Can the myth provide our lives with meaning?

In 1991, in the autumn of his life, the American existentialist psychoanalyst Rollo May wrote the book The Cry for the Myth. In it, he argues that the root of 'evil', all the turmoil and anxiety of the American people in the late 20th century, comes from the loss of myths, stories that can provide guidance, direction and stability in an increasingly fast-paced world.

"Myth... is an eternal truth in contrast to an empirical truth. The latter can change with every morning newspaper, when we read of the latest discoveries in our laboratories. But the myth transcends time.", May noted.

Since we at Kairos Future released the latest results from our long-term survey of the Swedish people's attitudes and values, the discussion has run high. Nationwide cultural and editorial pages have discussed why 24 percent of Swedes see life as meaningless, compared to 6 percent 20 years ago. And why young men are the most likely to see life as meaningless.

One of the answers may be found in Rollo May's observation that we need myths, stories that hold our lives together and weave our own lives with those of others, and that these are lacking today. But there may be more reasons. We will come back to that.

It's not a philosophical approach to life
But let's start with the obvious question: isn't it just that more people are simply becoming existentialists and thus viewing life as meaningless, but more as a philosophical stance? The answer to that question is probably no. There is nothing in our data to suggest this. Instead, the data indicates that those who see life as meaningless also often see it as empty (which has also increased significantly since 2003). In addition, they feel lonely to a far greater extent than others. Meaning, substance and belonging thus seem to be linked.

It is therefore a much broader issue that not only concerns the individual person, but also includes their relationships with others. 

Being human in a new era
Upon reflecting on the rise of meaninglessness, I see three fundamental changes leading us to where we are today. They relate to the nature of humans as pattern-seeking, social and biological beings, and how our contemporary world seems to be taking us further and further away from these basic human needs.

Humankind – in search of answers
Firstly. Humans are pattern seekers. We puzzle events together to see patterns and connections, even where none exist. 

Rollo May talked about the importance of myths. And many thinkers throughout history have been on the same track. For example, after spending the Second World War in four concentration camps, psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl noted that those who survived were those who could see a meaning in surviving, for themselves or others. Who could put themselves in a larger context, who could see the pattern. Around this, Frankl built a whole school, logotherapy, where one conclusion was that happiness is the fruit of pursuing a meaning, not something we can find by chasing it.

Medical sociology professor Aaron Antonovsky, the man behind the KASAM theory, or 'sense of coherence', came to similar conclusions. Interested in health factors, he noted that people need a sense of comprehensibility, meaningfulness and manageability for their well-being. We need to understand the context and our role and place in it. We need to make sense of the world. We need to understand the patterns.

So what has happened to the pattern-making narratives that May, Frankl and Antonovsky talk about? Leaving aside the purely individual stories that many of us carry, there is much to suggest that the common ground has gradually disappeared, and to some extent may not even interest us. The long historical stories that place one's own life in a longer context are not something Swedes have ever bothered with, at least not in modern times. Swedes are modern, and for them, history began somewhere at the end of the Second World War. Possibly later. We lack the long historical contexts that are a given in, for example, Middle Eastern cultures.

Instead, we take our foothold in the future. Our story is about where we are going, not about how we got here. About the people's home (folkhemmet) we will build, not how it was built. Or after the fall of the Berlin Wall, about the modern, internationalist, multicultural and digital paradise that lies just around the bend. We have been one-legged, resting solely on the story of where we are going.

But the story of the future broke down somewhere along the way. Or was eclipsed by new clouds of worry.  And when our one-legged narrative of the future breaks down, we lose our footing completely.

Man does not live by bread alone, we live by so much more, by stories of what has been and what is to come. Stories about where we fit into the great fabric of life. It is that fabric that many are now missing.  

A nomad seeks his flock
Secondly. People are social. Being frozen out or driven out of the community is the worst thing that can happen to us. It affects us physically. Because deep down we are still Stone Age people who would not survive a day on our own, excluded from the group. These things are built into our bodies. We live with and through others, and we also become who we are in community. In the real encounter with others, in the establishment of what the religious philosopher Martin Buber called I-Thou relationships.

Here, too, Swedes are different. We put the individual first. We raise our children to be independent and to follow their hearts, and we have created a society where everyone should be able to live for themselves, to fend for themselves. No one should have to be a burden to anyone else. You are your own best servant. The individual, not the family or the group, is at the center.

This fundamentally individual approach paved the way for strong voluntary communities and was the basis for the development of democracy. Later, it was institutionalized in tax systems and parental insurance. But when faced with the new 'social' media world, the downsides become apparent.

As social beings, we want to be appreciated. To be seen, preferably loved or envied. And social media create excellent conditions for this. They act as shop windows where we can all show our best sides to the world.

At their best, social media communities can also create a sense of belonging. Of fitting in. To be part of. But they don't create first-person relationships, not in the same way that real meetings can. However, social media also takes time. Time from other things. And over the past decades, the number of physical meetings with friends has fallen rapidly, according to Kairos Future's long-term measurements. 

At worst, social media leads to the opposite. Alienation and exclusion, not inclusion and community. We look at other people's perfect lives, lives that we know are fake but that we emotionally see as true. This tends to lead to alienation, disconnection, loneliness and a sense of failure. Especially when we compare the success and excellence of others with our own gray, dull, meaningless and empty lives. 

And it doesn't help that we know it's not true. It's not about cognition, it's about emotion, feeling trumps thought. Human beings are social, created in relationships. Social media is not.

Togetherness is physical
Thirdly. Human beings are biological. Skin, heart and head are all connected.

Physical touch is crucial for us to become who we are. For babies it is vital, without touch they die. For many people, dogs, cats and horses can be complements or alternatives to human touch. Physical touch generates cascades of endorphins that make us feel good. That make us happy.

At the same time, we live in a time when physical closeness seems to be out. When relationships are instrumentalized. We have less and less sex and less and less physical contact. Among young people, we have for years even talked about growing proximity phobia, at the same time as more and more young adults live in involuntary celibacy, with a fear of not being enough, not daring to take the first step.

Online dating lowers thresholds. It creates amazing opportunities to find the perfect match on paper, but it's hard to compensate for the fact that falling in love often takes time. That love is often something that grows, not something that happens over coffee or a glass of wine on a Wednesday after work.

Biology trumps cognition.

Meaning, content and community
Feeling that life has meaning, that life is full of substance, and feeling a sense of belonging and community with others seem to be linked. 

Ensuring that people have a sense of meaning in their lives is hardly a political task. At the same time, the issue of the lack of common narratives about where we come from and where we are going has a political dimension. This is where politics can make a difference. Common myths, as May would call them, would probably increase the sense of belonging and meaning for many. Make life easier.

Ultimately, however, we are always alone, and we each need to find our own path to meaning. If we are to believe Viktor Frankl, or for that matter the thousand-year-old Christian tradition of which Sweden is a part, the path to meaning is not so much about seeking it within oneself as it is about doing something for others. The causality between meaning and commitment that Antonovsky talks about may not go from meaning to commitment, but the other way around. It is by looking outwards, by engaging in something beyond ourselves, that we can find meaning. 

However, this would require a break with the ever-increasing focus of recent decades on the self, on one's own well-being, on one's own life. And a return to the classic socially oriented individualistic culture that prevailed when people at the end of the 19th century empowered themselves, not just for their own sake, but to do something for others.

Would you like to start the fall by hearing one of our speakers talk about changes in Swedes' values, interests and motives and other long-term trends? Or do you want help to better understand your employees and colleagues from a broader perspective? Contact Mats Lindgren or Helena Mella.

By Mats Lindgren