The moderating role of mystical-type experiences on the relationship between existential isolation and meaning in life

This survey study (n=2055) explored if having a mystical-type experience impacted peoples levels of existential isolation (the subjective sense one is alone in one’s experience) and subsequently, their levels of meaning in life. It was found that the previously reported negative impact levels of existential isolation have on a person’s levels of meaning in life was not present in those who have had a mystical experience.

Abstract

“Mystical-type experiences (MTEs) are unique phenomenological experiences that are often reported to induce significant and persisting changes in the experiencer’s worldview. Previous research suggests that higher levels of existential isolation (EI) are associated with lower levels of meaning in life (MIL). This study examines the hypothesis that people who have had an MTE (compared with those who have not) will not show such a relationship between EI and MIL. Data from two samples (N = 2055) support the idea that those who have not had an MTE show a negative relationship between EI and MIL while those who have had an MTE show no relationship between EI and MIL. Implications and future directions are discussed.”

Authors: Alex Sielaff, Dylan E. Horner & Jeff Greenberg

Notes

Authors Highlights

  • Existential isolation: to feel alone in one’s subjective experience of reality
  • Mystical experience: a unique, unitive, and transcendent psychical experience
  • Feeling existentially isolated is typically associated with lower meaning in life.
  • This negative relationship is not present for those who had a mystical experience.

Summary

A study examined the relationship between existential isolation and meaning in life. Those who had an MTE showed no relationship between EI and MIL.

  1. Introduction

This article explores a novel moderator in the relationship between existential isolation and meaning in life: mystical-type experiences. These experiences are the main mechanism of action that researchers point to when they explain why psychedelic-assisted therapy causes significant and persisting improvements.

1.1. Existential isolation

Existential isolation is a psychological state that people experience when they feel that their experience of reality is their own. It is different from loneliness, which is a feeling that one’s actual social relationships are inadequate in comparison with one’s desired social relationships.

EI can be measured as a dispositional trait and is positively correlated with alienation, loneliness, and interpersonal dependency, while negatively correlated with extroversion, self-competence, and self-liking. EI is relevant in a person’s understanding of reality and the meaning of life.

1.2. Existential isolation and meaning

Since we rely on one another to establish meaning, existentially isolated individuals might have a harder time establishing a sense of meaning. A handful of studies support this idea, and high EI individuals might not find as much meaning in social group identity as their low EI counterparts.

1.3. Autonomy and meaning

Existentialist psychologists Viktor Frankl and Otto Rank highlighted the importance of choosing one’s own way in life in order to establish a sense of meaning. Self-determination theory elucidates the empirically validated perspective that autonomy is one of three core psychological needs.

The relationship between EI and MIL for people who have experienced an MTE is discussed in the present context because both dynamics, of merging and individuating, seem to be simultaneously and glaringly present during most MTEs.

1.4. Mystical-type experiences

A MTE is a unique experience that can be induced by psychedelics, breathwork, diseases, trauma, ritual, near-death-experiences, religious activity, or even spontaneously. It is characterized by feeling merged (“at one”) with everyone and everything and gleaning new “fundamentally true” information at an intuitive (non-verbal) level.

MTEs are ineffable experiences that are at once extremely unique and existentially isolating to the individual, yet mystical, with the individual feeling part of everyone and everything.

When we are able to acknowledge our isolated situations and confront them with resoluteness, we can turn lovingly toward others. When we are overcome with dread before the abyss of loneliness, we flail at others.

1.5. The present research

The present study hypothesizes that individuals who have experienced an MTE have no relationship between EI and MIL, because being unique in one’s subjective experiences may no longer be a threat to the individual’s sense of meaning.

2.1. Participants

Samples 1 and 2 consisted of 873 and 1182 participants, respectively. 115 (13%) participants had an MTE in Sample 1, 195 (16%) participants had an MTE in Sample 2, and the results replicated in another sample.

2.2. Materials and procedure

Participants completed surveys on Qualtrics on personally owned devices. The MTE measure was presented last to avoid influence.

2.2.1. Meaning in life (MIL)

Participants responded to a six-item or four-item Presence of Meaning subscale from the Meaning in Life Questionnaire. Higher scores indicate higher perceived MIL.

2.2.2. Existential isolation (EI)

The trait EI scale assesses the extent to which participants generally feel that their experience of life is in consensus with others.

2.2.3. Mystical-type experience

One item was used to assess whether participants had experienced an MTE at some point in their lives. It had a list of nine phenomena that captured all 4 dimensions of an MTE.

The MEQ30 was validated in the context of psychedelic studies, and participants were asked to reflect on the entirety of their lives. The scoring of MTEs was based on a dichotomous construct, and participants were classified as having had an MTE if they selected five or more of the eight possible phenomena.

2.2.4. MTE induction activity

Participants who experienced MTEs selected 172 activities, 150 meditation or prayer, 113 substance use, 90 adventure sport/hobby, 80 near-death or out-of-body experiences, 66 artistic expression, and 37 other.

  1. Results

Regression analyses were performed on the relationship between EI and MIL for Sample 1, Sample 2, and the combined dataset. An interaction term was created by multiplying MTE and EI.

  1. Discussion

Prior research generally supports a negative association between EI and MIL, but the present study suggests that people who have experienced an MTE can have high EI without a corresponding lower level of meaning.

For low EI folks who have not experienced an MTE, their meaning structures and life experiences may allow them to function from a place of blissful ignorance, while for low EI yes-MTE folks, their meaning structures may lose some of their strength.

People with pre-existing equanimous existential perspectives are more likely to seek out experiences that potentiate MTEs, but having an MTE is more of an indirect indicator that someone might have a more equanimous relationship with EI.

The present results come from cross-sectional data and are likely to vary for people with different social identities, cultures, and age groups. People in cultures that accept MTEs may have different experiences with MIL.

The current results suggest that for populations our samples represent, mystical and traumatic experiences may moderate the way one relates to their existential condition. Further research is needed to determine whether certain individual differences moderate the impact of mystical and traumatic experiences.

In the paper introducing the state-trait existential isolation model (STEIM), the authors discuss how psychedelics may provide a buffer against future traumatic experiences or relief for those who have already experienced them.

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