If Your Life Feels Empty, This May Be Why

You sit there with your big ass TV and every electronic toy you can buy. Yet your life feels empty. Why is this?

by Jason Dias edited by O Society August 6, 2019

Viktor Frankl tells us Despair is Suffering without Meaning.

Reduced to an equation: D=S-M

Seeing these three letters together should reminds us of the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness) psychiatrists use to name for us that from which we suffer.

What are we suffering from? That’s something we’ll circle back over the next few hundred words.

But first, watch this:

Frankl is in good company making the assertion despair equals suffering without meaning. On this, he’s with Friedrich Nietzsche: A man with a Why can tolerate almost any How. He’s with Martin Luther King Jr., too: Unearned suffering is redemptive. 

And he’s with Irving Yalom who, aware of all these others, said we should certainly not seek out suffering for its own sake but, when presented with unavoidable suffering, we ought to consider whether suffering has within it any potential for our growth and learning.

Viktor Frankl on the Human Search for Meaning

We cannot, of course, reduce all of Viktor Frankl’s legacy to just this one equation. Frankl’s work on logotherapy makes it clear meaning is at the heart of living:

Life minus Meaning equals Despair

Which is to say, suffering itself can be a product of meaninglessness.

Meanings need not always be overt. 

Experimental evidence demonstrates looking at a picture of loved ones helps us tolerate pain. The pain is inflicted as part of an experiment; we are not enduring the pain specifically for love of family or romance, though.  

But love — connectedness — is intimately a part of meaning and meaning-making for humans. In other words, relationships might mean inherently nothing and yet do seem to provide sufficient reason (or meaning) for living.

What I wonder, though, is whether despair might be present without any suffering at all, so long as meaning is absent.


Imagine, for example, someone born into wealth. 

Such a person is protected at all times from the concepts of time and aging, surrounded only with beautiful young attendants. 

She is provided with only the best of foods and an education which leaves out our history of violence, war, rape, dispossession, invasion, and poverty, and instead dwells on our freedom and liberty and individuality. This person is protected from illness and injury. 

And she is always kept safe. Her attendants change day by day so they can never experience attachments and therefore never loss. Her sexual encounters are unstressful. They are only casual and always gratifying with beautiful people.

Would that person arrive at adulthood happy?

Behind happiness, might there be any sense that something is missing?

In Buddha’s origin story, exactly this setup occurs:

“The Buddha, or Siddhartha Gautama, was born around 567 B.C.E., in a small kingdom just below the Himalayan foothills. His father was a chief of the Shakya clan. It is said that twelve years before his birth the brahmins prophesied that he would become either a universal monarch or a great sage. To prevent him from becoming an ascetic, his father kept him within the confines of the palace. Gautama grew up in princely luxury, shielded from the outside world, entertained by dancing girls, instructed by brahmins, and trained in archery, swordsmanship, wrestling, swimming, and running. When he came of age he married Gopa, who gave birth to a son. He had, as we might say today, everything.

And yet, it was not enough. Something—something as persistent as his own shadow—drew him into the world beyond the castle walls. There, in the streets of Kapilavastu, he encountered three simple things: a sick man, an old man, and a corpse being carried to the burning grounds. Nothing in his life of ease had prepared him for this experience. When his charioteer told him that all beings are subject to sickness, old age, and death, he could not rest.”

These sights makes him question everything and puts his feet on the path towards ending suffering. It’s a nice story. But I tend to think suffering is necessary and human; however, I can’t argue with any person who wants to stop doing it. 

I’ve suffered enough in my life to empathize.

But the question, really, is this: What makes Siddhartha want to go outside the palace walls in the first place?

Is it some feeling, some itch, some under-the-radar knowledge life cannot possibly be so good? Or is such a life is devoid of meaning?

At the very least, it is empty. Every wish is granted, every pleasure is available, and there is nobody around to tell you no.


There is a Twilight Zone episode called  “A Nice Place to Visit.”  

But first, watch this:

In it, a hustler dies, wakes up in the afterlife. In this version of death, he makes every shot on the pool table.  He wins every dice throw and every coin toss. The booze is free and the babes always say yes.

An angel comes to check in with him. To the angel, he says “I don’t mean to seem ungrateful, but I’ve been here a few days and this is already boring.

“There’s no challenge, no fun in winning all the time with no effort. I’m bored. It is not my idea of Heaven.”

To which the angel replies, “Who said this is Heaven?”

How many of us seem to have everything — a big-ass TV, a house with nine rooms, an RV outside, and a fridge packed with indulgences — yet still we sense something is missing?

One evening as the sun went down
And the jungle fire was burning,
Down the track came a hobo hiking,
And he said, “Boys, I’m not turning
I’m headed for a land that’s far away
Besides the crystal fountains
So come with me, we’ll go and see
The Big Rock Candy Mountains
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,
There’s a land that’s fair and bright,
Where the handouts grow on bushes
And you sleep out every night
Where the boxcars all are empty
And the sun shines every day
On the birds and the bees
And the cigarette trees
The lemonade springs
Where the bluebird sings
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
All the cops have wooden legs
And the bulldogs all have rubber teeth
And the hens lay soft-boiled eggs
The farmers’ trees are full of fruit
And the barns are full of hay
Oh I’m bound to go
Where there ain’t no snow
Where the rain don’t fall
The wind don’t blow
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
You never change your socks
And the little streams of alcohol
Come trickling down the rocks
The brakemen have to tip their hats
And the railroad bulls are blind
There’s a lake of stew
And of whiskey, too
You can paddle all around ’em
In a big canoe
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,
The jails are made of tin
And you can walk right out again,
As soon as you are in
There ain’t no short-handled shovels,
No axes, saws or picks,
I’ma goin’ to stay
Where you sleep all day,
Where they hung the Turk
That invented work
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
I’ll see you all this coming Fall
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains”
We go to our jobs anxious. We might get fired. Performance reviews are coming up. There’s a boss, there are also some people you barely like. 
And you can’t shake the sense there’s something more fundamentally wrong here – you spend your day selling people things they don’t need or even really want and you can’t quite square it with your conscience. Or you’re there in the room with your family but nobody has time for anyone else. The smartphone never stops talking to us. 

And everyone else’s lives look way better than ours do on Fakebook.

We go to sleep anxious. We eat pills to get to sleep and then drink a six dollar cup of coffee on the way to work to shake off the fatigue.

But it isn’t fatigue. Not really. It’s the despair you’re too happy to notice.

Something is missing, all right. What’s missing is meaning. 


I mean, what the fuck is this all for?

Maybe you go to church on Sunday morning and you feel better for a while. But you don’t live any of your values, not really, so at night it’s still too many beers or a couple of Lunestra tablets or maybe both to stop this nagging feeling everything isn’t okay, even though it is strange to say so because it couldn’t be more perfect. Could it?

A life minus meaning. What does it equal?

What it equals is pointless suffering. 

But what about pointless happiness?

Our solution to our problems of angst and anxiety is increasingly psychopharmacological. 


We go to the doctor, who gives us pills. We get Xanax and Celexa. 

And we get Ambien, Seroquel, Ritalin. We get whole great fucking fistfuls of pills to choke down.

Does that help?

And what if it did?

In other words, what good is happiness that comes out of a pill bottle? Isn’t that ultimately meaningless, too? This is not happiness that comes as a result of relatedness, of striving for something and succeeding or of taking a moral stand win or lose. 

It’s an artificial mood adjustment.

Would you smile at a funeral? Laugh through a natural disaster? Meet others’ suffering with gladness?


Then why be happy in a banal, meaningless existence in which your most important concern in life is whether gay people can marry each other or if women are allowed in the new Ghostbusters movie?

We aren’t happy. We’re not even content. 

But first, watch this:

We’re overfed and undernourished, entertained and disengaged.

We are hydrating and exercising to stay ‘fit’ for a long, pointless life.

Every psychology overtly or covertly espouses a “good life.”  Psychoanalysis suggests a more conscious life is a better life.  Behaviorism tells us a conforming life is best.  Cognitive behaviorism wants us to be free of symptoms.  Positive psychology wants us to have the right ratio of good to bad feelings.

The good life as proposed by the DSM is one well in line with behaviorism, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and the tenets of Positive Psychology. 

A symptom-free life, well regulated and conforming, without too many bad feelings and only just enough good ones. 


But maybe your feelings aren’t symptoms at all.

Maybe your feelings only reflect your inner Siddhartha wondering what might be outside the palace walls. 

I doubt you live in a palace at all, actually, but you wonder instead what’s outside of a life of barely making your mortgage and car payments and credit card tabs. Of you wonder where the next meal is coming from, or you wonder why your expenses always increase to exceed your income. 

I can’t tell you.  No one can. 

But you know where to start. 

The truth lies off the path of the guided tour, in some unpleasant truths behind the bazaar.


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