Fighting Existential Dread, How to Find Meaning in the Chaos

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If you are anywhere between 20 and literally anything years old, you’ve experienced existential dread in some form. It’s somehow weaved into the fabric of time and space. But, for how pervasive existentialist dread is, it can be really hard to tell the difference between a shitty mood and a full blown crisis. So let’s talk about that. The defining characteristic of existential dread is a generalized sense of anxiety and creeping uncertainty about your future. You’re caught by a vague feeling of disappointment by what life has to offer, and disinterest in traditional or mainstream models of a happy life. It’s not quite depression, and it’s not quite nihilism, but a kind of facing the void and understanding that in a reality where we can be absolutely anything we want to become, all too often we end up becoming nothing at all. It’s the residual realization that, after a lifetime of possibilities, we may very well fail to acquire the authentic identity we always wanted. It can make you bitter. And in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, we’re not about letting your bitterness steal your sweetness dear reader. Let’s take a look at twelve science-backed ways to shake yourself out of that existential awfulness.

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Learn to Delay Gratification

“We do not pray for immortality, but only not to see our acts and all things stripped suddenly of all their meaning; for then it is the utter emptiness of everything reveals itself.” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Have you ever wondered why people seem to become more serious and generally less excitable as they grow older? What happens to that sense of wonder and amazement they had as kids? It’s in our nature to become jaded by life. As we grow up, it becomes increasingly harder to feel impressed, and (ironically) the more and better quality your experiences are, the less of them you actually enjoy. Imagine what would happen if you got a pre-paid all-access pass to the best five-star restaurants in your city for a whole year. On any given night, you can enjoy the most mind-blowingly delicious food in the highest-rated restaurants the world has to offer. After six months of this your standards will be raised so high, going out for dinner to anything less than a five-star restaurant will become unbearable. This is exactly the reason delaying gratification can be such a powerful tool for increasing happiness. In the short term, studies show that the anticipation of something good, like a trip or concert, will make you as happy as the actual event itself. In the long term, delaying gratification means that you still get to experience moments that take your breath away when you’re old and grey. But be careful not to apply this rule to food…which brings us to the next point.

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Stop Dieting Immediately

“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” Mahatma Gandhi

During WWII the University of Minnesota wanted to determine the psychological effects of hunger on humans, so they conducted one of the most famous experiments on hunger ever made. The participants were drafted men who chose to be guinea pigs in this year long experiment instead of going off to war. For half of that year the soldiers were told to reduce their calorie intake to 1,560 calories per day. Which is actually tame on modern fad diet standards. And what were the results of their experiment? Severe depression, hysteria, hypochondria, self-mutilation (one guy amputated three of his fingers), an obsessive preoccupation with food, and social isolation, oh and their sex drive plummeted too. Dieting will make you hate yourself and your life. Period. It will put you on an infinity loop of misery – dieting because you dislike yourself, then disliking yourself (and everything else) because you’re dieting. That’s no way to find meaning in life. If you’re looking to lose weight, dieting is not going to be the road to take. Eat the fries. Do some squats. Repeat.

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Embrace Your Inner Nihilist

“People tend to complicate their own lives, as if living weren’t already complicated enough.” Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind

He didn’t call me back! He must not like me. I gained some weight! I’m ugly now. My boss criticized my work! I’m going to get fired. This is what it’s like inside your brain. You go about your day making polarizing assumptions and over analyzing everything. Everything is either really good, or really bad. But not everything has to have a meaning. Try to view the world neutrally. It sounds simple, but humans find attaching emotional values to neutral things irresistible. Blue skies are good, grey skies are bad. Pop is good, country is bad. Younger is better, older is worse. In reality none of these things are inherently good or bad. It is your attitude toward these that magically takes it from neutral, to suddenly negative or positive. Dr. Deepak Chopra, author of The Ultimate Happiness Prescription, went so far as to say that you should stop defending any particular point of view and focus on maintaining neutrality instead: “You can save 99 percent of your psychological energy — and feel happier — if you can stop defending your point of view,” he explained. By embracing your inner nihilist, and being aware of the unnecessary value judgments you make about the world, you can become much less judgmental, neurotic and hard on yourself.

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Practice Self-Awareness

“We make tactless remarks because we wish to hurt, break our legs because we do not wish to walk, marry the wrong man because we cannot let ourselves be happy, board the wrong train because we would prefer not to reach the destination.” Fay Weldon, Female Friends

Most of us believe that we are fundamentally good people, but according to existentialist rockstar Albert Camus the question of goodness or badness isn’t really relevant, what we call goodness is actually a kind of self-awareness, while badness is merely degrees of ignorance. The idea that freedom can only come the moment you hold a mirror to your heart and find the courage to speak the whole truth about what you see there. “The soul of the murderer is blind,” wrote Camus in The Plague, “there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.” Self-awareness becomes one of the most critical aspects of experiencing the best of life. Everything else is blindness.

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Steer Clear of Stereotypes

“Once you label me you negate me.” Søren Kierkegaard

There is a scientifically measured and incredibly powerful placebo effect to stereotypes. It’s not only that believing in a stereotype makes it true, even worrying about whether it’s true will make it true. In a fascinating experiment by psychologist Claude Steele, study participants were given two math tests, one easy and the other hard. In the first set of questions males and females preformed equally well, but scores suddenly plummeted for women when they had to answer the harder questions. Why? Because women are not as good at math as men? Ironically, the performance disparity was entirely due to this very stereotype. When researchers preformed the experiment a second time, they found that the scores magically evened out if they told women that females scored as well as men on all questions regardless of the level of difficulty. Claude and his team called this the Stereotype Threat. And just like that, Steele and his team disproved the stereotype that women are bad at math, and demonstrated the destructive power of generalities, so try to steer clear of them. Train yourself to spot stereotypes in real-time and nip that bad stuff in the bud. You’ll be a much better person for it.

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Spend Less Time On Social Media

The irony that you likely sauntered over here from Facebook has not escaped us. We’re grateful, but we need to be honest with you. According to a University of Michigan study, the more time you spend on social media, the unhappier and generally dissatisfied with life you will be. There have been tons of other studies like this, what makes this one special is that it rules out every other possibility, and does not confuse correlation with causation. The results are definitive. It’s not that unhappy people are on Facebook, it really is the case that Facebook makes people unhappy. The researchers are unsure why that is, but they did note that the negative effects of Facebook are more intense for people with healthy social lives out in the real world, and decline when participants started to spend less time on the site. Facebook makes it too easy to compare yourself to others, and we often forget that what we’re seeing is a carefully curated version of reality. Somehow, everyone always looks happier and more successful online. A little digital detox goes a long way. This is doubly important for those of you who use Facebook as your primary way of connecting to people. FB is no substitute for real human connection. Studies show that social isolation is twice as deadly as obesity and causes the equivalent damage to your body as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Not only that, there’s a close relationship between loneliness and depression. So, if it’s happiness you seek, unplug and go have coffee with someone in the real world.

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Stop Reading Romance Novels

The danger of dreams is that they are often so much more beautiful than reality. Nothing real can compete with a perfect fantasy.

This isn’t about pulling the plug on romance, but about checking your subconscious expectations of what real love looks like. There are a lot of unhappy people out there totally confused about love because everything they know about it came from the pages of 50 Shades of Gray and Twilight. Our modern concept of romance hinges on an idealized burning passion that never seems to burn out. People have come to expect everlasting ecstasy with their partners because that’s how love is presented to us in the media. Unfortunately it’s not how love was hardwired into our brains. Evolution realized that if humans were forever swept up in the throes of passion, they wouldn’t be able to get anything else done. So mother nature put a 12 month cap on it. After that, passion becomes a daily decision. If you’re in love and anticipate this next phase in your relationship, you will be more likely to stay, fight for it, and eventually cross over to the other side where love takes on hues you never even knew existed.

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Use Your Time Wisely

This step is about reframing the way you see the world so that time (rather than money, fame, or beauty) becomes the most important thing in your life. Putting value on your time will have an immense positive trickle effect through your entire life. Being conscious of the limited time you have on this planet will affect the way you work, the kind of work you take on, how much you charge for your time, and the kind of people you chose to hang out with. If you were born into a socially and politically stable society, time is really the only obstacle standing in the way of anything you want to accomplish. For this reason there’s always going to be a trade off, and your job is to figure out which trades are worth making. Would you rather build an empire or start a family? Would you rather become a successful artist or move to the mountains and become a sheep farmer? Would you rather start a business or travel the world? You can have a lot, but your limited time won’t allow you to have it all. So don’t scatter your energy, be clear about what’s truly important to you, and prioritize your goals. Figure out how much time goes into the things you want to accomplish in life, then figure out how much time you really have, and press play.

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Stop Judging People

“No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.”Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Obviously, right? Only problem is that judging people is usually an automatic response, especially when we come across someone that’s dramatically different from us and threatens our sense that we’ve made good choices in life. Are you a stay at home mom? You’re going to disapprove of the career woman who chose to remain childless. Are you modest? You’re probably going to think that girl in the mini-skirt is a slut. Psychologist Dustin Wood found that the way you talk about others is a direct reflection of your personality, mental health, and satisfaction with life. People who say nice things about others tend to be happy, compassionate people. While those who get off on criticizing others were linked to narcissism, depression, neuroticism and antisocial tendencies. In other words, negative judgment is a flag for psychological instability in a person. So from now on, every time you hear a critical thought run through your head (“Ugh, what was she thinking? That dress is horrible!”) just remember in that moment you are projecting something wounded inside yourself onto the outside world. Sincerely ask yourself why you care what others choose to do with their bodies? Chances are it’s because some part of you feels that everyone should think like you, dress like you, and make the same life choices as you in order to legitimize that those choices were good ones. Letting people do whatever harmless thing they need to do to be happy will, ironically, make you a happier person. By allowing others to be as imperfect and weird as they wish, you are inadvertently giving yourself permission to be imperfect as well. The moment it finally sinks in that judging other people is actually a reflection of how you feel about yourself, you will feel the most incredible emotional release. Try it!

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Getting a Therapist is Better Than Getting Richer

Let’s face it, everyone could use a therapist. We’re all a little psychologically unstable in one way or another. On the menu we have social anxiety, low self-esteem, repressed anger, emotional eating, depression and a general inability to make adult decisions among many many others. Working through your emotional baggage is the greatest gift you can ever give yourself. Research shows that a good therapist can have a greater positive effect on your life than getting a raise at work. A study by the University of Warwick and the University of Manchester found that psychological therapy can be 32 times more cost effective at making you happy than getting paid more. The increase in well-being from a $1200 therapy session was so immense that it would take a pay rise of over $40,200 to achieve an equivalent increase in happiness. So if you’re looking to change your life and become an overall happier person, therapy will be 32 times more likely to do the job than anything material (money, clothes, new car etc).

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Drink Less Coffee

Turns out your favorite drink in the world may be giving you anxiety, making you irritable and preventing you from being able to make rational decisions. Although some research suggests caffeine is actually a mood stimulant, improving overall memory and alertness, these studies paint an incomplete picture. Most of this research does not take the coffee drinker’s addiction to caffeine into consideration. New research from Johns Hopkins Medical School reveals that what’s really happening when you drink coffee is the equivalent of a junkie getting a hit. By factoring in caffeine withdrawal into their experiments, the JHMS researchers found that the immense boost in mood, alertness and cognitive ability is just you returning to normal from caffeine withdrawal. Any supposed improvements you get from coffee are totally nonexistent, unless you’re addicted of course. Any addiction, even to something so seemingly innocent as caffeine, will make you feel like crap until you get your next fix. And as soon as you do, you feel so much better that you naturally assume coffee is a miracle cure for Monday Morning Syndrome. Except that on top of bringing you back to baseline, caffeine triggers the release of adrenaline, raising your heart rate and blood pressure, forcing you to take take quick shallow breaths that deprive your brain of oxygen. You effectively go into a fight or flight response, which actually makes you anxious, irritable and impedes rational thinking making you react more emotionally to negative situations. Not to mention the fact that caffeine takes a full 24hrs to make its way out of your system, meaning that any caffeine you had at noon will be at 50% strength by 8pm. That’s enough to disrupt your REM sleep and make you extra irritable and tired in the morning. And so the cycle of irritability and exhaustion goes on every day. Do yourself a huge favor, if you must have your coffee, limit yourself to just one cup in the early morning.

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Stop Venting Your Negative Emotions

“Just let it all out, you’ll feel better.” We’ve heard those words a million times over the years and admittedly, it has always seemed like sound advice. Except it’s dead wrong. Studies show that venting may make you feel better in the moment, but will turn you into a miserable and vindictive human being long term. The experiments revealed that people who were encouraged to vent their anger tended to become more hostile, aggressive and vengeful in the long run, while those who were asked to internalize their anger actually cooled off and got over it. “What people fail to realize is that the anger would have dissipated had they not vented,” Dr. Jeffrey Lohr, a psychology professor at the University of Arkansas explains. “Moreover, it would have dissipated more quickly had they not vented and tried to control their anger instead.” So the next time you get annoyed, angry or frustrated and call up your friend to have one of those hour-long venting sessions, stop. Science shows that you will cool off faster, and allow yourself to become a calmer happier person in the long run if you stop venting, and learn to quietly let the anger and frustration go. A moment of patience in a moment of anger saves you hundreds of moments of future unhappiness. Take a few breaths, close your eyes, and remember that life is too short to waste being unhappy. Even for a second.

Books Referenced in this Article

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deepak-happiness

night-flight

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Natalia Borecka

Natalia is the editor in chief and publisher of Lone Wolf Magazine. She founded the publication in 2012.

2 Comments
  1. Well said Natalia, you never fail to have the exact point of view and shaking things up (just like your images), thank you for that! you have been an inspiration since I met you. Speaking personally, it has been an honor to meet you few years ago. I will be so happy to post this link to my face book!!!!
    keep up the way you do your own thing…
    ,
    Monika

  2. Thanks for curating this story. As a young woman who is trying to find perfection in every aspect of her life, I have come to a realization thats its utterly impossible unless I find balance and happiness within myself.

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