Utne Blogs > Mind and Body

Life Has No Meaning. So What?

by Will Wlizlo


Tags: meaning of life, existential indifference, Miller-McCune, Will Wlizlo,

 Woody Allen Mural 

According to a survey conducted by Austrian research psychologist Tatjana Schnell, an unexpectedly large proportion of Westerners feel that their lives have little meaning, and they don’t really care, reports Miller-McCune. Sampling more than 600 Germans, Schneller’s research found that “35 percent [of the sample] were ‘existentially indifferent,’ those who ‘neither experience their lives as meaningful nor suffer from this lack of meaning,’” and only 10 percent of that group were bothered by their own existential apathy.

Schneller identified variables that did and didn’t correlate. Gender, education level, and employment status don’t seem to be good predictors for indifference, but age does. As reported by Miller-McCune, “the indifferent skewed younger, on average five years younger, than those who found meaning in their lives.” On the other hand, if you’re looking for someone who feels that their life has meaning, look no further than the married couple down the street. The study found that 70 percent of married people find meaning in their lives.

What can replace meaning in an otherwise dispassionate soul? “Surrogates for meaningful commitment abound,” Schneller explains in the study. “They range from material possessions to pleasure seeking, from busy-ness to sexuality.” One famously reflective Westerner knows all about surrogates for meaningful commitment:

 

Source: Miller-McCune 

Image by Eric Weisser, licensed under Creative Commons.  

candice_2
12/29/2010 5:59:08 PM

What the article refers to as surragates I call recess. Being mindful can be tiresome so I'm thinking that's why God created sex, chocolate and music. Hallelujah and praise God.


candice_2
12/29/2010 5:59:03 PM

What the article refers to as surragates I call recess. Being mindful can be tiresome so I'm thinking that's why God created sex, chocolate and music. Hallelujah and praise God.


occum
12/6/2010 3:20:37 PM

So if I am follwing Mr. Patterson's post correctly (although it was truncated) "meaning" is method we learn to use to "calm" what could be a problematic cycle for models that may have a perpetuation beyond our everyday rational processes (ie. we do have to sleep at some point.) Therefore finding a answer, real or imagined, prevents overload. Sort of like the movie WarGames where the computer plays itself until it proves the only solution was to never have illicited the arguement Although a very technical explanation way above my pay grade (and I could very easily be misunderstanding it) I would guess this dynamic could apply to any number of possiblities and if my guess is correct "meaning" could be as individual as the number of people on the planet unless a common concept or conditioning was introduced.


richard patterson
12/6/2010 5:14:08 AM

I’m not sure the concept of meaning is very useful in the first place. Needing meaning is to close the loop of endless recursive cognitive hyperactivity. We evolved with a brain that tries to anticipate the future and builds models for future scenarios. The frontal cortex weighs and evaluates the efficacy for various futures, but it doesn’t give out emotive signals for action. It compulsively performs these evaluations until the amygdala’s emotive system has stimulated memory in comparing solution patterns or templates with the immediate problem for a an adequate fit, which it passes to the frontal lobe and causes an easing positive feeling from the amygdala. Then the frontal cortex goes to work on best implementation of the solution, building models of possible futures. Memory and amygdala are listening in on the debate, and they are, when functioning optimally, continuing the interactions as above in the evaluation phase. If any one of these three systems are not responding well, or performing improperly in their interactions, the effectiveness of solutions search is variously reduced. If the amygdala never gets satisfied and never releases a systems relax signal to reduce tension, it may function in an obsessive or worrisome state for a lengthy time. Meaning is a cognitive model with deeply embedded neural pathways that has habituated or learned not to stir up the cognitive/emotive systems to function incessantly. Thus,the cognitive model that{essay truncated}


richard patterson
12/6/2010 5:08:30 AM

I’m not sure the concept of meaning is very useful in the first place. Needing meaning is to close the loop of endless recursive cognitive hyperactivity. We evolved with a brain that tries to anticipate the future and builds models for future scenarios. The frontal cortex weighs and evaluates the efficacy for various futures, but it doesn’t give out emotive signals for action. It compulsively performs these evaluations until the amygdala’s emotive system has stimulated memory in comparing solution patterns or templates with the immediate problem for a an adequate fit, which it passes to the frontal lobe and causes an easing positive feeling from the amygdala. Then the frontal cortex goes to work on best implementation of the solution, building models of possible futures. Memory and amygdala are listening in on the debate, and they are, when functioning optimally, continuing the interactions as above in the evaluation phase. If any one of these three systems are not responding well, or performing improperly in their interactions, the effectiveness of solutions search is variously reduced. If the amygdala never gets satisfied and never releases a systems relax signal to reduce tension, it may function in an obsessive or worrisome state for a lengthy time. Meaning is a cognitive model with deeply embedded neural pathways that has habituated or learned not to stir up the cognitive/emotive systems to function incessantly. Thus,the cognitive model that{essay trunkated}


easy
12/5/2010 7:24:28 PM

The meaning of human life is found in human awareness, thought and emotion while pursuing a life of loving kindness, attempting to make a positive contribution to someone or something outside yourself.


occum
12/4/2010 3:30:50 PM

Bemoaning meaning is merely muy mockery making. See I am a bilingual alliterate. That means I can't read or write in two different languages.


pekky
12/4/2010 6:03:32 AM

I agree with the commenter above, that the meaning of our lives is actually inside of us, and it is up to us to put the meaning in it. I don't see why life not having intrinsic meaning can be so depressing. I think that once we realize that it is up to us to put value in our lives, we can go anywhere with our own potential.


pekky
12/4/2010 6:02:29 AM

I think that it is up to us to put the meaning in our lives. I agree with two comments above that the values that give meaning should be inside of us as opposed to outside of us. I think once we accept this view, we can have a lot more accomplishments. It is not about self-worship as much as it is about learning to take control of our lives.


rodeen
12/3/2010 2:22:19 PM

Happiness doesn't lie in owning a BMW or a big new house. No, but it is a fantastic start. Add on a vacation home in Vail and a villa in Monte Carlo and I think you are there.


mike lipinski
12/3/2010 12:38:10 PM

It is interesting that this subject of meaning in life should come up, because last year at the university I attend I took a philosophy course, and one of the first subjects covered was the meaning of life. After reading a bit of Camus - the Myth of Sisyphus - and other commentators, the consensus most students reached was that life has no meaning as long as your values are imposed from outside yourself. In other words, your job, your family, your community, your friends, your economic status - all that has little meaning if you don't have values that are yours alone. Sartre the existentialist philosopher, whom most people consider a nihilist, finds meaning in what he calls "personal projects." Whatever that is, it's the only way one can find the satisfaction and the meaning in one's life, be that volunteering to ease the lives of seniors, writing, music - whatever it is, if you find meaning in it, then your life has meaning. That's all that matters. Not fame or glory, or any of that. I watch documentaries and often catch glimpses of so-called "primitive" people living in deplorable conditions, and everywhere there are smiling faces, especially the children. We in the West have too much of everything, that's the biggest issue right there. We expect those "things" to make us happy. Happiness doesn't lie in owning a BMW or a big new house. Mike.


david beede
12/3/2010 11:46:45 AM

Historically "meaning" has often been held as something that has been hidden in the universe by some force or being, that it is our task to discover. It appears to me that the universe doesn't come with a meaning, the assertion "the universe is meaningless" feels accurate, but not at all depressing. I feel it more as an opportunity. Human's are meaning generators. It's one of the things we're very good at. Choosing, creating, making up a meaning for our lives, I see as an artistic act, that requires a certain amount of courage and a light touch, every day. Resisting the temptation to generalize our own meaning to everyone else could also prevent a lot of suffering. I personally choose to celebrate doubt and uncertainty.


pe_5
12/3/2010 10:21:24 AM

Last century, Whit Burnett I think collected notions about "What is the meaning of life" from celebrities; many since have aped him for a buck. He asked Bernard Shaw for a contribution; GBS replied on a postcard, "How the devil should I know? Does your question itself have any meaning?" A few philosophers have expanded on that for a rep, without adding meaning. Meaning among married couples is no surprise; failing long survival, reproduction lends surrogate meaning to an otherwise useless life. But borrowing meanings from secondhand gods is quite an enterprise...


occum
12/3/2010 9:04:27 AM

Shouldn't we define the word "meaning" first? There is a line in the movie "Singles" where a guy is trying to pick up a girl in a bar by telling her he has no pickup line. She responds "maybe having no line is your line." They end up being a couple even though it didn't seem that way. People change day to day, minute to minute. That is why I believe knowing is not absolute on any matter. Or as Yogi Berra stated "I didn't really say everything I said."


lauri lumby
12/3/2010 7:19:13 AM

So my question to the researchers.....are these people content, indifferent or simply resigned to an unfulfilling life? If people can admit that their life has no meaning and seem not to care, this strikes me as complacency. As a Spiritual Director, I have learned that there is a Source within us that compels us to seek, to explore and to discover within ourselves for fulfillment and meaning. Is it possible that the people surveyed have simply given up? If that is the case, this is truly sad. Lauri Lumby Authentic Freedom Ministries Wisconsin http://yourspiritualtruth.com