The grey everydayness of existential indifference

Author: Bendik Sparre Hovet

After Nietzsche so famously pronounced the death of God, we have been left to consider what his corpse leaves us with. Several psychologists and philosophers have described the current age as a meaning crisis. Human prosperity is growing into until now unimaginable heights, but does it leave us with something fundamental missing? Does all the material distractions reveal a more fundamental need for purpose and meaning? Can we live well without considering meaning?

While there has been widespread speculation that our lives are lacking for meaning, this has not been studied scientifically until a few decades ago. What characterizes people when they think that meaning is meaningless? In her article Existential Indifference: Another Quality of Meaning in life, Tatjana Schnell (2010) calls this a state of existential indifference.

There are two concepts that are central to clear up before facing this state head-on: meaningfulness and crisis of meaning. Meaningfulness means that one sees one’s life as purposeful and fulfilling. A crisis of meaning means life is experienced as empty, meaningless, and lacking purpose. These are often treated as opposites. We suppose that lacking meaning automatically lunges you into a crisis of meaning. But for many, lacking meaning isn’t felt as a crisis at all. Thus, one can have low meaningfulness without experiencing a crisis of meaning. This is what characterizes existential indifference.

From her sample of 603 Germans Schnell found that in the beginning of the millennium, 35% of the general population reported being existentially indifferent. Students (53%) had the highest proportion of existential indifference, and married couples had the lowest (28%). Newer data shows that within the last years, the prevalence of existential indifference has decreased to about one fourth of the population (Schnell, 2021).

For the existentially indifferent, all Sources of Meaning (Schnell, 2009) were lower than for those who experience their lives as meaningful. They even had less sources of meaning than those experiencing a crisis of meaning. Most strikingly, by far the lowest source of meaning for the existentially indifferent was generativity: to create and involve yourself in something bigger than yourself. They also severely down-valued self-knowledge, spirituality, religiosity – all ways of transcending our everyday selves. Their highest source of meaning was comfort.

When people are in a state of existential indifference, they seem to have more of a focus on the here-and-now. However, sometimes being in the here-and-now actually shuts the door to experiencing life as more than the present. Being existentially indifferent might thus mean being stuck in your own world of material values, and ignoring larger concerns beyond your sphere of comfort.

While most of us do not have the answer to what makes a meaningful life, there are also those who, at least for some time in their lives, simply do not care. Is that in any way a problem? In a second study, Schnell investigated how existential indifference was related to mental health and well-being. From a sample of 135 psychology students (85% female) she found that existential indifference was associated with less positive mood and less satisfaction with life, but neither anxiety nor depression reached critical levels.

Further research also shows that existential indifference is associated with below-average belief in one’s own competence and ability to deal with difficulties (Schnell, 2013). One does not feel like one is in control of one’s own life. Furthermore, one also avoids intimacy and closeness. When existentially indifferent, one is neither pessimistic or optimistic. Nor hopeful for the future. So, when you are in a phase of existential indifference, it all amounts to a life of “meh”. A life that is okay. But nothing more.

We have evidence for a quite widespread existential indifference, although the numbers appear to be decreasing. What is also clear is that living without larger concerns is by all means possible without being in a constant crisis of meaning – but life is less intense, less significant, less colorful. Heidegger calls this “everydayness”. You avoid anxiety, but lose the opportunity to become your authentic self. This lack of a coherent pattern of color for modern life is further made difficult by the expectation that everyone should be the artist of their own life.  As Maslow says “People have nothing to admire, to sacrifice themselves for, to surrender to, to die for”.

Now, having something larger to sacrifice oneself for is indeed noble and meaningful. But can we really expect everyone, or anyone, to ignite the spark of meaning alone? And since we in our individualism place this burden of all burdens on everyone’s shoulder, which tools do we give them to surmount to this tremendous task? A clear mark of existential indifference is lack of belief that you can make a difference in the world. The antidote to this is taking responsibility for something larger than yourself. A plant, a cause, or even a dinner party. To not assume you have to create your own meaning alone. Rather, by viewing responsibility as something more than a burden, you get to participate in life. As William James writes, the only way to create meaning is to act as if life is meaningful. From this act in the will to meaning, the experience of meaning will follow.


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Mastropietro, C., & Vervaeke, J. (2020, May 20). Diagnosing the Current Age: A Symptomology of the Meaning Crisis. The Side View.

Nietzsche, F. (1974). The Gay Science. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. (Original work published 1887)

Schnell, T. (2009). The Sources of Meaning and Meaning in Life Questionnaire (SoMe): Relations to demographics and well-being. Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(6), 483-499. 

Schnell, T. (2010). Existential Indifference: Another Quality of Meaning in Life. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 50(3), 351–373.

Schnell, T. (2013, August). Meaning in the making: Contemporary sources and types of meaning. International Association for the Psychology of Religion (IAPR), Lausanne, Switzerland.

Schnell, T. (2014). An empirical approach to existential psychology: meaning in life operationalized. In S. Kreitler & T. Urbanek (Eds.), Conceptions of Meaning (pp. 173-194). New York: Nova Science.

Schnell, T. (2021). Existential Indifference. In The Psychology of Meaning in Life (pp. 117-133). Routledge.

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