The background

The meaninglessness epidemic – a 21st century disease

From my own experience of working in a National Health Service setting, I know that the number of people seeking help for what appears to be a crisis of meaning is huge. But it seems this problem is not new.

Even in 1846 Søren Kierkegaard wrote that “people in our time, because of so much knowledge, have forgotten what it means to exist”.

And he was not the only one to note the rise of this epidemic of meaninglessness. In the 1940s Viktor Frankl wrote that “the existential vacuum is a widespread phenomenon of the twentieth century”.

Then in the 1980s Irvin Yalom observed that “with accelerating frequency, patients come in for therapy because of complaints associated with lack of a sense of meaning in life”.

So it would appear that this problem has been around, and gaining ground, for quite some time now. Why?

For our ancestors who lived in pre-industrial times life was tough and harsh. But though they may have struggled with many aspects of day-to-day life, it’s likely that they did not obsess over life’s meaning in the way that many people today feel compelled to do.

Arguably they had more pressing concerns; feeding the family, keeping them clothed and shod, and preventing them from catching any of a plethora of life-threatening diseases.

At that time, an as yet scientifically unchallenged religious worldview also supplied people with meaning. It provided answers to any of a myriad of questions about the origins of the universe, what happens after we die and other existential concerns that human beings have had since the very first inklings of human civilisation.

As well as telling people what to believe, much respected religious institutions also told people how to live. Values and ideals, rituals and routines were all passed down the generations and bound up in various ways in different cultures, giving individuals a comforting and helpful set of rules by which to live their lives.

But as Yalom has noted, many of those meanings have vanished. He writes “a citizen of today’s urbanized, industrialised secular world must face life without a religiously based cosmic meaning-system and wrenched from articulation with the natural world and the elemental chain of life”.

In our digital and globalised age with its cultural dilution and homogeneity, where ‘the market’ is God and money the Holy Spirit, we find ourselves floundering, divorced from nature, and not knowing what to believe or how to live. Living a meaningful life seems to be an increasingly difficult thing to do.

Another feature of our modern world that seems to contribute to this is that we live increasingly isolated lives. The generations have been separated and families spread out as our society becomes increasingly mobile. Community cohesion is under attack and the scripts and roles that were an inherent part of community life are under threat too.

Granted, a large proportion of the world’s population are fortunate nowadays to live lives of relative affluence and comfort. We have developed economical ways of mass producing reasonable quality food and we have machines that do a significant chunk of what would otherwise be mind-numbingly boring chores and exhaustingly physical graft.

All this innovation has improved our material wellbeing beyond measure, and has freed us up to have more leisure time. But how has it affected our spiritual and emotional well being?

Both Frankl and Yalom talk about the curse of having too much time and the threat of boredom. For them, this is the insidious force that is eating away at our societal spiritual core. Frankl talked about “Sunday neurosis”, a type of depression that hits people when the busy week is over and they become aware of the void of meaning in their lives. A similar, but longer lasting, phenomenon often seems to affect people in retirement.

And yet, despite all this, we are in so many ways extremely blessed to live now. In recent decades there have been advances in virtually every sphere of human endeavor – in science, in medicine and in technology amongst others. The key is to reap the benefits of these developments, whilst managing the challenge of finding meaning in this same hi-tech world.

Progress in other areas is also subtly banging the drum of meaning. An at least basic level of education is now available to many more millions than it was a century ago, opportunities to travel are better than they’ve ever been, and a ‘job for life’ is no longer standard. Whilst that may cause uncertainty and anxiety for some, there is the possibility that there are those for whom moving between different occupations have might lead to a deeper understanding of what it is they really want ‘to do’ and, ultimately, what gives them meaning.

Another aspect of our modern world that might work in favour of finding meaning is that we have more exposure to people from other cultures and with different spiritual beliefs than at any previous time in human history. If we can be tolerant and respectful of other religious beliefs, and if we are spiritually curious and sufficiently open-minded, we might even discover beliefs that fit with our own personal sense of meaning better than the ones which belong to the culture into which we were born.

Sadly we still see extreme resistance to this kind of religious freedom in some countries. But we should hope that in our increasingly diverse world we will in the future be less and less fearful of or threatened by difference and rather be enriched by it.

So while it may at first seem that our modern world and its inhabitants are on course for an inevitable downward slide into a pit of meaninglessness, for the individual at least, the opportunities for living a meaningful life are riper and more ready than they have ever been. The fruits are there and are hanging on the tree. It’s just a case of picking them.

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