Apathy – They may lack a sense of purpose or meaning in their life

Apathy (also called impassivity or perfunctoriness) is a state of indifference, or the suppression of emotions such as concern, excitement, motivation and passion. An apathetic individual has an absence of interest in or concern about emotional, social, spiritual, philosophical and/or physical life.

A Pathological State

They may lack a sense of purpose or meaning in their life. He or she may also exhibit insensibility or sluggishness. The opposite of apathy is flow. In positive psychology, apathy is described as a result of the individual feeling they do not possess the level of skill required to confront a challenge. It may also be a result of perceiving no challenge at all (e.g. the challenge is irrelevant to them, or conversely, they have learned helplessness). In light of the insurmountable certainty of universal doom, apathy is the default mode of existential nihilism, and, as such, is not considered to be a pathological state by those who experience it.


Although the word apathy is derived from the Greek ἀπάθεια (apatheia), it is important not to confuse the two terms. Also meaning “absence of passion,” “apathy” or “insensibility” in Greek, the term apatheia was used by the Stoics to signify a (desirable) state of indifference towards events and things which lie outside one’s control (that is, according to their philosophy, all things exterior, one being only responsible for his representations and judgments). In contrast to apathy, apatheia is considered a virtue, especially in Orthodox monasticism. In the Philokalia the word dispassion is used for apatheia, so as not to confuse it with apathy.

History and other views

Christians have historically condemned apathy as a deficiency of love and devotion to God and His works; this interpretation of apathy is also referred to as Sloth and is listed among the Seven Deadly Sins. Clemens Alexandrinus used the term to draw to Christianity philosophers who aspired after virtue. Macaulay referred to “The apathy of despair.” Prescott described “A certain apathy or sluggishness in his nature which led him … to leave events to take their own course.

The modern concept of apathy became more well known after World War I, when it was one of various forms of “shell shock.” Soldiers who lived in the trenches amidst the bombing and machine gun fire, and who saw the battlefields strewn with dead and maimed comrades, developed a sense of disconnected numbness and indifference to normal social interaction.

In 1950, US novelist John Dos Passos wrote: “Apathy is one of the characteristic responses of any living organism when it is subjected to stimuli too intense or too complicated to cope with. The cure for apathy is comprehension.” US educational philosopher Robert Maynard Hutchins summarized the concerns about political indifference when he claimed that the “death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.

Douglas Hofstadter suggests that, recognizing that the human brain’s “ego” is nothing but a construct, no emotion is necessary. Since the realization of the future of an expanding universe, apathy is the only intelligent response. It is in contrast to the contented feeling of self-satisfaction of complacency, driven by the illusion of the “ego“.

Social origin

There may be other things contributing to a person’s apathy. Activist Dave Meslin argues that people often care, and that apathy is often the result of social systems actively obstructing engagement and involvement. He describes various obstacles that keep people from knowing how or why they might get involved in something. Meslin focuses on design choices that unintentionally or intentionally exclude people. These include: capitalistic media systems that have no provisions for ideas that are not immediately (monetarily) profitable, government and political media (e.g. notices) that make it difficult for potentially interested individuals to find relevant information, and media portrayals of heroes as “chosen” by outside forces rather than self motivated. He moves that we redefine social apathy to think of it, not as a population that is stupid or lazy, but as result of poorly designed systems that fail to invite others to participate.

Relationship with depression

Mental health journalist and author John McManamy argues that although psychiatrists do not explicitly deal with the condition of apathy, it is a psychological problem for some depressed people, in which they get a sense that “nothing matters“, the “lack of will to go on and the inability to care about the consequences“. He describes depressed people who “…cannot seem to make [themselves] do anything,” who “can’t complete anything,” and who do not “feel any excitement about seeing loved ones.” He acknowledges that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does not discuss apathy.

In a Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences article from 1991, Robert Marin, MD, claimed that apathy occurs due to brain damage or neuropsychiatric illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinson’s, or Huntington’s, or else an event such as a stroke. Marin argues that apathy should be regarded as a syndrome or illness.

A review article by Robert van Reekum, MD, et al. from the University of Toronto in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry (2005) claimed that “depression and apathy were a package deal” in some populations which may help illustrate what people mean when they say that “The opposite of love is not hate, it is apathy.

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