Existential wellbeing is grounded in the philosophy of existentialism and has developed into existential psychotherapy in a more contemporary context. It all began with philosophers Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, the pioneers of existentialism in the 19th century. As a philosophy, existentialism contemplated conceptual thoughts such as meaning and purpose, personal freedom, suffering, and death. But existentialism took its shape through the work of Viktor Frankl — psychotherapist, author, and holocaust survivor, who, through his lived experience, has offered us a framework on how to practice existential wellbeing.
As Frankl eloquently wrote: “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”
We are all capable of experiencing existential wellbeing and existential distress. Existential wellbeing is, “a person’s present state of subjective well-being across existential domains, such as meaning, purpose, satisfaction in life, and feelings of comfort regarding death and suffering”. Existential distress is characterized as emotional, mental, or psychological distress that a person may face when dealing with death or illness. How we deal with these existential challenges determines, to a certain degree, our existential wellbeing or lack thereof.
In this article, we’ll explore these themes: meaning, purpose, satisfaction in life, and life and death to gain clarity on how we can all pursue stronger existential wellbeing.
How can we create a greater sense of meaning out of life?
A great way to think about meaning is by self-inquiry: what does life mean to you? Meaning-making is how we make sense of life through the ebbs and flows. The way we make meaning out of existence influences our perception of how we view life. In short, we give life meaning. We can cultivate meaning through experiencing spirituality, establishing a relationship with the transcendent, or simply finding a connection with someone or something beyond the self. In the context of meaning, transcendence is intertwined. Transcendence involves an openness to go beyond the self: to belong to a community, to care for another, and to harness the ability to make meaning in all of life’s circumstances.
Life can be more meaningful, depending on how we perceive the events in our lives. Or as one research article puts it, “meaning cannot be invented; the individual must perceive it”. If we become intentional about making meaning from even the slightest details, we’ll begin to notice that our lives do have meaning. This comprises feelings of belonging, recognition, connection with others, hope, and a shared spiritual experience. Whether we feel connected to a higher power, another human being, or even nature, makes no difference. What’s more important is feeling a sense of connection to life — to something or someone other than ourselves.
Through Viktor Frankl’s work as a psychiatrist, he observed the intricate connection between knowing your purpose in life and happiness; without purpose, people feel an existential emptiness within their lives. Frankl wrote about his patients who suffered from mental illnesses as being stuck in an “existential vacuum”, an emptiness that people feel. In contrast, when you have a purpose in life, you have direction and motivation that fuels you. Several studies have shown the numerous benefits of having a purpose in life. Let’s take a look!
One study revealed that having a purpose leads to more physical activity in participants’ lives. In another study, tackling the relationship between purpose and cognitive functioning, results showed that having a purpose in life correlated with better working memory and cognition. In one more study, researchers examined the relationship between altruism, a common bond, and existential wellbeing. They measured participants’ existential wellbeing by asking them two questions: “Do you have a strong purpose in life?” and “Do you think your life matters to others?” The results were astounding: they found that when their participant’s altruism was directed toward the entire world and a common bond with humanity, their existential wellbeing was at its highest.
Doing an altruistic act can enhance your sense of purpose in the world. This could mean volunteering your time at a charity, helping the elderly with their groceries, or simply doing a random act of kindness to make someone else’s life easier. Altruism is broad and there’s no limit on what you can do to help improve the lives of others. It can only strengthen your existential wellbeing.
The question still remains: how can you improve your life satisfaction?
By definition, “life satisfaction is a person’s evaluation of his or her own life based on factors that they deem most relevant”, says Dr. Kim, an assistant psychology professor. In one of his studies, it was found that higher life satisfaction correlates with improved physical, psychological, and behavioral health. The research shows promising benefits: decreased risk of depression, chronic pain, sleep problems, mortality, physical impairments, and more. Not to mention, an improvement in physical activity frequency, and better psychological wellbeing. Additionally, meditation was identified as a beneficial addition to life. Mindfulness intervention, for example, was shown to be an effective tool for improving life satisfaction and spiritual wellbeing.
Another answer for improving life satisfaction also lies within this four-letter word: hope. It sounds too simple, right? The research shows us something promising about “hope” that may surprise you. Interestingly, studies suggest that hope is connected to life satisfaction.
People who have spiritual experiences (both inside and outside the realm of religion) feel more hopeful about life, and rely on them as a foundation for their meaning of life. What’s more is that feeling hopeful about the future has a positive effect on our psychological wellbeing.
So, what are you hopeful for in your future?
Let’s unpack hope. As outlined by one research article: “hope is based on three main factors: the inner sense of time and future, the inner positive readiness and expectation, and the sense of connection with oneself and others”. When we feel hopeful, we can project positive outcomes into the future whilst engaging in the present moment. Hope can become the bridge between the present and future, to practice optimism for a better outcome and connect us to something bigger than ourselves.
Accepting Death and Suffering
Researchers discovered that existential psychotherapy can improve their participants’ attitudes towards life. Existential therapy addressed concepts of death and suffering, the meaning of life, and happiness. Happiness is only sustainable when we are able to accept life’s impermanent nature; both happiness and sadness are as ephemeral as life and death. We can find existentialist perspectives of impermanence within Buddhism. As such, the principle of impermanence in Buddhism is accepting that everything changes. Wei-chin Hwang, licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology writes in his book, Culturally Adapting Psychotherapy for Asian Heritage Populations: “Buddhism emphasizes the importance of accepting the impermanence of life because it is one of the keys to reducing and being free from attachments and sufferings”
The Buddha’s Four Noble Truths explore suffering as merely a part of life that we, as humankind, need to make peace with. Researchers discovered that all people, whether Buddhist and non-Buddhist, suffering from incurable diseases or approaching death, can benefit from Buddhist teachings that tackle inevitable death and suffering. Accepting the uncertainty of life and detaching from what we may typically cling to, whether that’s possessions or relationships, can liberate us and help us live with more presence. Developing a spiritual mindset amidst struggle can profoundly change the way we look at both death and suffering.
Many people indeed seem to reflect deeply on existential questions when faced with illness or even death, however, we can all benefit from reflecting on the meaning and purpose of life. Engaging with existential questions, as we have seen with people who are confronted with potential death, can help us deal with the fragility of life while embracing and accepting the nature of life. Meaning-making and starting a quest for our purpose can be a catalyst for living life to the fullest — improving our satisfaction of life and strengthening our existential wellbeing.