowledge of ourselves, others and the World around us than can ever be gained by sticking your cock into a 45″ plasma. And when those synchronicities begin you suddenly realise how exciting and interesting it all is. After all, would life even be worth living if you already knew the meaning of life?

    Great stuff, keep it up.


    • Hi Tom, great to hear from you 🙂

      If you check out part two – and I’m also currently writing part three – you will see that the meaning of life is actually different for all of us, and is constantly changing for all of us too. You could therefore conclude that it’s elusive but I prefer to think of it as ‘flexible’ – and hoorah for that, as it would be rather dull if it wasn’t. I’ll say more in part three about what life means to me which I hope will clarify this a bit more.

      I can assure you, though, that it definitely does NOT involve inserting any body parts into a giant TV screen 😉

      Thanks for the positive feedback, Tom – much appreciated.



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