Existential Vacuum: When Life is Meaningless

· May 8, 2019
An existential vacuum is a crisis of meaning. A gut-wrenching feeling that makes life meaningless, a place where there's only suffering and disconnection from the external world. 

Life is meaningless. That’s the main belief among those who feel indifferently toward life. People who feel the weight of injustice and a sort of disconnection to everything that surrounds them. In other words, they feel an existential vacuum.

They’re usually reflective people that like to think about deep matters, such as death or lack of freedom, and they can’t get rid of an existential vacuum that eats them up from within. It’s a void that society contributes to, by constantly sending messages about what’s valuable or not, and about getting immediate satisfaction.

But they’re also constantly pursuing pleasure with the goal of numbing their suffering. The issue is that they don’t really pay attention to the emptiness they feel.

For some people, there’s no good answer to the question “what’s life worth living for?” Nothing fulfills them, nothing satisfies them, and that’s exactly what traps them into a psychological state of suffering. In most cases, this situation turns into a deep depression or self-destructive behavior. 

An existential vacuum is a crisis of meaning and it’s the result of recognizing yourself as someone who sees the world with a different perspective due to thought inconsistency, or as someone who gets carried away by the constant pursuit of pleasure to avoid suffering. This is a widespread phenomenon in today’s world, so let’s dive deeper into it.

a sad woman experiencing an existential vacuum

Existential vacuum: in the depths of the abyss

The meaning of life that’s developing in your mind can crumble when your goals don’t turn out as you wanted. When there’s a big difference between expectation and reality, you might feel greatly disappointed.

Also, when a critical situation threatens the feeling of security and certainty, and you don’t have the resources to face it, you might feel frustrated as well.

All this leads to a deep state of existential frustration and sometimes to a painful abyss. It’s as if you were carrying a desert inside of you, where absurdity defines existence, and any ability to connect with others gets lost.

Psychologist Benjamin Wolman called this an “existential neurosis” and he defined it as

“…failing to find life’s meaning. It’s the feeling that you have no reason left to live, to fight, to hope… a feeling that you’re incapable of finding a purpose, a direction in life. You believe that even if individuals put effort into their work, they don’t really have any ambition.”

The social aspect

Some authors like psychotherapist Tony Anatrella point out that loss of meaning stems from the constant pursuit of satisfying one’s own ego, given that these are selfish actions that stop you from reaching self-transcendence.

And when it comes to this, other authors claim that finding life meaningless is associated with isolation, the supremacy of individual values and wrongfully thinking pleasure is the key to finding happiness.

So, you might be focusing on all your individual desires, thus diluting the sense of social aspects such as coexistence, solidarity or respect.

When you don’t understand reality, and your means to be happy become goals, there’s a high risk of falling into an existential vacuum. Pleasurable short-term emotions, like joy, cause pleasure but not self-actualization. As with any other pleasure, they can be addictive or enslaving.

One way or another, you need to do something with your life that’s not only good but also made by you. Therefore, life’s meaning is related to the destiny you desire and need. Because through that desire, you can expect to develop yourself freely.

Once you feel happy, that’s when your freedom overcomes the boundaries of immanence and you’ll understand that life’s meaning isn’t material or finite, but so much more than that.

But when things don’t go as you expected, a lack of meaning in life can lead you to the abyss of existential vacuum.

a man looking out the window, thinking about his existential vacuum

Human’s noetic dimension

According to the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, humans have mainly three dimensions:

  • Somatic dimension, which includes the body and biological field.
  • Psychic dimension, that entails the psychodynamic reality, or both psychological and emotional universe.
  • Noetic or spiritual dimension, that covers soul’s phenomenology. Therefore, this dimension goes beyond the other two. Furthermore, thanks to it, human beings can develop a healthy life, psychologically speaking.

So, whenever you feel a profound feeling of apathy, it means you’re in conflict with your spiritual dimension. You might be unable to fix your wounds, or even identify them in the first place; you feel unable to find a reason to live so you drown in suffering and experience a lack of coherence and purpose. In other words, this is an existential vacuum.

Social and individual values

Frankl emphasizes that the way to find meaning lies in your values, and social consciousness is what helps it come to the surface. But although values come from personal intimacy, they end up becoming universal values that match some cultural, religious or philosophical systems.

Therefore, connecting with others, as well as keeping affectional bonds, is important not to lose life’s meaning, as long as you don’t make other people responsible for your own happiness. In a way, meaningful life has roots in social facts.

French sociologist and philosopher Drukheim clearly describes the lack of social facts and what it entails:

[when an individual] is individualized beyond a certain point, if he separates himself too radically from other beings, men or things, he finds himself isolated from the same resources that he should feed on, and has nothing to relate to. By making the vacuum around him, he’s made a vacuum within himself and has nothing to reflect on more than his own misery. He has no other object of meditation than the nothingness that’s in him and the sadness that is its consequence.”

silhouette of a woman by a river

Explore yourself before trying to find life’s meaning

But it’s not about pointing fingers or looking for a savior. Instead, it’s about having a reflective and responsible attitude that allows you to explore yourself. It’s to find a purpose and get out of that existential vacuum.

It’s also convenient to recognize that there are multiple ways of defining life’s meaning: as many as there are people in the world. In fact, each one of us can change our life’s purpose throughout our journey in life.  Therefore, what matters isn’t life’s meaning in general, but its meaning at a given moment, just like Viktor Frankl said.

Also, Frankl stated that we shouldn’t explore life’s meaning, but instead we should explore ourselves. Responsibility is the intimate essence of your existence; find life’s meaning by finding yourself.

Change your attitude to get out of the existential vacuum

Even if you’ve invested time, energy, effort, and your heart, life sometimes isn’t fair. And although feeling bad is totally understandable, you have two options: either accept that you can’t change what already happened and act as a victim or accept that in fact, you can’t change anything except your attitude toward it.

You’re responsible for your own actions, emotions, thoughts, and decisions. That’s why you have the possibility to decide what you feel responsible for.

Therefore, life’s meaning is ever-changing. Each day and each moment you have the opportunity to make a decision that will determine whether you stay stuck in a situation or act with dignity, listening to your true self, free from the pleasure traps and immediate satisfaction.

“A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes, within the limits of endowment and environment, he has made out of himself. “

-Viktor Frankl-

  • Adler, A. (1955): “El sentido de la vida”. Barcelona, Luís Miracle.
  • Bauman, Z. (2006). Modernidad líquida. Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Económica.
  • Frankl, V. (1979): “Ante el vacío existencial”. Barcelona, Heder.
  • Rage, E. (1994): “Vacío existencial carencia de un sentido vital”, Psicología Iberoamericana., 2(1): 158-166