What Is Causing Your Existential Crisis?
Humans have advanced cognitive abilities that allow them to think about themselves and the world around them. That gives them greater survival capabilities, but it also allows them to wallow in despair. The question is, what causes the latter to occur? In other words, why are you questioning your existence?
While there are a multitude of reasons, many are related to the occurrence of a major loss or setback. But before I get into why people experience one, I need to summarize the drivers of someone feeling meaning and fulfillment in their lives (since an existential crisis would, naturally, be the opposite of someone feeling fulfilled). In short, there are eight main components to someone who feels fulfilled and self-actualized:
- Growth – People feel fulfilled when they are growing toward their full potential.
- Experience – People feel fulfilled when they are having fulfilling experiences (i.e., growth-enabling ones).
- Desire – People feel a sense of purpose when they want something very badly and are making progress toward it.
- Belief – People feel a sense of purpose when they believe that their lives are getting better or that they can attain their goals.
- Emotions – Naturally, emotions are the feedback mechanism telling you that you feel good about your life.
- Ethics – People feel fulfilled when they feel like what they’re doing is right.
- Support – People feel fulfilled when they are helping others or working with others toward a common goal.
- Choice – People feel better when they feel like they are in control of their lives (i.e., they have agency)
Logically, the absence of meaning that an existential crisis embodies is just the lack of these things. For example:
- A Tragic Harm or Loss – People who lose loved ones, money, etc. will feel like they had their hearts ripped out or were punched in the gut. The loss—the opposite of growth and progress—is what makes people wonder why bother doing anything if it’s just going to go away or be destroyed?
- Negative Experiences – A list of bad breaks—e.g., losing a big game, being dumped by your partner, or your business shutting down—will add up over time. The medium through which the harm or loss occurs, it’s the experience that will usually directly trigger the crisis. The loss or harm can stay with someone for long after the actual experience, though, which is why I’m separating these two triggers.
- Lack of Desire – Ask anyone who is depressed what they want to do, and you’ll almost always get “nothing” as a response. People have an existential crisis when they don’t want anything: it seems like nothing will satisfy them or make them happy. Without desire, why do anything? There’s no drive or motivation to continue on.
- Lack of Belief – If you believe that life is pointless, you’ll without fail have an existential crisis. Again, this is often triggered by a loss, harm, or learned helplessness where you begin to believe that it doesn’t matter what you do. That belief can take you down into a pit of despair that’s difficult to get out of.
- Depression – The most common emotion associated with the existential crisis is depression. If you feel depressed (as mentioned above), you’ll likely wonder what the point of everything is.
- Unethical Behavior – When other people bend or break the rules while you follow them, it will begin to feel unfair. What’s the point of doing it the right way if someone else can achieve the same outcome (or even beat you) by doing it the wrong way? Note: if you’re a good person and bad things happen to you, you may personify luck as a person who’s supposed to reciprocate your ethical behavior with ethical behavior of their own and ask yourself, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” While that’s covered under negative experiences, it’s important to note the fact that the person who is experiencing the existential crisis is often a good person and then questions it all when bad events or others’ bad behavior makes them feel like it’s all for naught.
- Not Having Others to Share Life With – “What’s the point of [insert thing like having money, achieving great goals, or acquiring a great thing like a boat or a house] if you have no one to share it with?” People who are lonely often find that they aren’t fully satisfied without relationships with others.
- Lack of Agency – I think it’s pretty apparent that it’s much harder for a prisoner, slave, or indentured servant to keep going on than a free person because they have little to no control over their lives. You often see teenagers as well commit suicide because they are stuck in a school with people who bully them and can’t handle it anymore. Yes, you can get through it if you have all of the above elements, but it take a strong will and mental fortitude to get through life when you (feel like you) have no control over the outcome.
There might be other reasons, but those are the main drivers of an existential crisis, which is why they’re also the main drivers of fulfillment. Without these eight elements, meaning and fulfillment in your life may evade you, and you’ll be questioning the point of your existence.