The Privilege of Existential Ennui

A few weeks ago, I heard via Rush Limbaugh’s radio program that happiness among males peaks in the late teen years, tumbles sharply in the 20s and 30s, and doesn’t really recover until after age 65.  Women are similarly situated, it seems.

I cannot admit to being much surprised by this.  For myself, I find a great deal of personal discontent that is only barely contained through various self-improvement projects.  Part of it is rooted in a sense of listlessness — a feeling that something is missing.  The standard answer might be “wife and children,” yet the happiness of those who married and procreated in their early or mid-20s isn’t any better, it seems, and at any rate, their life choices have constrained many of their options for radical change.

If it were just me, suffering from an occasional emotional funk, that might be one thing.  But it isn’t.  I’m not sure I know anyone who is genuinely happy with their current lot in life.  Some older friends are doing their best to reconcile their condition against their aspirations with as much stoicism as their emotional wounds will permit; some younger friends are full of incoherent, unfocused rage.  Others have simply given up, and allow themselves to drift through their days without direction or ambition.

So many people feel empty.  Purposeless.  As if something unspoken had passed them by, or that the opportunity for greatness has eluded them — perhaps forever.

People need to feel like they have a place and a purpose in this world; think of Maslow’s heirarchy of needs — in a world where most people don’t fear for their safety or immediate physical needs, self-actualization takes primacy of place.  Yet … has a lovely demotivator:  “Not everyone gets to be an astronaut when they grow up.”  The challenge for the many who aspired to the stars is to reconcile with living upon the earth, especially when the popular culture sends the message that everyone can and should strap themselves to the rocketship.  What to think of yourself, when you must watch the lift-off from afar?

It is curious that the better-off we are, the more psychologically discontented we become.  It’s no accident that depression and recklessness tend to be middle- or upper-class phenomena, nor that most terrorists come from privileged backgrounds.  When you’re starving, satisfaction comes from eating; when your needs are met, satisfaction comes from self-actualization, which is becoming increasingly difficult to achive given the impossibility of integrating individual human goals with a fragmented, materialistic culture that emphasizes ideals — rooted in the fantasy of advertising and the “beautiful people elite” — that almost no actual, breathing human person can actually attain.

The inevitable response is dissatisfaction, the manifestation of which ranges from depression to ennui to violent outbursts of rage.  Oh, and self-deception.  Lots of self-deception:  a refusal to admit that one’s dreams and one’s abilities are not in sync.

Perhaps the mark of maturity is in finally internalizing the knowledge that “I am not God” — to understand that our potential is not infinite, and that we simply will not have a name that lasts through the generations.  We are ordinary people, despite our own self-importance, and embracing that ordinariness and making the best of it may well be the safest path to happiness.


Part of me still vacillates between tiredness and motivation, between melancholy at was might have been, and zeal for what might yet be.  I’m not yet ready to accept the prospect of a plump wife with 2.3 kids and a used minivan in the suburbs.  Maybe I’m condemning myself to perpetual unhappiness.  Or perhaps I’m prudently refusing to settle for mediocrity, and that my day will eventually come.

The hell of it is, though — I won’t know which until it’s too late.  Game theory at its finest and most cruel.  C’est la vie.

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  1. Really really loved this post, as I stumbled upon it by accident Googling ‘existential ennui’. I had low expectations when I first read “I heard via Rush Limbaugh’s radio program…” 🙂

  2. ” most terrorists come from privileged backgrounds”. I would be interested to know how you define terrorism, or where you obtained your demographics for ‘most terrorists’. While an adventurist Saudi oil millionaire might fit that profile, or for that matter a white suburban kid raiding a mink farm, but I would guess a good many other rank and file fighters in armed groups around the world are much more intimately affected by the conflicts they participate in.

  3. I loved this post right up until the words ‘plump wife’ – are you saying overweight women are ‘mediocre’, something to be ‘settled for’? Bit of casual sexism there, but otherwise your words rang true for me. Thank you

  4. This is a well written article that resonated with me & I found it by Google searching dealing with ennui.

    We are, from birth, conditioned by all forces, natural & man-made, to strive for better by overcoming challenges in order to survive in our environment. Essentially, I think this is our purpose – it is not finite or singular. Rather, a pursuit of happiness through ongoing achievement and self growth – which can only happen when we are faced with challenges. The irony is – we aspire to do better to eliminate challenging situations to become more comfortable, and yet, “it is curious that the better-off we are, the more psychologically discontented we become.”

    Self actualisation is an ongoing process much like happiness and equally as elusive. To be, you must not be. It is exhausting but essential for life, figuratively. And so begins my journey into adrenaline enducing adventures to engineer my happiness.

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