“Meaninglessness inhibits fullness of life and is therefore equivalent to illness.”Carl Jung
Feeling empty, indifferent, or lost; like life doesn’t matter, doesn’t make much sense, or doesn’t have any real purpose, are normal descriptions of meaninglessness. Taking hold, it can consume your life and make it lesser. And if nothing is done to repel it, it can make you decay and lose out on the greatest things that life has to offer. You will be living, of course, but you will not feel fully alive. You will be aging, to be sure, but you will pass through existence with nothing to show for.
# It’s not easy to deal with when one’s in it. It’s a dark place, solid black. … Looking at it from a place of having meaningfulness, it’s not that complicated. But being in that state is far more violating. The way out is long and winding for some. … It might be a theme better suited for clinicians. As a psychology graduate, I do have my thoughts. #
To say the least, meaninglessness causes deep problems—some of the worst that human experience has to offer. And for some, it can even lead to suicide. Considering this, it’s not difficult to see meaninglessness as equivalent to a great illness. However, it isn’t usually thought of as one, and it isn’t covered by the International Classification of Diseases either. While I won’t dwell on the reasons why it isn’t, I will briefly speculate on three:
- One, it’s not easily distinguished as a single illness, as many terms and explanations cover it.
- Two, it’s deeply existential—not so much an illness of the body or the mind specifically, as it’s an illness of your entire being—which might make it unfit for classification standards.
- And three, it affects nearly everyone at some point in their life, whether they have classified health disorders or not.
I don’t know about you, but these reasons only make me want to explore it more. As a topic, meaninglessness is as serious as it gets. Moving on, I will not offer much remedy as of now, because I will mainly focus on the causes; “why can life feel this way?” However, it’s my belief that to achieve something—a meaningful life—it’s helpful to understand its opposite.
The Evolution of Meaninglessness
Based in evolutionary thinking, I think it’s likely that our psychological needs evolved in relation to our physical needs. Going about fulfilling the needs of food, sex, and sleep, usually fulfilled the needs of competence, belonging, and safety—and of course the need for meaning.
In the world that this relationship evolved, however—be it thousands of years ago—normal living tended to satisfy both categories of needs. But as our society developed, it became increasingly easier to fulfill the physical ones; and possible to fulfill them in totally different ways. Instead of having to spend a day outside hunting for our food, we can stay inside and wait for it to arrive on our doorsteps. And while it’s far more convenient, it deprives us from naturally fulfilling our psychological needs. While we keep our safety, we lose out on the belongingness in hunting with our tribe, and the competence we feel when we successfully take down a prey.
In and of itself, it’s not a bad thing we can order our food. But in the long term, we might need something to compensate for it. We still have the needs within us, and they yearn for their fulfillment. And interestingly, it’s almost like the easier the physical needs are satisfied, the harder it’s to satisfy the psychological ones.
# We’ve always strived to fulfill our needs, it’s just that it requires more of a conscious effort today.
Considering this, normal living might have actually been meaningful living thousands of years ago. But this isn’t necessarily the case today. While many still feel like their life are meaningful, more and more have instances of meaninglessness. And the reason is because the natural ways of deriving coherence, value and purpose are washed out. More than ever, we need to actively seek out those things. We need them. While yesterday’s prototype was staying alive, today’s prototype is feeling alive.
This, of course, doesn’t mean we should strip ourselves from everything that modern age has to offer. But it means we should be more aware of how we’re living. And I think living in today’s age actually tips the scale in favor of meaningful living. That is, if you’re willing to work at it. The alternative is a lack in the three components.
Lacking in Three
Meaninglessness implies a lack of meaning, which means there’s a reduced sense of coherence, significance and purpose. And given the fertile ground provided by the intersection of our evolutionary wiring and the modern world, we’re at risk. Now, while the modern world doesn’t provide meaninglessness in and of itself—and it’s certainty not a scapegoat—it might make it easier for meaninglessness to unfold. Without working at it, it’s easier to trend towards it. A lack of coherence turns to chaos. A lack of significance makes you feel worthless. And a lack of purpose is a recipe for getting lost. Here’s how those lacks occur:
The Clash of Chaos
A lack of coherence can cause uncertainty and confusion. And it occurs when you’re unable to make sense of something. Whether it’s reading up on a difficult subject or having a weird social encounter, it temporarily sets you out of balance. And in the modern world, there’s a lot of opportunities for that to happen. Now, being confused once in a while isn’t a bad thing. It’s actually good for you, as having to build your coherence only makes for greater understanding. It helps you make meaning of the world.
Most of the time, this meaning-making isn’t even a conscious process. It runs in the background, making small iterations as you encounter your experience. But when you face something you can’t handle, it really sets in motion. Taken to the extreme, a lack of coherence turns to chaos. And that’s not very pleasurable. As the philosopher Rene Descartes describes it:
“Feels as if I have fallen unexpectedly into a deep whirlpool which tumbles around me so that I can neither stand on the bottom nor swim to the top.”
When the difference between what you know and what you encounter is too large to grasp, the process of building coherence malfunctions. There’s an overload, and it leaves you bathing in chaos. Experiences such as betrayal, heart-break, and sudden death can easily cause this—information that’s in stark contrast to what you already believe about the world. Now the unconscious tinkering might not be enough anymore. You need to employ a conscious effort to regain your clarity (and sanity). # More on that later. #
You can think of it as a thermostat trying to keep a room warm. Under normal conditions, it will only perform corrective procedures. If a window is opened, it will have to work significantly harder. And if all the windows in the room were shattered, it will have a hard time trying to regain the desired temperature.
The Weary of Worthlessness
A lack of significance can cause indifference. And it occurs when what you’re doing isn’t valuable to you. For example, if you’re forced to do something, rather than doing it willingly, you might have issues in finding it valuable. Now, indifference is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s impossible to find everything significant, and a sense of indifference points out what you shouldn’t continue to pursue. It’s a guide, of sorts.
However, when everything takes on a shade of indifference, there’s a problem. If nothing in the world feels valuable to you, there’s apathy. And in time, that feeling can turn inwards and influence the way you value yourself—turning into worthlessness. And from there, there’s a short way to judging the whole of life meaningless.
There might be multiple reasons triggering such a line of events. If you’re pressured into doing things you don’t really want to do, if you’re having a hard time fitting in, or if you’re failing to achieve a sense of mastery, worthlessness can creep in. And then it won’t matter if you have plenty of coherence in your life; because you still need to judge it worth living. As Albert Camus said:
“Judging whether life is worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of life. All the rest comes afterwards. One must first answer this.”(adapted quote).
To form an answer, you look for (in the lack of a better word) evidence. And it’s in failing to find evidence of worth and significance that you might judge the whole thing meaningless. And if not proven otherwise, it causes a downward spiral—where finding no value reinforces your beliefs about the world. The good thing is that the opposite is also true: you can enter an upwards spiral. # More on that later. #
The Loathing of Feeling Lost
A lack of purpose can cause feelings of being lost. And it occurs when you don’t know what you’re about or where you’re going in life. It’s an aimless state with no direction. Graduating high-school might be a prime example of this experience. Although some people know what they’re gonna do next, many people do not. There’s too many options (and the modern world keeps spewing out more), they’re too young to know what they want, and there’s too much pressure to conform to certain paths.
Although you don’t need a very specific plan, it’s helpful to try to establish a sense of where you’re going—if not five years from now, at least a week or month from now. It’s ok to feel lost sometimes too, because it might help you find a better purpose. Now, what really sets it in motion is ceasing to try at all. When you stop moving is when you really get lost. As Plato once said:
“Lack of activity destroys the good condition of every human being”
It’s only in giving up that you make it permanent. Then it’s easy to feel like there’s no way out, to blow trivial things out of proportion, or get caught up in hedonistic distractions. You’re living, but you’re unsure of what for. There’s nothing in the future to bring coherence or significance to your daily actions.
The good thing, however, is that it doesn’t require much to establish a sense of purpose. Because even if you don’t know where to go at first, you find out when you start to move. #More on that later.#
Together, chaos, worthlessness and feeling lost produces a sense of meaninglessness.
Lacking in any one of them influences the other two. But that also means that working at any one of the influences the other two.
# Based in these 3 components, and in failing to fulfill them, one might start to tinker with the unavoidable question.
And when that happens, an unavoidable question might begin to enter.
Suffering Doesn’t Equal Meaninglessness
You can suffer but still find life meaningful. Suffering is a natural part of life—recognized by all major religions, human philosophies and psychological research. You’re likely to have experienced it yourself. And if not, you inevitably will at some point. However, the suffering and the problems are not the problem. The problem is failing to do anything about it.
In suffering, you can experience meaninglessness. But although it can include it, it doesn’t have to.
To be clear, suffering isn’t pain. Suffering, in it’s simplest form, only concerns meaning-making. And it occurs when there’s a discrepancy between what you believe and how the world works.
# See worldview.
Seen this way, suffering is only meaningless if you insist on maintaining your old beliefs. Suffering is clawing to your old beliefs when faced with new information. It’s wanting something different than what’s currently possible.
The search for meaning, and meaningfulness, and meaningful living, is the antidote.
Some things are worth suffering for. The search for meaning is in itself meaningful.
Yes, it’s painful, but it’s worthwhile.
Viktor Frankl said:
“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning”
Meaning-making is a natural response to pain and trauma. It’s suffering, but it’s not meaningless. Failing to find new value in the meaning-making process is the problem.
As Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist who survived the Nazi concentration camps, observed,
“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning.”
A Leap of Faith
# The Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard would have argued this is a leap of faith—an act of trusting something outside the boundaries of reason. Although we cannot know for sure, we have to act as if it’s true. And by doing so—by pursuing a meaningful life—we will come to discover that life, indeed, is meaningful.