Empty Heart Disease: Young People Who Feel Life Has No Meaning

Empty heart disease tends to appear in young people who are highly demanding of themselves. Academic and work pressure, added to a lack of existential feeling leads them to situations of great anguish and desolation.
Empty Heart Disease: Young People Who Feel Life Has No Meaning
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

High demand, both from themselves and their environment, lack of essential meanings, feelings of despair… There are many more ways we could describe the current state of mind of many of our young people. However, the term that metaphorically symbolizes the feelings of a large number of youngsters between the ages of 17 and 24 is ’empty heart disease’.

This isn’t an organic disease as such. It can’t be diagnosed by blood tests or radiographs. Nor will the best of doctors be able to recognize it by listening to their hearts with a stethoscope. In fact, it’s not heart disease, but a psychological state that lies behind many suicides among the younger population.

This term was coined in 2016. It was Professor Xu Kaiwen, deputy director of the mental health education and counseling center at Peking University in China, who first mentioned this psychological condition. He used the term, kongxin bing or empty heart to define students in China who’d gained access to prestige universities yet lacked any vital purpose.

However, this phenomenon isn’t exclusive to the Eastern world. Indeed, Western culture also shows this reality to which we should pay more attention.

In most cases of empty heart disease, the sufferer also experiences chronic anxiety.

Teenager thinking that he suffers from empty heart disease
Young people feel increasingly pressured by a society that doesn’t meet their expectations.

Empty heart disease

There was a great deal of interest shown in the statements that Professor Xu Kaiwen made regarding empty heart syndrome in 2016 at an education summit in Beijing. Indeed, the media and many universities analyzed his data. He explained that 40.4 percent of first-year students feel that life is meaningless. Furthermore, 30.4 percent hate studying.

So why do they do it? Well, young Asians experience high family and social pressure. They must be the best, the most prepared in a highly competitive and demanding context. They’re prepared for a future they don’t even believe in at a time when they’ve barely had the chance to clarify their own identity or life purpose.

They arrive at the university feeling great emptiness and a lack of purpose. In reality, it’s a kind of restlessness they’ve experienced all their lives but, on approaching adulthood, it reaches unmanageable proportions. That’s when chronic anxiety appears and completely drains their energy. In fact, some drop out of college, while others end up with serious mental problems.

Let’s look at the symptoms of empty heart disease.

Relationships are mere social obligations

Many of these youngsters have, on the surface, a perfect life. At least, from the outside looking in. They have many friends and even relationships. However, they’re not happy. Connection with their peers doesn’t bring them real gratification because they see it as a mere social obligation.

They feel like entities that are limited to blending in with each other. They do what’s expected of them, but find no meaning in almost anything.

Many young people appear to have great academic and personal resolve. Nevertheless, they hide their inner feelings of an absolute lack of meaning toward life and a deep fear of the future.

Loneliness and misunderstanding

As you can imagine, since social relationships don’t give them any meaning, it’s common for these young people to navigate constantly between feelings of emptiness and loneliness. They also feel disconnected and misunderstood. What’s devastating is that they’ve felt alone from childhood.

Their parents exert on them, from an early age, excessive, almost inhuman demands. This means they miss the chance to be children. They never get the chance to play and enjoy a leisurely, spontaneous, and curious life.

Good academic achievements that they’re not even proud of

Empty heart disease is triggered by pressure to do well academically. While it’s true that this phenomenon was coined in China, it’s a reality that’s also common in the West. The University of Victoria (British Colombia) conducted research that demonstrated the serious effects of this kind of pressure on studying.

They claimed that many young people suffer from mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, as well as sleep disorders and substance abuse. Furthermore, they don’t enjoy their academic achievements because they’re expected to be Grade A students at any cost.

The disease of the empty heart and the lack of essential meaning

We might say that empty heart disease is rather similar to existential depression. Indeed, sufferers don’t find any meaning in life. When the only thing that’s expected of them is that they succeed and be the best, they simply end up asking themselves “What for?”.

More than depression, since they were little, they’ve carried the burden of chronic anxiety. They’re afraid of not being what their family expects them to be, fearful of the future, and experience continual stress and anguish, night and day. This is mixed together with the eternal doubt of whether their efforts will lead them to anything concrete.

Sad teenager looking in the mirror thinking that he suffers from empty heart disease
We need to develop strategies to prevent and assist the mental health of our students.

Suicidal thoughts and dropping out of school

Dr. David Scharff, a professor at Georgetown University (USA) wrote about a shocking case in his book, Marriage and Family in Modern China (2021). It was that of a 14-year-old girl who formed a suicide club. Unable to meet her parents’ expectations, she explained that dying, for her, meant nothing.

Empty heart disease creeps in early on in the young. Many of them try to take their own lives and others are unable to withstand the pressure and drop out of school. In doing so, they also have to bear the feeling of having disappointed their families.

A moment to reflect

Undoubtedly, there’s something failing in our society when future generations don’t believe in their future. There’s something wrong when adolescents and young adults don’t find any meaning in life and simply get carried away by circumstances. They feel empty, lonely, and sad.

We need better assistance both to prevent and be able to help in these situations. Not only do we need specialized professionals and more economic resources, but it would also be helpful to introduce new educational formulas.

We need the kind of educational programs that include adequate emotional management and allow a space in which young people are able to clarify what their purposes, values, dreams, and desires are. As Fernando Savater said, “Youth is the vitamin supplement of the anemic social routine”. At least, it certainly should be.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Scharff, D. (2021) Marriage and Family in Modern China: A Psychoanalytic Exploration. London and New York: Routledge.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.