Forget about mindfulness and clean eating – at a time when we appear to be experiencing rising levels of anxiety, narcissism and unhappiness, existentialism may be the philosophy to adopt to improve your mental well-being.
Existentialist philosophy explores what it means to be human, what it means to be happy and what it means to be oneself. Regarding these, French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir tried to articulate how to live a life of “good faith”. This involves accepting responsibility for one’s own actions and facing up to difficult questions in order to fully realise oneself.
Existentialism supposes three interrelated components:
- Existential anxiety: life is hard and finite, chaotic and meaningless. Awareness of this is distressing.
- Existential avoidance: people try to distract themselves from the pain of these in routines, activities, social belonging and ego building.
- Existential authenticity allows people to face up to these painful realisations, accept responsibility for their own actions and work towards self-actualisation (when a person achieves their maximum potential).
Ideally these three states should be in balance. We need to face difficult questions, but nobody wants to spend all day thinking about death. Distractions help to keep us content, however, they can be time-consuming and self-indulgent. Searching for self-actualisation can be stimulating and rewarding, but it is also tiring.
The question to ask is, do we have the balance right?
Although valuable as a coping mechanism, we can only temporarily disguise or run away from existential anxiety. Plastic surgery has for instance been described as a very literal form of existential avoidance. But of course ageing and mortality can only be denied by Botox for so long.
What’s more, avoidance routines are said to be conformist, stifling and leading to a loss of the real self. We indulge in distractions and put off unpleasant but important decisions. We devolve our responsibilities to others – and our choices and their consequences become theirs. We change ourselves so that we fit in with peer groups and in doing so lose our essence. We become self-centred and reduce the ability to connect with other people. All those people with too much Botox do start to look the same.
Put away the comforting distractions
Social media may be an example of existential avoidance: it is distracting, becomes routine, and facilitates peer group memberships. While there are many positives about online networking, research has shown a darker side as social media potentially becomes addictive and overly time consuming, competitive or narcissistic. Gradually we become more focused on attractively filtering and framing life events to fit in with and stand out against others on Facebook, than actually living and processing those life events.
Increases in various mental health issues, such as depression, have been tentatively linked to this over-use of social media. An existentialist perspective on this would be that a pleasurable distraction can have too many negative consequences.
It is therefore important sometimes to step outside of the comforting distractions of our everyday routines, favoured activities, social roles or thinking about the self. Existential authenticity is described as a kind of honesty or courage. The authentic person faces something which the inauthentic person is afraid to face. Existentialism urges us to be true to ourselves. This means shedding culturally accepted values, dissipating the deceptive consolations of today’s concerns, and pursuing inner realisation of one’s own independent destiny.
Coming out for example, is for many gay people a difficult and even dangerous thing. It takes honesty to articulate to oneself, and then bravery to communicate with others, who one is. This is particularly the case when that might not be positively accepted by surrounding social groups or cultural norms. But it is only by doing so that one can then be free to fulfil one’s potential.
There is no set path for reaching existential authenticity or guarantee of emerging self-actualised. Existentialism stresses trying to sometimes question and step beyond the familiar – being honest about the painful realities of life and taking responsibility for our actions rather than letting others decide for us.
It is through these actions that we might increase our opportunities for personal growth, making meaningful connections with others, challenging and extending ourselves. And, in turn, may increase our chances of finding meaning, belonging and happiness.
About The Author
Brendan Canavan, Senior Lecturer in Marketing, University of Huddersfield