The Crisis of Meaning
Heeding Viktor Frankl's call.
Posted Jul 12, 2017
Some 60 years ago, the world-renowned psychiatrist and Nazi concentration camp survivor, Viktor Frankl, MD, PhD, called attention to three major societal ills: aggression, addiction, and depression. He termed these problems the “mass neurotic triad,” a kind of psychological axis of evil in today’s parlance.1 Significantly, this triad comprised more than targets for psychiatric/therapeutic intervention. The mass neurotic triad was symptomatic of a contemporary world that was missing something; indeed, something vitally important to the nature of human existence itself.
To Dr. Frankl, the problems of aggression, addiction, and depression could be traced, in large part, to an “existential vacuum” or perception that one’s life, including one’s work life, appeared to be meaningless. He observed that the existential vacuum was a widespread phenomenon of the 20th Century and underscored that these conditions were not truly understandable, let alone “treatable,” unless the existential vacuum underlying them was recognized.
If Viktor Frankl were alive today (he passed on in September 1997), I’m sure that he would still be concerned about this mass neurotic triad. In fact, he would probably argue that the problems of aggression, addiction, and depression are worse now than when he first wrote about them after World War II!
For example, when it comes to aggression, we see it manifest itself in ways that Dr. Frankl may not even recognize. Besides overt aggressive behaviors, like road rage, air rage, parking lot rage, and “desk” rage2 (e.g., work stress that leads people to engage in counterproductive workplace behaviors that cost employers billions of dollars in lost productivity, insurance payments, and increased security), postmodern society also must confront increasing levels of relationally aggressive behaviors like bullying (e.g., research evidence, believe it or not, suggests that aggressive children in school are perceived as being more “popular” than meeker students3). And these illustrations of aggression say nothing about the “shock and awe” mentality that plagues societies in the 21st Century on an international scale with acts of terrorism, wars, and rumors of wars.
Insofar as addiction and addictive behaviors are concerned, the situation, I would argue, is very similar. And we’re not just talking about the alarming increases in substance abuse, both the “legal” and illegal kinds, which concern our modern age. The new millennium has brought us new kinds of addictive behaviors, such as those associated with shopping, telecommunications (e.g., email and “texting”), and the internet, along with new forms of work (“workaholic”), gambling (“day-trading”), exercise, and sexual addictions.
And to close the loop on the mass neurotic triad, it is a simple fact that depression is occurring more often and at earlier ages than in decades past; that is, when Dr. Frankl first called our attention to this phenomenon. Indeed, statistics related to depression available from such organizations as the American Psychiatric Association, National Institute of Health, and World Health Organization, among other reputable sources, are staggering:
- 20 percent of adults will experience depression at some point in their life.
- One of every four adolescents will have an episode of major depression during high school with the average age of onset being 14 years.
- 97 percent of those reporting depression also reported that their work, home life, and relationships suffered as a result.
- Women are twice as likely to experience depression as men.
- Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide.
- One in seven men will develop depression within 6 months of becoming unemployed; and so on.4,5,6
Once again, these statistics point primarily to the manifestations and effects of depression on individuals; they don’t even begin to describe the fall-out that comes “naturally” with depression at the family, community, and nation-state levels. The implications of depression on such a macro-level can be, and usually are, profound. The fall-out or “collateral damage” (to borrow yet another familiar word from the modern-day lexicon of aggression) associated with the current and highly-polarized geopolitical climate, we can rest assured, will only exacerbate the incidence of depression along with its personal and societal implications.
The persistence of the mass neurotic triad in the 21st Century suggests, as mentioned earlier, that we are facing a “crisis of meaning” that will not go away on its own, nor will it disappear solely through the pursuit of power (i.e., a correlate of aggression) or the pursuit of pleasure (i.e., a correlate of addiction). But where there is a crisis, there is also opportunity. Hence, a crisis of meaning is also a call for meaning—in our personal lives, in our work, and even in our public policies. In the midst of the personal and collective suffering that surrounds us, and as we confront this critical and pivotal time in world history, there is still hope for a better, more meaning-full future for all.
And, ultimately, as Viktor Frankl would say, it is meaning that sustains us throughout our lives no matter how little or how much power and pleasure come our way. It is meaning that can help us address the problems of aggression, addiction, and depression. It is meaning that will sustain us as we face the challenges of everyday life in our relationships, at work, and with society as a whole no matter how desperate they may appear or actually be. However, it is up to each and every one of us to find this meaning in order to reach the levels of human evolution and enlightenment, as well as quality of life, which still await us. In future posts, we’ll discuss ways to find this meaning in our everyday lives and work, as well as explore how the search for meaning—individually and collectively—is intimately related to and positively influences health and well-being at all levels. Now is the time to address this crisis of meaning.
1. Frankl, Viktor E. (1978). The Unheard Cry for Meaning, New York: Washington Square Press/Simon & Schuster, p. 28. See also: Pattakos, A., & Dundon, E. (2017). Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work, 3rd edition. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, pp. 53-54.
3. Rose, A.J., Swenson, L.P., & Waller, E.M. (2004). “Overt and relational aggression and perceived popularity: Developmental differences in concurrent and prospective relations,” Developmental Psychology, Vol. 40, No. 3, pp. 378-387.
4. For example: https://psychcentral.com/lib/depression-in-teens-and-children/