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Surprise -- People Who Think Life Is Meaningless Still Enjoy Their Lives

A startling proportion of the population, the existentially indifferent, demonstrates little concern for meaning in their lives.

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Employment status, however, was not a solid predictor — 58 percent of unemployed and 59 percent of employed saw their lives as meaningful, although the unemployed were the most likely to have a crisis of meaning. Schnell posits that work is a potentially great source of meaning, but the shift in labor toward temporary and short-term jobs does not encourage the commitment and identity employment once provided.

The academics identified 26 “sources of meaning” in their study, and noted that the indifferent lacked sources like love, social commitment and unison of nature. They were especially low in self-knowledge, spirituality, explicit religiosity and generativity, even compared to those in a crisis.

Schnell stresses the low self-awareness among the apathetic. They do not face their own personal strengths and weaknesses because they are of little importance to them. Exceedingly little energy is invested in reflecting on themselves, their needs and motives.

Those in a crisis showed greater self-knowledge. As Schnell describes, “Combined with the awareness of a lack of meaning, the active search for self-understanding might more likely lead to the detection or construction of meaning than the passive and disinterested condition of existential indifference.”

On the other hand, Schnell noted that overzealous self-analysis can impede the path to good mental health. Just ask Woody Allen!

Ironically, the indifferent still found life satisfying (more so than those suffering a crisis of meaning), though still less than those with meaning in their lives. The indifferent experienced less anxiety and depression than those with a crisis of meaning, and those traits measured similarly to those who viewed their lives as meaningful.

The existentially indifferent appear to live a life of complacency, with few highs and little or no introspection. As Schnell puts it, “Without commitment to sources of meaning, life remains superficial. But superficiality is not necessarily a state of suffering.” They aren’t classified as having “psychological stress,” but they “can hardly be viewed as living a life of health and well-being,” according to Schnell. An existentialist would say they are asleep.

“Existential philosophers and psychologists, from Heidegger to Frankl … have discussed distinctions between an authentic, complex life and a shallow, ‘everydayness’ mode of existence,” Schnell comments. The existentially indifferent characterize this “everyday” mode of existence, and as if to defy existentialism, are perfectly fine with it. To replace meaningful pursuits, they have a wide array of superficial weaponry. “Surrogates for meaningful commitment abound: They range from material possessions to pleasure seeking, from busy-ness to sexuality.”

Brad Wittwer is currently an undergraduate student at Brown University studying economics and psychology. He has also studied at the University of California, San Diego and Dartmouth. A former intern for Miller-McCune, he also works for the AEDI group on their Village Corps project bringing sustainable development practices to villages in developing countries through a web-based platform.

 
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