Existential Anxiety and Existential Joy
Written by Nash Popovic
You may have heard of existential anxiety – since a famous Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard kind of invented it, many others talked about this malaise, and for a good reason. It may help you understand why you sometimes have that funny feeling in your tummy that may grow so much that it is not funny anymore. However, a certain ambiguity still surrounds the term, so let’s start by shedding some light on what it really means.
We will first need to make a distinction between anxiety and fear. It is common nowadays to use these two terms interchangeably, but this only makes dealing with them harder. More than half a century ago, Rollo May, a psychologist of existential orientation, compiled evidence that fear and anxiety differ even on the level of physiological reactions, such as gastrointestinal activities (May, 1950). The main distinction between them seems to be that fear has a clear object (an imminent threat), while anxiety is linked to uncertainty, the unknown. For example, if a tiger comes into your room, you will experience intense fear and try to climb up the wall. On the other hand, if you suspect that a tiger may be somewhere outside (you don’t know where or if it will come to your room or not), you are likely to experience anxiety. You see what I mean? These two are not and don’t feel the same.
Now, what about existential anxiety? How does it differ from ordinary anxiety? Unlike the latter, which may be triggered by uncertainties related to some specific issues (such as the possibility of losing your job or failing an exam), existential anxiety refers to unknowns related to the human condition, as such, unavoidable uncertainties of existence itself. From that perspective, existential anxiety is not necessarily “a signal that something is wrong in one’s personality and one’s human relationships”. (May, 1950, p.300). It could be, and very often, it is “a more general and basic experience which accompanies any increase in existential awareness.” (Deurzen-Smith, 1988, p.145) But existential awareness of what exactly? Those givens of human existence that nobody can escape. Every existential philosopher has their own slightly different list, but these ones are most commonly mentioned:
Nothingness/meaninglessness: anxiety is frequently related to the recognition of nothingness. Some existential philosophers even define anxiety in that way. This is not only about the universe being mostly empty and that the past and the future are nothing. It is also about us. Have you ever come to the point of recognising an ‘emptiness’ inside you? If you have, you are not alone. That emptiness is most often associated with a lack of meaning. Sometimes it seems that randomness, chance and luck rule. It is hard to see the overall meaning in life and many existential philosophers and psychologists (as well as scientists) try to persuade us that there is indeed nothing more to it. For example, a leading existential therapist Ernesto Spinelli, writes:
Viewed from a wide variety of perspectives, one could rightly conclude that life itself is a pointless enterprise. (2001, p.9)
One can easily feel lost in such a haphazard world that doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Some even claim that humans require meaning to survive (see, for example, Frankl, 1970, 1978; Yalom, 1980).
Death: it is not difficult to see that death and anxiety go hand in hand. There are many reasons for that: unpredictability (of the moment of our death and the death of those we care about) – we are all sentenced to death without knowing the day of the execution, which can be a source of great anxiety. We don’t even know how we will die (if it will be painful, for example). And also, there is that big unknown, what happens (if anything) after death.
Separateness: many people experience existential anxiety when they are alone. This is because others support our relatively fragile constructs of reality. But even the presence of others cannot completely remove the sense of separateness (in fact, some feel it more acutely when with others). This is because you can never penetrate the minds of others, and therefore you can never know for certain what even the closest people to you really think or feel. You can only extrapolate about their inner world from what they say or do. I heard many people saying after a break-up of a long-term relationship: “I didn’t really know that person.”. Well, we should not be surprised.
Freedom and choice: Kierkegaard’s well-known definition, “anxiety is the state of the human being when he confronts his freedom,” draws attention to the connection between anxiety and freedom. Freedom can trigger anxiety because there is an inherent paradox between choice and its realisation: we may be free to choose, but making a choice inevitably leads to renouncing choice – for every yes, there must be a no, each decision eliminating other options. And yet, we can never know with certainty if we are making the right decision. A possibility of a wrong choice brings a burden of responsibility and sometimes anxiety so intense that it can actually paralyse decision-making.
So, what do we do with all that? Unsurprisingly, most of us try to forget, ignore or avoid these things and use some shortcuts for that purpose: drugs, alcohol, or porn may be escape pods for some, but they are short-lived comforts and make things worse in the long run. More often, we build our mental castles to keep these things out and enforce them through socially constructed practices in order to feel safe. We try to plug in any gaps by constructing even other people in our minds – and the closer they are to us, the more we construct as more is at stake. But all these may lead to inauthentic life – not really living life truly, fully, deeply. This is because the same things that provide us with an illusion of certainty also create barriers between us and the world. We also intuitively know that cognitive structures that we create are never completely secure, and the more we build, the greater chance is that they may collapse like the house of cards. So, good luck with escaping anxiety in that way.
So, is there any other option? Existentialists seem to think that there isn’t: we can only live in ‘bad faith’ or face those givens and endure anxiety. This may be too pessimistic, though – there may be another way. It involves nurturing a particular state of mind that can supersede existential anxiety with another fundamental feeling that we can call existential joy.
On the lay, a cock and hen pheasant symbolise that unity of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ in a completed whole, which still so infuriatingly eludes me. But instead of complaining, I should be thankful that I have caught a glimpse of it all.
Custance, a former manic-depressive patient
Is the glass half full or half empty? Of course, we should all know the answer by now: it is both half-full and half empty. The other answers are not wrong but incomplete. The same applies in this case. We can focus just on the unknown in relation to meaning, death, others, the consequences of our choices, life in general – and we will end up with intense existential anxiety. Or we can take that side of life as entirely negative, to be avoided at any cost, and fill our lives with things, seek the meaning in everything, live life as if death doesn’t exist, think that we can read the minds of others, give up our freedom to avoid responsibility, and live in an illusion that we can control reality and others. In this case, we may temporarily postpone anxiety at the price of an inauthentic, restricted, incomplete life. But rather than seeing these two sides in a black-and-white fashion, opposing each other, we can see both as necessary, and if they are necessary, they must be good. I would like to make a case that once we get there, existential anxiety can be replaced by existential joy.
The sense of joy usually results from experiences that have a unifying character. You may be ecstatic if you win a lottery, but you may get more joy from playing with a kid, making a birdhouse, figuring something out, or the feeling of oneness with the universe. What all these activities and experiences have in common is connectedness, relatedness, some kind of harmony. Even the joy that comes from getting a good joke involves a certain mental resolution – a synthesis of what was previously seen as separate, unrelated or even conflicting. It should not come as a surprise that the synthesis or union of the seemingly opposing givens of human existence can be a source of joy too. Let’s bring them up to see how it can work.
Nothingness and ‘Somethingness’
The truth is that for something to exist, nothingness is also necessary. These are two sides of the same coin. Being, the existence itself, would have been motionless without non-being or nothingness. Imagine a room full of stuff – you wouldn’t be able to move in it, right? We can move only if there is (relative) nothing in front of us. By the same token, we can grow only if there is some emptiness within us. Such emptiness brims with possibilities. So, next time you find that emptiness in you, remember that there is also a vessel (you) that contains it. So it is not just any old nothingness, it is yours, and it is up to you with what you will fill it in. Once we understand that nothingness and emptiness are valuable and necessary parts of reality and ourselves, joy may be more fitting than anxiety. How does it work with the apparent lack of meaning? Can it help with that question that especially young people bring up in the most inopportune situations: “What’s the point?” Well, it may. The fact that not everything in life is meaningful is actually a necessary condition for us to be able to create meaning. If you can’t see the meaning in your life, take this too as an opportunity – don’t wait to find meaning; get up and create it. What we know for sure is that it will make you happier. Most psychologists agree that ‘feeling that one’s life has some meaning and purpose is associated with happiness’ (Argyle, 1987, p.215).
Death and Life
The author of ‘I-Thou’, Martin Buber, urges us to recognise that life and death are inseparable:
… man as existence.. cannot be separated from man as a creature that begins to die when it begins to live, and that cannot possess life without death… (1937, p.164)
“This may be the case”, you may say, “but this doesn’t mean that death is good”. Well, another well-known existential philosopher, Martin Heidegger suggests that death is not merely a negative phenomenon – it sets a boundary to the existence, which makes the unity of existence possible. (in Macquarrie, 1972, p.218) I would like to push it even further and make a claim that death is the best thing in life after life itself. Just consider the following: you and I have to thank death for existing – if there were not for death, this planet would be populated with other life forms way before we were born, actually, way before any human beings were born. Death also infinitely reduces suffering (think about all the creatures big and small that would have to endure incapacitation, injuries, sickness, great pain and discomfort – forever). Death is also democratic, as it doesn’t miss anybody, and it is also a very good motivator – if you thought you had all the time in the world, would you get out of bed at all? Finally, it is one of the very few certainties in life. Somebody said, “only death and taxes are certain”. Not true (if you are very rich, you can avoid paying taxes). What is certain is that you will die and that you are alive now. We can build on these two certainties to move beyond anxiety.
Anxiety comes from worrying about death that will come sometime in the future. However, the future doesn’t exist; the present is the only reality, so relax. You are alive now, and you cannot be alive and dead at the same time (unless you are Schrodinger’s cat). You can die at the very next instant, but not now, which is the only reality – so, if you want to avoid anxiety, just stay there. This is why mindfulness (which is essentially an exercise that helps you be in the present) reduces anxiety. This is not to say that you should completely forget about death, just not worry about it. The synthesis of life and death has many benefits: it puts in perspective possessiveness, attachment and importance and enables us to perceive life in its totality. As another prominent existential psychologist, Emmy van Deurzen, says: “I can be fully alive only when I face up to the possibility of my death.” Some empirical observations (see Yalom, 1980; Boss, 1971) indeed suggest that awareness of death makes us respect life more and value every moment – paradoxically, it makes us more alive.
Separateness and Togetherness
To see why we need to embrace separateness as well as togetherness, imagine a world in which you know what everybody thinks and feels, and, yes, also, everybody knows what you think and feel. Nightmare? Even worse. We would likely turn into some kind of collective homogenous soap with little diversity and individuality. Life is so good because we have a choice to be with others and be on our own, to share with others, and keep some things to ourselves. Even lying has its functions (most of the time you don’t answer truly to ‘how are you?’ and most of the time, those who ask do not want to hear a true answer). Separateness is necessary not only for developing and maintaining our individuality but also for authentic contact with the world. If we are no longer driven in our relationships with separation anxiety, we can be with others because we want to be with them, not because we need to, which can replace possessiveness with true feelings and, indeed, anxiety with joy.
Freedom and necessity
In the 1960s, young people (particularly, but not only in the US) rebelled against the shackles of social norms and restrictions only to promptly become prey to their inner drives and often self-destructive hedonic pleasures. The lesson to be learnt is that boundless freedom is not all it is cracked up to be. Take the game of chess as an example: imagine that players have complete freedom to do whatever they like – most likely, the game would end in one or two moves, and certainly, it would not be meaningful or enjoyable. The reason why chess is a good game is that it has particular rules that set some boundaries to players’ choices. The same applies to life, except that in your life, you can be involved in creating these boundaries rather than just following the existing ones:
The moment one becomes capable of living authentically, one needs to find new criteria for deciding on right and wrong. While the old rules have become outdated with the rejection of external authority, one’s inner authority requires a compass to travel by if it is to stay on the right track. (Deurzen-Smith, 1988, p.56).
So, where do we find that compass? It arises from an interplay between the two fundamental modalities of the person: being (existence) and doing (agency). Your freedom to be what you want to be can determine some boundaries to your freedom to do what you want to do. You may ask, “how will this help me make the right decision, choose the right career or right partner? There are nearly infinite possibilities out there – how can I know that I am making the best choices?” Firstly, you cannot know, but don’t worry about it because there is no objectively best choice – it is not that it is very difficult to make it – there isn’t. The best choice is always relative to what you are and what you want to be. The best choice for the person as you are now would not be the best choice if you were different, and tomorrow you will be somewhat different. So what is the best choice today may not be tomorrow. When we are making choices, we usually seek the best fit for who we are at that moment. This is good as it funnels our choices and consequently reduces anxiety. However, I suggest that we should also seek the best fit for what we want to be. For instance, If you are choosing your partner or profession, don’t only ask, “Do I like this person/job?” but also, “Will this or that help me be the person I want to be?” I am not talking here just about your long-term goals (such as “In ten years, I want to have a big house and three kids”). I am talking about, if you like, choosing your life destiny. In effect, you ask if that person/job will help you fulfil your destiny, whatever you think it is. As Buber states:
…destiny confronts him as the counterpart of his freedom. It is not his boundary but his fulfilment; freedom and destiny are linked together in meaning. (1937, p.53)
“But I just want to be happy!” I hear some of you are saying (I thought this largely misunderstood thing, happiness, must pop up sooner or later). A friend of mine (when he was a kid) painted on the wall of his room DEEP PURPLE (for those who were born much later, the name of a popular rock band at that time). When his dad came in, he said, “This will be difficult to take off.” And my friend replied, “Don’t worry, dad, I will love them forever.” Yep. If you think something that makes you feel good now will make you happy forever, think again. In fact, there is nothing out there that can secure your everlasting happiness. True happiness is about inner harmony, your peace of mind – when what you do is in tune with what you are and what you want to be. This is where the joy of living comes from.
Uncertainty and predictability
As already mentioned, all the above have an element of unknown or uncertainty in common, so we need to tackle that beast head-on too. Of course, uncertainty is not always negative. People often actively seek uncertainty (uncertainty is what makes games, novels, movies, or adventures so exciting). A totally predictable life would be unbearably dull. But uncertainty can also cause a high level of anxiety, so what makes the difference? If you look at it very carefully, you will notice that anxiety arises when we don’t trust that we will be able to deal with or respond to a particular situation satisfactorily. In other words, anxiety becomes overwhelming when insecurity is added to uncertainty. This is when that familiar panicky feeling takes place. So, the way forward, in this case too, is the synthesis of uncertainty and predictability. In other words, putting into practice that old adage, “prepare for the worst and hope for the best”. It would be nice and simple to draw the curtain at this point, but we cannot. Anxiety may still be lurking in the wings.
The trouble is that we know that we may not even know what may go wrong. In the words of an American politician, Donald Rumsfeld, who played a central role in the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, unknown unknowns tend to be difficult ones. Understandably they can provoke a great deal of anxiety, as you can’t prepare for things you don’t know (invading another country, just in case, is not recommended). And we can’t possibly plan for everything. This is where control freakery starts festering. We try to beat the odds, but we fail sooner or later and then try even harder just to fail even harder. So what can we do? Learn to ride the waves! A surfer is not trying to control the waves; they learn to ride them. Of course, just giving up an attempt to control reality is not sufficient for that – mastery is also necessary. But mastery can be a great source of joy. People spend so much time and effort mastering various games because that gives them joy. So, how about mastering the greatest game of all – the game of life? This can be a major source of existential joy.
 Podvoll, E. (1990) The Seduction of Madness. London: Random Century, p. 97.
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Slobodan Kezunovic has an academic background in business management and marketing, but has been a lifelong student of personal development and a promoter of dealing with life’s challenges in a healthy and constructive way. Psychology and human relations have always fascinated him and have been a key driver on his own road to personal development, believing that the only way you can change the world is by changing yourself. Slobodan works as a copywriter and editor with over 7 years of experience writing sales copy and marketing content for several industries. He has been following Dr Nash Popovic’s work closely and collaborates with him as a contributor to the Personal Synthesis project, with the goal of helping people live a more prosperous and skilful life.