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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.

Now that Westerners no longer have to fight for their existence, they have more time and inclination to ponder it. The resulting existential arguments are perhaps more prevalent than ever in a time where technology, leisure, resources and freedom make pursuing whatever an individual finds meaningful a real option.

New quantitative psychological research suggests a considerable percentage of the population can’t be bothered by these ambitious if ambiguous questions, and when pressed don’t really care that they feel their lives, in the big picture, are meaningless.

Tatjana Schnell, a research psychologist at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, surveyed perceived meaningfulness in a modern population. She found, as many might intuit, that many find no meaning in their lives, and those actively wrestling with meaning suffer from increased anxiety, depression and dissatisfaction with life. But this either/or result — either meaningful or meaningless — is over-simplified, Schnell argues; it’s not just a matter of someone feeling their life has meaning or no meaning, but whether they care that their life has no meaning.

The research, reminiscent of a European art-house flick, puts numbers to something humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow cited as a “valuelessness” in Western societies, “a rather bleak, boring, unexciting, unemotional, cool philosophy of life.” Psychologist Victor Frankl referred to an “existential vacuum” due to a lack of commitment to values. Empirical psychological research has avoided the topic, partly because meaningfulness is hard to measure while the detachment generally congruent with its absence is subtle compared to outright psychopathology — is this hipster irony or mild depression?

Participants were surveyed using the SoMe scale, which measures people on a scale from those who believe they have a total lack of meaning in their lives to those who feel their lives are full of meaning, and breaks down individuals into four groups. Schnell categorizes people in this way:

• High meaningfulness, low crisis of meaning (meaningful)

• Low meaningfulness, low crisis of meaning (existentially indifferent)

• High meaningfulness, high crisis of meaning (conflicting)

• Low meaningfulness, high crisis of meaning (crisis of meaning)

The meaningfulness value is based upon one’s appraisal of life as “coherent, significant, directed, and belonging.” The crisis of meaning variable measures absence or presence of suffering drawn from meaninglessness.

Looking at a sample of 603 Germans, Schnell found that 61 percent were “meaningful,” 4 percent suffered a “crisis of meaning,” and 35 percent were “existentially indifferent,” those who “neither experience their lives as meaningful nor suffer from this lack of meaning.” So of the people who felt their lives lacked meaning, it really only bothered one in 10 of them.

Schnell found no strong trend in gender or extent of education among the indifferent, but age did matter. The indifferent skewed younger, on average five years younger, than those who found meaning in their lives. Think: The Graduate‘s Ben Braddock floating in his pool after returning home. And for those who hadn’t graduated — adults who were students — existential indifference was present in 53 percent.

Relationship, or the lack of them, also mattered. Singles and those living with a partner could go either way, but the married were much more likely to be in the meaningful category (70 percent). Schnell hypothesizes that marriage provides an individual with belonging and commitment, “direction through the implicit aim of building a home and raising children” and a sense of responsibility for children that all promote a feeling of meaning in one’s life.

Crises of meaning, on the other hand, occurred most often among those married but living apart and singles. Maybe taking out the trash when she tells you to is a meaningful endeavor after all.

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