Ktismatics

21 August 2007

I Want Something, I Want Something

Filed under: Culture — ktismatics @ 8:44 am

In Man’s Search for Meaning (1959), Victor Frankl wrote about the “existential vacuum,” the personal meaninglessness that increasingly characterizes life in contemporary Western society. Says Frankl:

A statistical survey recently revealed that among my European students, 25 percent showed a more-or-less marked degree of existential vacuum. Among my American students it was not 25 but 60 percent. The existential vacuum manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom. Now we can understand Schopenhauer when he said that mankind is doomed to vacillate eternally between the two extremes of distress and boredom. In actual fact, boredom is now causing, and certainly bringing to psychiatrists, more problems to solve than distress.

So how have things changed over the last half century? Here are some excerpts from this 2001 article by John Schumaker, an American living in New Zealand:

In 1970, a largescale survey of US university students showed that 80 per cent of them had as a goal ‘the development of a meaningful philosophy of life’. By 1989, the percentage had fallen to 41 per cent. During the same period, the number of those aiming to be very well off financially increased from 39 per cent to 75 per cent

The percentage of total economic activity that is generated in America from personal spending has reached 70 per cent, far more than any other nation. In a spending showdown, no-one is faster or more deadly than Americans. We spend hugely more on ourselves than our closest rival. Private spending is between 50 per cent and 90 per cent greater than in all major European countries.

American-style radical consumerism has succeeded to the point that social analysts now speak of things like ‘consumer trance’ and ‘ecological dissociation’. Take the fascination with sport utility vehicles (SWs). Who would have thought in these delicate environmental times that the public could be sold a popular mode of transport that consumes one-third more fuel and creates 75 per cent more pollution than ordinary cars? And who would have guessed that the average fuel efficiency of US cars in the year 2001 would be less than in the hog-car days of the 1950s and 1960s? Environmentalists have calculated that the SW fad has caused Americans to waste 70 billion gallons of gasoline in the past 10 years – an immense price for an outdoorsy image.

Eighty-five percent of Americans indicated in a recent poll that a ‘six-figure’ income would be required to service their yearned-for lifestyle. Yet, nearly 30 percent of those actually earning six-figures reported that their ‘basic needs’ were not being met.

Escalating materialism may be the single largest contributor to Western society’s tenfold increase in major depression over the past half-century. It certainly features in the worrying rash of ‘consumption disorders’ such as compulsive shopping, consumer vertigo and kleptomania. Hyper-materialism also features prominently in the emerging plague of existential disorders’ such as chronic boredom, ennui, jadedness, purposelessness, meaninglessness and alienation. Surveys of therapists reveal that 40 per cent of Americans seeking psychotherapy today suffer from these and other complaints, often referred to as all-pervasive ‘psychic deadness’. Once materialism becomes the epicenter of one’s life it can be hard to feel any more alive than the lifeless objects that litter the consumer world. In a recent study of US university students, 81 per cent of them reported feeling in an ‘existential vacuum’.

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9 Comments »

  1. Thomisticguy should get a kick out of that. I hope he does. I sent it to him.

    Like

    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 21 August 2007 @ 2:25 pm

  2. As goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owner except to feast his eyes on them?

    Qohelet 5

    Like

    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 21 August 2007 @ 7:34 pm

  3. I feel fortunate that I don’t have to spend that much to feel happy. My biggest consumptions are books, puzzles, computers, and I prefer second hand because it makes me feel good ecologically, although I don’t feel guilty if I buy something new when I give or lend it to someone else or reuse it after. I use bycicles for transportation and we were able to put a solar pannel on the roof. My husband needs a car. I’m not judging, I realize that not everyone is able to do the same.
    I’m not impressed by sports cars or other bling bling. It makes me smile, but faintly.
    I’m an appreciator of what’s inside, and everyone has an inside. The existential vaccum was an idea that a friend put in my head.
    What I do have is a craving for knowledge. If vaccuum means aspiration; yes. I search for wisdom, world peace, brainfriendliness, resolution of the many problems I see around me. And I search for tomorrow, that is appearing shapeless today.

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    Comment by Odile — 22 August 2007 @ 2:23 am

  4. Gentlemen something else struck me as interesting about Frankel’s book ”Why didn’;t you kill yourself” (which chronicles his days in the Auschwitz) – that he managed to survive by replaying his unfinished book or doctoral thesis can’t remember over and over again. He claimed that less educated people succumbed to typho much more easily than academics. This should make you feel not only relieved but also, good about yourselves, because being intelligent you have an advantage!

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    Comment by parodycenter — 22 August 2007 @ 5:16 am

  5. America is simultaneously the most religious and the most materialistic of nations, neither of which seems to fill the widespread existential vacuum. Frankl proposes that love, involvement in causes beyond oneself, fulfilling one’s responsibilities to the world are the kinds of things that make for a meaningful life. Maybe American culture just doesn’t offer enough justifiable faith that the activities one engages in have much value beyond one’s own well-being. Our wars all seem useless, education is geared toward achieving a meaningful career, yet the jobs offered in our society have no clear ends beyond profit. Pushing your way out of existential vacuum seems also to require some force from outside yourself that either pulls or pushes you. Maybe by cultivating within oneself a taste for knowledge, love, justice, wisdom — Bildung — one can at least imagine a meaningful reality even without seeing any material or societal evidence for it. And also associating oneself with fellow Bildung-cultivators, even if they’re pursuing very different trajectories.

    There’s something vaguely disturbing about Frankl’s reminiscences on Auschwiz. It’s as if the ones who died failed because of their own self-centeredness — almost as if they didn’t deserve to survive.

    Like

    Comment by ktismatics — 22 August 2007 @ 6:14 am

  6. Doyle! You’re last comment was interesting! I must explore…

    “America is simultaneously the most religious and the most materialistic of nations, neither of which seems to fill the widespread existential vacuum.”

    Interesting. Obviously I see it in terms of American religion’s filling itself with the vacume of materialism. Anyway…

    “Frankl proposes that love, involvement in causes beyond oneself, fulfilling one’s responsibilities to the world are the kinds of things that make for a meaningful life.”

    Supposedly Christianity does too!

    “Maybe American culture just doesn’t offer enough justifiable faith that the activities one engages in have much value beyond one’s own well-being. Our wars all seem useless, education is geared toward achieving a meaningful career, yet the jobs offered in our society have no clear ends beyond profit.”

    I think that’s more how I see it. Or I’d even say that many religous folks feel stuck trying to translate what they either have heard or intuitively understand to be their religious message into the empty world in which they live. Other’s, however, even well-informed ones (supposedly), are quite content translating quite stupidly.

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    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 22 August 2007 @ 10:56 am

  7. When you spend 40 hours a week at work and a couple hours at church, it’s tough to find a meaningful engagement. You end up emphasizing your personal morality on the job rather than the immorality of the job itself. Or, like everybody else, you go for job satisfaction instead of job importance — God has blessed me with a nice boss and a good cafeteria. At least the Christians are thinking about it.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 22 August 2007 @ 5:49 pm

  8. “God has blessed me with a nice boss and a good cafeteria. At least the Christians are thinking about it.”

    Yeah, I hear a lot of crap like that. Or “good coworkers” kind of talk along similar lines. Or even salary/raises.

    Like

    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 22 August 2007 @ 6:08 pm

  9. Parodycenter, I agree with you and Frankl. When faced with challenges, it can be a real asset to have intelligence and built up knowledge to survive.
    he managed to survive by replaying his unfinished book or doctoral thesis can’t remember over and over again. He claimed that less educated people succumbed to typho much more easily than academics.
    Basically, who gets the chance to build him or herself has the advantage.
    Intelligence helps, but drive is often forgotten.
    Also getting to know yourself may be the key for never feeling empty.
    Maybe by cultivating within oneself a taste for knowledge, love, justice, wisdom — Bildung — one can at least imagine a meaningful reality even without seeing any material or societal evidence for it. And also associating oneself with fellow Bildung-cultivators, even if they’re pursuing very different trajectories.
    works for me.

    Like

    Comment by Odile — 23 August 2007 @ 12:52 pm


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