How Existentialism Can Solve Your Existential Crisis

What is the meaning of life? What is the purpose of me being here, doing the things I do?

These are some of the most common philosophical questions we ask ourselves. Failure to find an answer leads to what is commonly known as an existential crisis. It just comes as a sudden feeling of anguish when something major happens in your life, for example when you graduate, reach a birthday milestone, or face the death of a loved one. Or it comes suddenly but completely at random, when you’re in your bed at 2 am, just trying to get some sleep.

You just start questioning your meaning. You feel like your actions have no impact, like you aren’t meeting the expectations set for you, and no one will remember you after you die. You go on about your daily routine, but it’s not like it changes anything or leads anywhere. Perhaps you felt you had a purpose – a relationship, a job or a study path – but suddenly it was taken from you.

Because of the term existential crisis, along with existential angst, the word existentialism may have a bad reputation. In reality existentialism is merely a branch of philosophy that is generally thought to have been born in the late 19th, early 20th century. So, what is the main idea of existentialism?

“There is no meaning of life.”

Well, that doesn’t sound good… Except that there is more.

“You yourself must choose what is the meaning of your life.”

This idea forms the key to existentialism: there is no pre-set meaning of life, because it’s up to you to decide what your life is about. As argued by key member of existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 - 1980), there is no inherent purpose for being human. You are not born into this world in order to fulfill a carefully planned role. This is sometimes difficult to accept. After all, you’re surrounded by expectations.

Social media is full of people who seemingly lead fulfilling lives. You read books and watch movies where the main character is “the chosen one”. They have amazing adventures and find out that they are capable of more than they ever thought. Meanwhile, your own dreams are on hiatus, you’ve reached a certain age, but you’re still single and unsure of what you want to do with your life… Or perhaps you have already embarked a career you’re not sure you like, planning a family you’re not sure you want to have.

In our society it is our success, whatever that means, that often determines our worth in the eyes of others. But according to existentialism, you are not committed to follow expectations. Some existentialists, such as Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) and Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881, more famous for being an author), hold to some extent that no matter what you do, no matter how successful you are in the eyes of others and yourself, you cannot escape suffering, which is part of life.

Okay, this part about suffering sounds pretty pessimistic, but it also means that even if you do everything to have the “perfect” life (high-earning job, fame, lovely family, fancy house and car, you name it), your happiness is not guaranteed. As such, you should instead strive to do something you yourself enjoy and find valuable. You are a blank page and free to choose what is meaningful to you and you only, whether it is to serve your community or country, to help your parents, to do research, to create art, to run a blog. You can choose one thing and have that as your own, customised purpose. No need to strive towards purposes which do not truly interest you, because there is no correct answer apart from the one you choose yourself. As existentialists who are also Christians say, even if God did create you, he did not give you a specific purpose other than to exist. As such, when you wonder what your purpose in life is, only you can come up with the answer.

It is this freedom that opens space for optimism. Your lack of pre-determined purpose opens new opportunities, new choices. Can’t make up your mind? That’s fine: the best decisions come up naturally and just feel like the right thing to do. Made the wrong choice? This is what Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) might say on that: “All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better. What if they are a little coarse and you may get your coat soiled or torn? What if you do fail, and get fairly rolled in the dirt once or twice? Up again, you shall never be so afraid of a tumble.”

Is it possible to achieve happiness this way? What about when you cannot escape your duties? Another existentialist, Albert Camus (1913 - 1960) draws an example from the Greek myth of Sisyphus. In the myth, as a punishment by the Gods, Sisyphus is ordered to roll a boulder up a steep hill, but each time he reaches the top, the boulder rolls back down and Sisyphus has to repeat the arduous process. Sisyphus’ actions have no impact, no consequence. But Camus notes that instead of despairing at the impossible end goal, Sisyphus could find purpose and therefore happiness in the task itself. Even the simple things can bring joy and sense of purpose to your life if you accept them.

But if you cannot find a meaningful purpose, have you had an impact on the world? Here is another thought many find comforting: without a higher purpose, you gain the freedom to live your life as you see fit. The fact that you were born as you is completely coincidental. You are but a tiny speck in the universe and the mistakes you do are of no impact. Being kind to others and true to yourself is all that matters. Look at the people you admire, famous artists, athletes, politicians, your parents… In the end we are all specks of the universe and the universe will keep on going even after all of us are gone. Fear of dying at an old age is foreign in the idea of existentialism: death means you will not have achieved everything you thought you needed to do, but if you lived your life content, maybe that was enough.

As Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), another key figure of existentialism, aptly observed: “If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life – and only then will I be free to become myself.”

In the end, existentialism is not about increasing your existential angst, your worry about the meaning of life. It is about understanding that you are free to choose your meaning of life and while that may be difficult, it is ultimately quite liberating. So next time you worry about what you should accomplish and whether that accomplishment will leave an impact, try instead finding purpose in the small things that actually make you happy.