Turning Existential Dread Into Existential Joy

This summer, I had an existential crisis.

You may have heard that existentialism is the philosophical theory that the world, and life, is meaningless. But another way of looking at it is that we all as individuals get to decide the meaning of our lives.

This summer, I suffered from existential dread. I realized that I wasn’t really living my life. I wasn’t making meaningful decisions that got me closer to accomplishing my goals. I was feeling out of control and miserable in all of my relationships, in my hopes and dreams, and in my own skin. The problem is, when you’re feeling out of control, it’s easy to let your existential dread spiral.

For me, this spiraling took the form of panic attacks, and I’m glad it did. Why? Because if I had just gone on feeling awful with no other symptoms, I would never have sought help. Instead, I started attending counselling sessions at my school. That was the first step in turning my existential dread into existential joy. Here are some more steps I took and am still taking in order to regain control of my life.

Make some changes

This was the hardest step because I didn’t think I needed to make any changes. I started the fall semester of my junior year as a chemistry and English double major, and I ended it as an English major and chemistry minor. It’s the best decision I ever made.

I was double majoring for all the wrong reasons. Switching my chemistry major for the minor let me do more of what I love with both chemistry and English, and it freed up my time to pursue more of my personal goals. Which leads me to my next piece of advice.

Do the work

If you want to accomplish your goals, you have to do the work. This means changing your habits. It means getting up earlier. It means pushing yourself even when all you want to do is kick back and watch Netflix. It’s really, really hard. But it gets easier.

For me, doing the work to accomplish my goals just meant doing more of what I love. I want to be a writer, and I already love reading and writing. Doing the work meant setting aside time to read the young adult fiction books I love instead of wasting my time scrolling through social media. It also meant expanding my horizons by reading literary fiction and nonfiction. Doing the work meant writing the stories I’ve always wanted to write instead of making excuses as to why I shouldn’t.

So if I love doing these things so much, why wasn’t I doing them? Well, because there was always something more important to do. Or there was always something easier to do to pass the time. Doing what you love does not always mean doing the easy thing.

Forgive yourself

The truth is, you’re going to set goals you won’t be able to accomplish. That’s a good thing. If you don’t push yourself, you’ll never know what you’re capable of. But it also means that you can’t give up the first time you fail. You have to forgive yourself. And forgive yourself again. And again. And again. Revise your goals if you’re feeling disheartened, but never stop pushing yourself. Never stop forgiving yourself.

Try again

This is the most important step. You’re going to do the work. You’re going to fail, and you’re going to forgive yourself. And then you’re going to try again. You’re never going to have a perfect life, but you’ve got to remember that you’re in control. You get to make the decisions that shape your life, so make those decisions. Don’t let someone else decide for you. Decide to live your life.

Existential joy

Have I achieved existential joy? I think so. I have a stack of books next to my desk that I want to read. I don’t have much time to read during the semester, but I forgive myself for having other priorities. I’m taking an advanced creative writing class. It’s scary to share my writing with strangers, but if I never get feedback, I’ll never improve.

I know that I’m not perfect. I know that things won’t work out exactly as I picture them, no matter how hard I work. That’s not what existential joy is about. Existential joy is knowing that whatever life throws at me, I’ll figure something out.

Image Credit: Feature, 1, 2, 3