How Common Is the Belief that Life Is Meaningless?

Most people actually understand their lives to be quite meaningful.

Posted Jun 16, 2020

In Victor Frankl’s famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, a section called “The Existential Vacuum” claims that “the existential vacuum is a widespread phenomenon of the twentieth century." He proceeds to explain why this vacuum emerged: In the twentieth century, people ceased to rely on their traditions and on their instincts.

I hear many similar views. People often discuss the widespread existential vacuum, the omnipresent sense of meaninglessness, the prevalent existential void, the rampant existential crisis. I have even met people who felt uneasy for not sensing life as meaningless. What’s wrong with them? Why aren’t they sensing life as meaningless like all other people? Are they shallow? Or maybe inauthentic?

Frankl's evidence for the claim that “the existential vacuum is a widespread phenomenon” is a statistical survey according to which 25 percent of his European students and 60 percent of his American students showed “a more-or-less marked degree of existential vacuum." Unfortunately, Frankl doesn’t mention a reference for this survey. Nor does he note that the incidence of existential vacuum among those who came to study with him how to cope with life's meaninglessness is likely to be higher than in the population at large. Similarly, when I ask my contemporary interlocutors who discuss the wide prevalence of the sensation that life is meaningless on what they base their claims, they do not have solid evidence.

The empirical research on the topic suggests that the phenomenon may be less common than some take it to be. Samantha J. Heintzelman and Laura A. King of the University of Missouri have reviewed many empirical studies that assessed the prevalence of the feeling that life is meaningless. Their conclusion, which is reflected in the title of their paper, is that feelings of meaninglessness are not very prevalent at all. They titled their paper “Life is Pretty Meaningful.”

For example, in a 2002 study that they cite, sponsored by the National Institute on Aging at the University of Michigan, 1062 individuals over 50 were asked whether they felt that their life had meaning in the preceding 12 months. Ninety-five percent of them replied to this question with a “yes.”

In another study initiated at Baylor University, 1648 participants were asked to rate the claim “My life has a real purpose” on a five-point scale ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree. Only 10 percent of the participants disagreed or strongly disagreed with this claim. Six percent remained undecided, and 84 percent agreed or strongly agreed with this claim.

In yet another study, Shigehiro Oishi and Ed Diener report on information collected by Gallup Global Polls from 137,678 people in 132 nations across the globe. The question “Do you feel that your life has an important purpose or meaning?” was answered affirmatively by 91% of the participants.

Other studies present similar findings. As always, we should consider such figures with caution. And as always, it would be helpful to have more studies on more populations in different parts of the world. Moreover, many philosophers are likely to point out that people’s feelings of meaning in their lives may differ from what might be real meaning in their lives. Further, the large percentage in these and other samples of the people who take their lives to be meaningful shouldn’t lead us to ignore those who feel that their lives are not meaningful; they should be taken very seriously.

Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that some appear to consider the existential vacuum to be a much more widespread phenomenon than the empirical research on the topic suggests it really is.

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References

Baylor University (2007) The Baylor Religion Survey, Wave II. Waco, TX: Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.

Frankl, V. (1984) Man’s Search for Meaning. New York: Washington Square Press.

Heintzelman S. J. and King L. A. (2014) Life Is Pretty Meaningful. American Psychologist 69(6): 561–574.  DOI: 10.1037/a0035049

Oishi S. and Diener E. (2014) Residents of Poor Nations Have a Greater Sense of Meaning in Life Than Residents of Wealthy Nations. Psychological Science, 25(2): 422–430. DOI: 10.1177/0956797613507286