The gifts of the gifted, with meaning

Ella Rhodes with another report from the European Congress of Psychology in Moscow.

In a symposium on existential views of health Professor Tatjana Schnell asked: how common are crises of meaning? Schnell described a crisis of meaning as the ‘judgement on one’s life as frustratingly empty’ leading to depression, anxiety, pessimism, and the disappearance of self-efficacy and the will to live.

Schnell (University of Innsbruck) has been exploring the frequency of people experiencing a crisis of meaning. In 2006 she found 4 per cent of people in a sample of around 600 to have experienced one; in 2014 in a sample of more than 6,000 10 per cent reported a crisis of meaning; in 2018 the rate was 11 per cent in a sample of almost 600. 

In that first sample the highest level of crises was found among middle aged people, while the 2014 and 2018 samples showed peaks of crises among youth. 

During studies of the 2018 sample Schnell asked participants for more details about their crises. Just over 40 per cent said their crisis was caused by a critical life event, 36 per cent said the cause was a phase of transition, while for 20 per cent their crisis of meaning occurred without any drastic event preceding it. People pointed to work, a lack of orientation, mental and physical illnesses and separation from partners as specific drivers of these crises. 

What might the consequences be of a crisis of meaning, and are they better described as depression? Schnell carried out a study of 318 students in Ecuador, with a median age of 17, and examined their experience of a crisis of meaning, suicidality, family function, life-event load and self-esteem. Among those who experienced depression 82 per cent also suffered a crisis of meaning, but among those who had a crisis of meaning 65 per cent did not also have depression. Schnell said this could lead medical professionals to miss people who may be struggling if they don’t score highly on depression scales. 

Schnell also found that female depression among the Ecuadorian students was a better predictor of suicidality than having a crisis of meaning, while for men depression and crisis of meaning experience predicted suicidality at the same level. Schnell said this links with studies which have found that female suicidality is mainly triggered by depression while men’s suicidality was triggered by a lack of meaning. 

PhD student Bernadette Vötter (University of Innsbruck) has been working on a longitudinal study on the experiences of two groups of highly gifted adults – those with high IQ and those with exceptional academic achievement. She recruited members of MENSA who have an IQ over 130 and people who achieved Austria’s highest academic achievement – the sub auspiciis Praesidentis – and asked whether they saw their lives as meaningful. 

In the general population around 61 per cent view their lives as meaningful, but Vötter’s groups differed considerably. Among those who achieved the sub auspiciis Praesidentis, or the academic achiever group, 71 per cent saw their lives as meaningful, with only 41 per cent of the intellectually gifted group, the MENSA members, viewing their lives as such. 

The MENSA members also had higher incidence of crisis of meaning compared with the academic achievers. Vötter wondered whether these crises of meaning directly impacted on the wellbeing of some gifted adults or whether other processes played a role. She hypothesised that higher resilience and self-control may mediate the effects of crises of meaning on wellbeing – it has been previously thought that gifted individuals are resilient, and studies have found that self-control enhances the positive effects of meaningfulness on wellbeing. 

Among the intellectually gifted group she found a higher risk for crises of meaning, less meaningfulness and less self control, with their subjective wellbeing found to be linked to levels of resilience and self-control. In the academic achiever group self-control was a mediator between crises of meaning and subjective wellbeing, with resilience not being significantly involved.  

Vötter said these findings point out that among people labelled gifted there are differences and different needs among individuals. She said in many instances the gifts of the gifted are the only thing which are celebrated and promoted, with little thought given to more psychosocial aspects of life; she suggested that gifted education should also offer meaning-centred counselling and talent development programmes. 

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