Existential Crisis: How to Cope With Meaninglessness

Existential crisisRecent statistics suggest that over a quarter of UK nationals feel a deep sense of meaninglessness (Dinic, 2021).

In the wake of multiple global economic, humanitarian, environmental, and societal crises, life may appear particularly bleak.

Even a quick search of the term “existential crisis” brings up topics such as wars and conflicts, emerging technology, the erosion of democracy, climate change, and many more. There is evidently much to worry about.

What can be done to alleviate these feelings, and how might we shore up our sense of meaning during challenging times?

Well, the good news is that there are many ways to cope with feelings of existential anxiety or dread and, even better yet, find a purpose to live a more fulfilled life. More on that below.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Meaning and Valued Living Exercises for free. These creative, science-based exercises will help you learn more about your values, motivations, and goals and will give you the tools to inspire a sense of meaning in the lives of your clients, students, or employees.

The Meaning and Definition of an Existential Crisis

The concept of an existential crisis can be tricky to define and has no formal academic or scientific definition per se. However, we can get a good sense of what it might be by looking at the etymological root of the term and similar concepts.

The word “existential” can be traced to the late Latin word existentialis/exsistentialis, which stems from existere/exsistere — or existence as we know it now — and means to “stand forth.” The term “existential” became popularized through the work of Kierkegaard (1849/1980) in the early 1800s and simply referred to the state of one’s existence.

Building on this, Lundvall et al. (2022, p. 2) talk about existential crises in terms of “existential concerns,” which they define as “thoughts about life, who we are, and what we wish to be.”

These concerns can be triggered as a result of day-to-day challenges that elicit searching questions about oneself and cause individuals to take stock and “reflect on the deeper meaning of life” (Lundvall et al., p. 2).

For example, when a loved one becomes ill or we are confronted with our own sense of mortality, this can lead to a cascade of existential dread and anxiety (Greenberg et al., 1986).

Considering the definitions above, an existential crisis can be viewed as an intense time of challenge or difficulty to one’s own sense of existence — who we are, where we fit into the world, and our ability to stand forth in our own sense of self.

This definition may feel quite abstract, so how do we know when we are on the precipice of an existential crisis? Let’s explore this below.

6 Signs and Symptoms

MeaninglessnessGiven the very human nature of an existential crisis, many, if not all, individuals will experience periods of meaninglessness and existential anxiety at some point in their lives.

As such, there are several key symptoms to look out for:

  1. Lack of motivation
    One of the core drivers of all behavior is the search for meaning (Maslow, 1966). Therefore, existential worries can disrupt this, which can have a negative impact on motivation and make previously satisfying normal goals less satisfying.
  2. Feelings of apathy and boredom
    While some people may experience distressing emotions during a period of meaninglessness, others may also feel numb. This can also manifest as boredom and a lack of interest in life (Van Tilburg & Igou, 2012).
  3. Feelings of worry or anxiety
    Individuals who are lacking in meaning can expect to experience reduced wellbeing and higher instances of negative affect (Steger & Kashdan, 2013). Other unpleasant emotions that can arise include hopelessness, worry, anxiety, or dread.
  4. Feelings of isolation
    A lack of connectedness with people and the world around us more broadly can have a detrimental impact on a sense that the world has meaning and purpose (Stillman et al., 2009).
  5. Preoccupation with death
    Becoming aware of our own mortality is distressing at the best of times. Thoughts of and anxiety about death can be heightened when individuals are in a period of meaninglessness (Routledge & Juhl, 2010).
  6. Loss of self
    A strong sense of meaning is correlated with having a strong sense of who we are and the unique contribution we bring to the world (Singer, 2004). When meaning is lost or violated and searching questions about life are triggered, this can rock an individual’s core sense of self and identity.

Individuals may find that many of the symptoms above resonate with them. It is important to note that some of these symptoms overlap with symptoms of depression (World Health Organization, 2023), so it is vital that individuals check in with their health care provider when such feelings arise.

Below, we look at the key causes of an existential crisis.

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Causes of an Existential Crisis

The work of Irvin Yalom (1980), a psychotherapist who has focused extensively on issues of existentialism, has found that humans are preoccupied by four different existential concerns that can trigger existential crises:

  • Death
  • Freedom
  • Isolation
  • Meaninglessness

Critically, Yalom’s (1980) work has found that when individuals struggle in any of these domains, their quality of life is severely diminished, and individuals are prone to destructive or risky behaviors, including suicidal ideation.

In order to live a fulfilling and meaningful life, Yalom argues that individuals must break free from these existential concerns, often through acceptance, community, and authenticity.

It has, however, been argued that the primary cause or determinant of an existential crisis is specifically a loss of meaning and purpose in life (Yalom, 1980).

A lack of meaning can be attributed to any number of sources; as such, it is important to identify where the violation of meaning has occurred. Below, we highlight some of the areas where meaning might be lost:

  • Personal injury or personal ill health
  • Difficulties with work or finances
  • Breakdown of important relationships (e.g., a divorce or loss of a loved one)
  • Violation of basic needs (i.e., shelter, access to health care, food, and sanitation)
  • Concern over societal issues and the state of the world (i.e., political, economic, environmental, and humanitarian issues)

One approach to helping identify where meaning may be lost is by using the Sources of Meaning Questionnaire (Schnell, 2009), which assesses 26 different sources of meaning in life and the degree to which the person is lacking or in abundance of those sources.

Typically, relationships and work are often the strongest sources of meaning (Silver et al., 2021). Equally, you may want to try the Meaning in Life Questionnaire (Steger et al., 2006).

Once individuals are able to identify the primary cause of the meaning violation, then steps can be taken to address the issue. In fact, one of the key tenets of existential therapy is that individuals have the power within themselves to create meaning in their own lives.

Coping Strategies to Deal With Meaninglessness

Coping StrategiesIf you are in the midst of an existential crisis, there is help.

While it may seem impossible to shake off these feelings of anxiety or dread, there are a number of strategies individuals can use to a) better cope with the discomfort and uncertainty and b) gain a deeper sense of meaning.

1. Bolster meaning and purpose in other life domains when lost or threatened in another

The Meaning Maintenance Model (Heine et al., 2006) argues that the way individuals make meaning is via a series of mental frameworks that tell us how the world works. We have four meaning frameworks in our arsenal:

    1. Self-esteem: the need to feel valued and worthy
    2. Belongingness: the need to belong to groups and communities
    3. Certainty: the need to believe our perceptions are correct
    4. Symbolic immortality: the need for legacy to live on via family or work

When something happens in life that threatens or disrupts one of these meaning frameworks (such as the uncertainty that accompanies climate change), individuals can compensate for this loss by actively shoring up the meaning they derive from another framework (e.g., by spending more time volunteering or helping those most impacted by climate change).

2. Sit with your discomfort

One powerful approach to dealing with meaninglessness or existential anxiety is to simply sit with the discomfort using mindfulness. Mindfulness can generate a bounty of beneficial outcomes, though one lesser-promoted benefit is the ability to endure discomfort (Lotan et al., 2013).

The beauty of mindfulness is how, with sustained practice, it enables individuals to build a tolerance for feelings that may previously have been distressing (e.g., pain, anxiety, dread). By approaching these feelings in an open, nonjudgmental, and compassionate way, individuals can slowly build the tools needed to better cope with feelings associated with meaninglessness and come to accept the uncertainty that life brings.

3. Circle of control

The circle of control (Covey, 1989) is a visual representation of individual control, influence, and concern. The idea of the activity is that it enables individuals to identify and map out the areas of life where they are able to exert some control and influence and, similarly, those they cannot.

By being proactive about the things we do have control over, feelings of helplessness for the things we have little or no control over can be allayed.

The activities above are beneficial primarily from a reactive perspective, showing how to stem the bleed once in the grips of a period of meaninglessness. Yet, it is important to think about meaning as a long-term pursuit. As such, being proactive about building meaning can be a protective buffer against future periods of uncertainty. Below, we explore this in more depth.

Finding Meaning and Purpose

The following approaches are about proactivity in finding meaning in life. How do we intentionally build the psychological tools needed to foster feelings of fulfillment and purpose?

What makes life meaningful - Michael Steger

You might find the following TEDx talk by Michael Steger enlightening. In this lively and engaging talk, filled with personal anecdotes and research evidence, Steger outlines what makes life meaningful, including having a clear sense of purpose and the need to make sense of the world around us.

By engaging with the following three fundamental practices, individuals can expect to build up a deeper sense of meaning and find purpose in their lives.

1. Life crafting

Schippers and Ziegler (2019) propose a positive psychology intervention designed specifically to help individuals find purpose and meaning in their lives. This intervention helps individuals reflect on their values and competencies before envisioning a desired future and taking steps towards attaining those goals.

This intervention involves seven stages:

  1. Write about your passion and values.
  2. Write about your competencies and habits.
  3. Write about your present and future social life.
  4. Write about your possible future career path.
  5. Write about your ideal versus less ideal future.
  6. Create some goals and if–then statements.
  7. Publicly commit to your goals.

2. Practice gratitude

Oftentimes, when things feel hopeless, we need to take a step back and engage in some reflection and reframing. Gratitude is an effective way to supercharge wellbeing and bolster meaning by helping individuals appreciate the good things that come their way (Emmons & Shelton, 2002).

Crucially, gratitude can allow individuals to reframe negative events and identify meaning within them — even during the most challenging times.

3. Foster a growth mindset

When experiencing meaninglessness or existential concern, an individual’s outlook on life can become narrowed. Building and maintaining an open mind can act as a buffer against feelings of uncertainty (Kossowska et al., 2020).

To actively shift toward a growth mindset, individuals can try out this growth mindset activity, which helps individuals reframe their beliefs about life and their approach to challenging situations.

Resources From PositivePsychology.com

Here at PositivePsycology.com, we have practical exercises and tools that can be used to help build meaning in times of existential crisis.

The Meaning & Valued Living Masterclass

This brilliant masterclass is designed specifically to help individuals find their sense of meaning and purpose in life. Drawing upon the work of Viktor Frankl (1985), the Meaning & Valued Living Masterclass© enables individuals to develop their “why” for living, including honing in on your values.

Within the masterclass, you have access to exclusive science-backed content created and delivered by experts, exercises and activities, and resources including teaching and practitioner handbooks and videos.

Relevant reading

For more meaning exercises, you may find our article on living a meaningful life helpful. In this article, there are five evidence-based steps individuals can take to build meaning, including identifying passions and boosting social connections.

One surefire way to build meaning and protect yourself from meaninglessness during challenging times is to practice mindfulness. In the attached article, there are a variety of free mindfulness worksheets for adults and children, including exercises on mindful listening, eating, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, and many more.

As a practitioner, you may find these existential therapy techniques helpful for your practice as well as our article on existential therapy.

Our curated list of meaning of life books will guide you through hours of discovery and insight, helping you find purpose.

Worksheets

Worksheets can be powerful tools to guide clients toward healing and reflection, and we have a huge selection of insightful and useful worksheets. From our extensive library, we handpicked the following:

Healing From Trauma Through Writing is an exercise to help clients find meaning and resolution in their trauma.

Aware–Explore–Apply seeks to identify character strengths, how these strengths can be meaningful, and how to put them to good use.

Hope can be a powerful way to foster a deeper sense of meaning (Feldman & Snyder, 2005), and in the linked worksheet, individuals can actively build their hope and resilience by answering some questions about times when they have felt most hopeful. Individuals are also asked to list their three biggest aspirations and some of the sources of hope in their lives.

Feelings of isolation and despair can be blinding to the helping hands and relationships present. This Expressing Gratitude to Others worksheet is an eye-opening exercise that will also improve relationships.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others discover meaning, check out this collection of 17 validated meaning tools for practitioners. Use them to help others choose directions for their lives in alignment with what is truly important to them.

A Take-Home Message

Life is messy and can be fraught with periods of challenge and upheaval. This is what it means to be human.

While it may be impossible to completely avoid existential crises, it is possible to be proactive about building meaning. More importantly, these periods of reflection and questioning can be a positive experience, allowing you to flourish.

In fact, discovering meaning during challenging times can be a source of societal resilience, growth, and hope (Vos et al., 2023). Indeed, meaning in life can be found even during the darkest times, through pain and suffering (Wong, 1998).

So don’t shy away when existential concerns emerge; rather, lean into practices that can help buffer against negative feelings and generate greater meaning and purpose.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Meaning and Valued Living Exercises for free.

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