Keeping Our Existential Crises At Bay:

When I was just starting out in academia – as Assistant Professor of Psychology at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Indiana – my area of research was, broadly speaking, gerontology. In other words, I studied “old people” – how they viewed their lives, what made for successful aging, their sense of time, past, present, and future. Perhaps this was a bit odd since I was quite young but still fascinated with the idea of “successful” aging. Many of the elderly retirees from Indiana University and Indiana State University whom I interviewed were quite contented with their lives and were still essentially engaged with others and the community around them. I envied some in fact – at the end of a long, successful career when I was just starting out on the “publish or perish,” stress-filled phase of my life.

One idea I had back then but never tested was the effect of music on the elderly’s sense of well-being – particularly those who were impaired and living at home or in nursing facilities. Maybe I was inspired along these lines by my own mom who lived to be almost 101 years old, and even toward the end of her life as she slipped into dementia she still tapped her fingers to the big band music of the ’30s and ’40s. For me and others of my Boomer generation, the music of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s serve the same restorative and blissful experience, as our brains light up with memories of our youth and the cultural shaping of our lives during those heady days of protest and flower power! My daily experience on Pandora’s Simon and Garfunkel station. Bliss!!

Well, it turns out that listening to music may even affect your heart health. In a recent report put out by Harvard (Harvard Heart Letter, June 2018),  listening to or creating music, like other “pleasurable sensations, triggers the release of dopamine, a brain chemical that makes people feel engaged and motivated. … This … activation happens whether you listen to music, play an instrument, or sing – even informally in the car or the shower.” (See lead photo.) As I discussed in my most recent book, The Fiction of Our Lives: Creating Our Stories Over a Lifetime, when sounds enter the neural network of the brain, the processing of what comes in through the aural channel begins in the brainstem – that most primitive part of our brain apparatus. It happens that the brainstem neurons also control our breathing and respiration, a neural fact that helps explain why relaxing music “may lower heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure – and also seems to ease pain, stress, and anxiety.”

The Harvard heart folks also stress in their report that “preference matters” – when heart patients choose their own music, the listening experience is far more beneficial than when a music therapist selects music for them. The American Music Therapy Association endorses the fact that “music provokes responses due to the familiarity, predictability, and feelings of security associated with it.” Hence, my favorite listening again is the ’60s-’80s music of my formative years.

Okay. Please stay with me here because I think this is relevant to what follows. For those of you who follow my blogs, you will know that my last one was in response to the recent spate of high-profile suicides, from Robin Williams to Anthony Bourdain. So I don’t want to get back on that same track here. But I do want to discuss again what may very well be a major factor underlying this increase in suicides nationwide: meaninglessness as an existential crisis.

A recent op-ed piece in The New York Times by Clay Routledge, a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University (June 24, 2018), describes beautifully this existential state and its root causes that his own and others’ research illuminates. (See the second photo below.) As finite humans, we all understand what he refers to as “uncomfortable truths” about our lives: we know as thinking beings that everyone we love, as well as our own selves, will age, become more frail and eventually die. This is the human condition. “We understand that life is uncertain, pain and sorrow are part of our destiny. [So we may ask] what is the point of it all?”

Routledge points out that in order to tamp down our existential anxiety about what lies ahead, we have to reach out somehow and make our own lives meaningful. “We are a species that strives not just for survival, but also for significance. We want lives that matter. It is when people are not able to maintain meaning that they are most psychologically vulnerable.” Drawing on his own and others’ research, Routledge describes cultural and social resources available to us all that afford opportunities to make meaning in the face of existential threat. In my own writing and research I have also joined the chorus suggesting possible solutions to our human condition dilemma. So let me just briefly discuss two major sources of meaning which Routledge offers, echoed in my own research and writing.

How do we find meaning and purpose in our lives? First and among the most important are the social relationships we form as we nourish love and friendship with others. “Regardless of social class, age, gender, religion or nationality, people report that the life experiences they find most personally meaningful typically involve loved ones. In my own research at the National Cancer Institute and at the University of Pittsburgh, we did find that social support had survival value in the lives and longevity of cancer patients. Someone once said the “joy is doubled and sorrow halved if shared.” Perhaps listening to music together can add to such bonding.

Second, religion and the experience of participating in a community of religious practice has always provided the largest horizon of meaning for humans since our earliest, cave-dwelling times. And we all know that religious adherence is on steep decline, especially among Millennials and the “none of the above” generation that is on the ascendance. As Routledge’s own research has shown, “the sense of meaningfulness provided by religion is not so easily replicated in nonreligious settings; when Americans abandon traditional houses of worship, they increasingly search for alternative religious-like experience (e.g., ghosts or space aliens) in order to feel as if they are part of something larger and more meaningful than their brief mortal lives.” I have also written extensively in my recent books about the importance of religious affiliation in order for our own lives to flourish.

Finally, I believe most of us recognize that we live in an increasingly rancorous political and civil climate. We are just plain suspicious of the Others who threaten in our midst. So let me close this with Routledge’s final thoughts along these lines:

… Studies show that when presented with existentially threatening ideas (such as reminders of their mortality), people respond with increased bias toward their own world view, particularly if they are not finding meaning in their life through other sources. In this way, our fractious political culture may be fueled not just by ideological disagreement, but also by a desperate search, common to all lost souls, to find meaning anywhere we can.
So yes, folks, I agree with Routledge and others (e.g., Kevin Powers, “What Kept Me From Killing Myself,” The New York Times, June 17, 2018) that we live in a world sinking in existential crisis. But there are remedies. Importantly real engagement with others (not on Facebook but genuine, face-to-face interaction and the nurturing of close friendships in our lives), as well as affiliating with a religious community of practice that acts as balm to our brains and souls and provides deep purpose and meaning as we move toward our end. And oh yes, listen to a little music along the way!