We all need to deal with an existential crisis from time to time. In fact, this is one of the deepest recurring themes in our art and science. Once we deal with all the survival questions, a lot of questions remain regarding our purpose. As this purpose changes, we may grow as human beings and acquire new skills, maybe even happiness. I think today’s selection of bibliography is pretty good. I plan to reuse it in the future. Please check out here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
How does an existential crisis look like?
It is hard to explain the nature of an existential crisis. For me, there are several masterpieces exposing it quite well. In literature Sartre’s “Nausea “, in art Gaugin’s “D’où venons-nous ? Que sommes-nous ? Où allons-nous ?”, in religion “Ecclesiastes”, in music Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably numb”.
Of cause, you can argue and possibly come up with a better list. These particular pieces resonate with me personally in the specific issue of my own existential crisis experiences.
About 25% of us are currently in an existential crisis. I quote
Existential anxiety and a sense of meaning are inextricably intertwined. Work by Tatjana Schnell from the University of Innsbruck (here and here) shows that a sense of meaning can have a profound influence on our well-being and degree of happiness. Five years ago, Schnell developed a framework to chart typical existential outlooks, a four-category matrix that can be summarized like this:
Meaningfulness: High meaningfulness and low crisis of meaning
Crisis of meaning: Low meaningfulness and high crisis of meaning
Existential indifference: Low meaningfulness and low crisis of meaning
Existential conflict: High meaningfulness and high crisis of meaning
The breakdown of people who actively search for the meaning of life looks like this:
Disclaimer: When writing this article I am not in an existential crisis. So I rely on my memory.
The new purpose
Following your passion and registering small personal achievement is very important. Not doing so is one of the main regrets people have before they die. A sense of purpose also means a longer life.
To be happy we need some degree of pleasures and purpose. When the old purpose exhausted itself, the pleasures do not provide happiness. There is an emptiness within, roughly corresponding to the self-actualization needs. Usually, it takes several months for the new purpose to surfaces, and in-between we feel lost.
In fact, this deep vulnerability of the human condition is one of our greatest strengths. We are more open to listening and more empathic. Our perception is more objective and critical, as we temporarily lose our confirmation bias and filtering bubble. The depression that often comes with search for a new purpose is profoundly creative and deep. We explore complex subjects and come up with interesting solutions. Even when we rest we work (sort of).
Once we find the new purpose, we often have an additional surge of energy which generates a new creative spark. There is a charismatic belief in the newly found purpose, which often feels like a new love.
I hope I did not lose you in the previous sections. As a profoundly practical man, I have some simple and useful tips:
- Read and learn. When we are open, we can truly learn new things. Read, consume arts. This is the best thing you can do if you have an existential crisis.
- Enjoy the misery. Do not try to “step out” of your condition or “power through” the setback. There is something very profound and beautiful in this sort of melancholy. Our focus can become unusually “heavy”, e.g. it might be hard to jump between subjects but easier to focus on all the details of the subject we want to research. This can be instrumental for critical thinking (enhanced analysis skills) and for artistic expressions (great metaphors).
- Be systematic. Create some sort of record for your sorts.
- Do not through away your previous identities. Learn to love them. You will need them in the future. Even if they currently do not energize you, they have unique wisdom you will need for your creative work (metaphors, power of perspectives, role modeling, ego states, empathy).
- Mission statement. At the end of the crisis, you are expected to have a purpose that energizes you and a vision of what you should do as a person. Try to formulate your personal vision, values, goals. Maybe write your personal mission statement or slogan. It can be non-verbal, such as visualization of a sign or a place.
Do not deal with your doubts alone. You kind of need new perspectives and constant feedback. Also, I do not recommend sharing your doubts with family members: this might be too much for them. Contact your friends, use your mentors and protegee. You will enjoy a very diverse set of thoughts.
Express yourself just enough to focus the conversation, and then try to listen When people understand that you come to listen, they will share their deepest beliefs and their own sense of purpose. The most common questions I asked in such situations: “what makes you tick” and “how can I learn that?“.
Usually, I would suggest self-help to deal with “heavy” emotions and professional support to verify that what we do is reasonable. In an existential crisis, the best therapy is often artistic expression, so it might be cost-effective to take some creative writing or acting workshops instead. (Do seek professional help if you get suicidal or lose the ability to work).
Dangers to avoid
- Role loss. As we lose our purpose we may get too inert or too impulsive for common sense and good judgment. One of our roles may suffer. This may result in loss of job, relocation, or divorce. Divorces strongly correlate with existential crisis situations, so be extra careful with your loved ones.
- Financial loss. Some loss should be expected and almost unavoidable. However, there is a huge difference between buying a new car and jumping from a senior position to a junior position that should make you feel better. Consider a couple of short staycations and getting a new hobby as a way to cut your losses. Always have some funds for such a crisis, especially if you work in sales or consult others.
- Health risks. The biggest danger by far is developing an addiction to prescription drugs, so be careful with chemistry. You also have a huge chance to gain a few pounds (at least I did). Additionally, you are quite likely to do some extreme sports and have a sport-related injury. Less common addictions include alcoholism, substance abuse, and sexual promiscuity.
- Loss of purpose. Usually, an existential crisis lasts several months. For teenagers and menopause/midlife crisis, the period is longer. Typically a new purpose appears and it is super exciting, or the old purpose gets extra meanings and it is super profound. If this period is not used for creative work and active search, the result may be a loss of purpose. This sounds like “my life is over, I am an empty shell”. It is something hard to spot but relatively easy to avoid.
When to expect an existential crisis
- Chemical and physical changes. If our body changes, our thoughts and roles may change accordingly. For example, a big change in testosterone may cause profound changes in how we perceive ourselves. Clearly, losing some body part or disease may be hard to deal with.
- Family role change. A new child, or children leaving the house, a new job for the spouse, death of parents …
- Creative crisis. If our job does not satisfy us as it used to, or when we lose a competitive edge.
- Global phenomenon. Something like 9/11, subprime crisis or COVID19…
- Envy. When someone we know is more successful than we are.
- Chronic or acute stress. Burnout.
- Start from “feeling flat” and grow like an avalanche.
It might also happen without any clear reason …
Can we avoid an existential crisis?
Often body enters the crisis state when some hormonal reaction is unchecked for a long period. Potentially if we could monitor cortisol and serotonin, testosterone and melatonin, this could be easy. We can notice some symptoms and be proactive. This way we trick our body not to enter the crisis state.
If we notice chronic stress or a creative crisis, we need to address them in time. Acquiring new productivity tools or self-help tools may help. Untreated burnout feels very much like an existential crisis.
When there is a change in our professional status or family situation, we can redefine our purpose and mission. If we do not perform this process actively, we might be forced to do this via existential crisis mechanisms.
Do not put really important stuff in the to-do list
When something is on our to-do list we want to finish it and clean up the list. If something is really important, we want to process it for as long as it takes. Keeping stuff like that in a separate list allows dealing with complex issues over a long period of time, instead of providing an inadequate response.
Do not think about happiness
The more you think about happiness, the more you are likely to be affected by envy to those who succeed and anxiety of those who struggle. “Happiness detox” might be a cool idea for us to explore in a dedicated article.
Life as a work of art
Our lives are a work of art. We have many creative choices to make. It is hard to say which choices are better, but some lives are profoundly more beautiful than others. Some crisis adds tension and suspense to this work
When Emperor Augustus was dying he said “The drama has been acted out, applaud.”