What Is The Main Idea Of Existentialism And How We Can Use It?

Do you often delve into the notion that life is pointless? That life is nothing but a nonsensical hamster wheel, spinning endlessly without a clear destination?

You do? Well, you are not alone!

Apparently, on average, 7 out of 10 people, reach a point of existential crisis. Marking life as intolerable.1

But why is that?

Shouldn’t we all enjoy living?

After all, we live in the most technologically advanced era of human existence.

We have access to food, clean water, beverages, and when things feel absolutely blunt – a doorway to endless entertainment with a push of a button.

Yet, depression these days is sky-high.2

It seems that even the most sophisticated video games. Even the most awarded show on the planet can’t wash away the feeling of agony when we understand that we are free to create our own meaning.

If you are here reading because you were suddenly hit by a train of thoughts whispering that you are no more than a momentary microbe, on a dust moat whirling through the unimaginable immensity of space. Congratulations, you are one step closer to freeing yourself from the false reality created by modern media.

“How on earth?”, you might ask.

This can be done by understanding the idea of existentialism.

In this guide, aimed at humans who are troubled by questions like: “What is the meaning of this existence?” We’ll cover what is existentialism, what are the main ideas of existentialism, and how we can use them to our advantage in the modern world which lures us to pursue things we shouldn’t pursue.

Let’s dive deep…

What Is Existentialism In Simple Terms?

Usually, when we hear people talking about existentialism. We marvel at their word of choice and their conviction in the doctrine. But deep inside, we remain confused.

What is existentialism?

We adore existentialism, not so much because we could understand the idea, but because we couldn’t quite.

So, let me offer a simple explanation of this philosophy, starting with…

Existentialism is a relatively new area in philosophy that is built on the idea that there is no pre-defined meaning to life.

The doctrine of existentialism rejects the concept that we are born with a specific purpose. And, instead, it proposes that each individual is solely responsible to posit his own subjective personal core values. Plus – which kind of sounds like a cheap self-help book introduction – has the power to shape his own life, make choices, and create his own path in a seemingly chaotic and absurd world.

While the father of existentialism is considered Søren Kierkegaard. The concept reached “world fame” thanks to another high-caliber philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre.

Sartre brought existentialism to the forefront of philosophical discourse thanks to his literal gems: Being and Nothingness and Existentialism Is a Humanism.

Well, we now know what existentialism is.

But what’s the benefit of knowing all of this?

Why is Existentialism Important?

Existentialism is interesting and important, mostly because it is not obvious.

For a regular newborn, and even all the way to high school – a lot of times even long after that. Life seems predetermined.

You go to school + do homework. You go to college + do homework. Then you get a job + do chores.

Eventually, you have to think about kids and getting married. And, all of this, while worrying about what others think about you, your retirement savings, and how to more accurately worship the entity you were told that is holy at birth.

While current society is trying to present itself as following the groundwork set by existentialist philosophers – stating that we are free to choose our own path. I mean, the messages you will hear on social media make it sound like you are free to do whatever you want.

Yet, when you make a revision of your life, you see how unfree your life really is.

The obligations you are supposed to fulfill to become a functional individual in society feel crushing at times. Here are a few examples:

  • You can’t just get a job. You should get a job that is meaningful and highly paid.
  • You can’t just get married. You should get married and be extremely satisfied every single day.
  • You can’t just have kids. Your kids should be top achievers and build semi-successful startups early in their school years.
  • You can’t just publish a book or become a painter. Your art should become bestseller, and others should envy your overnight success.
  • You can’t just post stuff on the evil social media. Your posts should make it look like you are living a celebrity-style life while instilling a dose of envy.

The above examples are just a glimpse. That’s why existentialism is important to understand.

So, I’ll repeat the initial statement again: existentialism is interesting and important mostly because it is not obvious.

A person professing the existentialism belief won’t blindly obey the rules set by society.

No!

He will question all rules and obligations and decide whether or not he will do something.

After all, as stated above. Existentialism is all about becoming aware of freedom and choice. It’s a revolt against the traditional norms set by society and exploring questions like: “Who am I?”, “Why am I here?”, and “What is the purpose of my life?”

This means that, for example, in the hurricane of online posts shared by other humans suggesting how owning luxury vehicles and traveling to unheard-of places is a must. The calm existentialist won’t follow the herd by spending his whole retirement budget on a brand-new Porsche. And, won’t necessarily subscribe to an airline just because everyone else is doing it.

No, he will take his time to decide what matters to him. What freedom looks like for him specifically.

People who self-identify as “existentialists” will select their priorities in life and feel comfortable ignoring the rest.

This brings us to the next concept:

What Do Existentialists Believe?

The philosophy of existentialism comes with a few beliefs. Few tenets that aim to challenge conventional wisdom by offering fresh insights into the nature of our existence.

Here are the tenets of existentialism:

Key Tenets of Existentialism:

1. Existence Precedes Essence

According to Sartre, the first principle of existentialism is that “existence precedes essence”.

Plainly, this means that we pop into existence like a cosmic surprise package without any preassigned meaning or fate to adhere to. Then, as we gain experience and strengthen our thinking muscles, we, only then, start to define ourselves and our own path.

As you can probably sense. This idea sharply collides with the often-accepted notion that individuals are born with an inherent, fixed set of qualities, characteristics, and purposes that shape their lives.

Or, in other words. Existentialism says that meaning and fate don’t look like that:

Essence-Precedes-Existence
Commonly, people believe that their fate is predetermined even before they are planned.

It’s more like this:

Existence-Precedes-Essence
The school of existentialism says that we are free to choose our own fate as we go along.

Based on existentialism’s viewpoints, you are not born holding an already assigned mission. Quite the contrary, you are born stripped of any fate. As you unfold, you begin to define yourself and what you will do with your life.

“Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism.” Jean-Paul Sartre

2. You Are Free

Recognizing that it’s up to us to define our lives leads to the second key idea of existentialism… freedom.

We are free. And even more precisely, we are condemned to be free.

This doesn’t necessarily mean – nor should mean – that you can do whatever you want.

Rather, it suggests that human beings are free to make decisions, create their own lives, and thus be held responsible for their actions.

Sartre argues that a coward, for instance, is not fearful because of an unstable childhood or a particular genetic makeup. No, he is a coward because he has made himself into a coward by his actions.

This for a lot of people can – and will – sound horrifying because it puts pressure on the individual.

But “I had a bad childhood” or “I was born in a violent neighborhood”, some will say, trying to reassure themselves. “I wasn’t born a hero”, people might subtly add.

But we are born neither a coward nor a hero. We can simply act cowardly or heroic.

Existentialism suggests that there is always a possibility for the coward to give up cowardice and for the hero to stop being a hero.

Your capacity for freedom allows you to go in either direction and in any given moment.

3. Authenticity

A big part of adopting the doctrine of existentialism is living authentically and being true to oneself.

Existentialism does more than just reject the likes and dislikes of mass society. It simply doesn’t care about these likings in the first place.

Usually, a person is heavily influenced by the expectations of the public. Rather than living according to what he values. He will tend to follow the crowd, doing what “they” do.

Some find this the “right” way of living. “Since I am doing what everyone else does, I must be on the right track,” we tell ourselves.

But that cannot be further away from the truth for the existentialist.

Conforming to the mass is a manifestation of inauthenticity.

A true existentialist will not let others decide how his life should be structured. He will take his freedom seriously and choose in which direction he should go.

Even if this involves what someone else does, it will be based on his decision. Not based on following the norms of the crowd.


If all of the above sounds too good to be true. Well, it is.

The key ideas of existentialism make it sound that we have the power to create our own perfect lives. A life tailored towards our specific wants and needs. A life where we do only what we want to do – and nothing else.

It certainly sounds like we can do it all. But is this possible?

Existentialism is not without its challenges and criticisms. Here are some commonly raised problems with existentialism:

Why is Existentialism Problematic?

The main critiques related to existentialism are both related to… freedom.

The first commentary is relevant to freedom in general.

Some people will be immediately repulsed by the idea that you are free to do whatever you want.

Not everyone has that luxury.

Some people indeed lived – or are still living – in a violet neighborhood and had a traumatic childhood.

Saying that you are free to create your own life when you barely have time to participate in your current one sounds like an insult to many.

It’s not that easy to express your desire for free will when you have two jobs and two kids waiting for you to feed them.

Yet, an existentialist will say that you still have a choice. You still can choose.

An existentialist would encourage the individual to explore the possibilities within his constraints.

It’s about recognizing the choices that can still be made within the given limitations. Then, finding meaning and authenticity even amidst the pile of obligations.

You can’t always do what you want to do. But you can do your best with what you are given.

But here comes problem number two…

Anxiety-provoking freedom.

Existentialism says that life is far richer in possibilities.

Things don’t have to be quite the way they are.

We have the capacity to choose what we want.

But that’s exactly the problem.

Freedom sounds liberating at first. Until it becomes anxiety-provoking.

“I am free to create my own life… but what live should I want to create?”

Existentialism places a significant emphasis on personal freedom and the responsibility to make authentic choices.

However, the abundance of choices and the fear of making the wrong ones can lead to decision paralysis.

Our manners and being is so madly connected with what others are doing. That’s why, it’s so hard for us to take a fresh perspective. Take an outside view and consider a life different from what society thinks is normal.

Besides, the responsibility to create our own meaning suggests that if we do create something. If we do try to craft what should be a perfect life – but we fail. This will mean that it was entirely our fault. It wasn’t the government or our neighbor the cause of our trouble. It was us!

So, what should we do?

Applying Existentialism to Daily Life

While the ideas of existentialism sound too nice to believe. There is something wicked in the (supposedly) calming reassurance that each one of us is responsible for creating his own unique purpose. His own unique, to-strive-for ideal in life.

Can we really do that?

It sounds possible to explore different ideas and roles while you are still young. But when you become an adult?

Things are no longer that simple, aren’t they?

Well, at least on the surface.

We should still have the capacity to make a change.

But this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t take work.

Based on the resources available, applying existentialism to daily life, I think, can happen by pondering on these three questions:

Question 1: Do I Need To Be This?

Existentialism-questions-one-Do I Need To Be This?

The one factor that most discourages people from expressing their innate desires is outside pressure.

Most of us will shut down a range of possible options – dressing differently, trying out a new career, leaving a partner. By saying, “What will others say about me?”

The pressure we put on ourselves because we try to be like everyone else feels crushing at times. But not only…

Instead of pursuing things that sound interesting to us. We neglect them because they don’t align with the interests of others.

And furthermore, we stack up things – and follow paths – that are not necessarily based on what we want. But based on what others want.

So, “Do I need to be this?” should involve a range of sub-questions:

  • Do I need to want this new job?
  • Do I need to want to go to this place?
  • Do I need to get this new gadget?
  • Do I need to watch this new show?
  • Do I need to want to do this particular set of actions?

Or, I want all of these things because others want them and this forces me to somehow want them myself?

These types of questions are rarely asked. But that’s exactly why they are important.

When you take an outside view of your current actions. You will undoubtedly spot that most of what you do, is based on what the crowd around you – friends and/or relatives – is doing.

But should that be the case?

Not asking the above question will leave you in denial of freedom. Refusal to take responsibility for your life and explore different possibilities.

All of this, brings us to question number two:

Question 2: What Do I Want?

Existentialism-questions-two-What Do I Want?

Such (probably) weird questions can feel disorienting and somehow scary.

  • Weird because they question the status quo – what seems worthy of your attention.
  • Scary because realizing that you have the freedom to choose who you want to be involves a lot of work – and rejection.

But the point of existentialism in this case is to draw our attention to them for one central reason: because of their liberating dimensions.

Life can be quite different than what it is right now.

What you do on a daily basis – your habits. And your overall existence shouldn’t necessarily be based on what everyone else is doing.

Theoretically, you can…

  • Quit your bullshit office job and go live in the mountains.
  • Transition from sports fan to professional athlete.
  • Disconnect from the modern world and embrace a self-sufficient lifestyle.
  • Embrace your artistic side and immerse yourself in creative pursuits.
  • Declutter your life and focus more on experiences than material possessions.

However, in the course of fully realizing our freedom. You spot how crushing freedom can feel.

“What do I want?”

In one moment, you thought that your nice home, cozy job, and branded wardrobe is what identifies you. In the next, you realize that you gather these things because others have and want them.

The question “What do I want?” is about figuring out who you are – or should be – outside of social norms.

It’s a question that’s far harder than you think. Not only because you will be biased by what you and others already want and have. But also because in the process of answering it. You will eventually realize that you still don’t know.

But worry not, finding authenticity is an ongoing process. “What do I want?” can change several times in just a year. But as long as you are asking yourself this question – and trying to live based on the answer. You are on the right track.

Question 3: How to Ensure that I am Living Authentically?

Existentialism-questions-three-How to Ensure that I am Living Authentically?

Existentialism says that everything is (terrifyingly) possible because nothing has any pre-ordained, God-given sense or purpose.

This leads us to… you.

You are nothing more than the sum of your actions. Thus, you are the one fully responsible for who you are.

Your fate is not predetermined. There is no faith. You define you.

As Jean-Paul Sartre points out…

“Man is nothing other than what he makes of himself.” Jean-Paul Sartre

So, how to ensure that you are living based on your self-defined purpose?

While the question can widely vary depending on what you want to achieve in your own life.

The point of this question is to make every human conscious of what he is now, and what he wants to be. Then, to make him solely responsible for his existence and thus his actions.

So, again, you are always choosing…

Whether you are choosing the self-sabotaging habits that can lead to bad faith. And instead, deciding to be 1% better every day. It’s always up to you.

To focus on the good stuff and ignore the bad. You can, for example, draw two circles and add the following labels:

living-authentically
  1. Circle one: What type of actions mean that I am living based on what I want?
  2. Circle two: What type of actions can lead me further away from what I want?

By self-reflecting daily on these two circles. You can figure out whether you are coming closer or farther away from your desired self.

Some Closing Thoughts

Existentialism sounds a lot like the concept of optimistic nihilism – which is the positive side of existential nihilism.

There is no universal meaning.

There is no specific outside purpose or fate we are supposed to adhere to.

There is only the purpose and the fate we assign ourselves, to ourselves.

Existentialism highlights action, freedom, and decision as fundamental to our bright human existence.

Existentialism insists that we don’t have to do a particular kind of work. Or, live with a particular set of humans for the rest of our lives.

All in all, existentialism wants to help you wake up. Leave the obligations imposed by society aside for a moment. Then, realize that you are a free being who can do whatever he wants if he focuses his actions on that set of desires.

The concept of existentialism is inspiring in its insistence that things do not have to be the way they are.

We are capable of fulfilling our unfulfilled potential.

As individuals and as a species.

The question is, are we ready to try?

Trouble Saying No to Temptations?

Join Farview: A newsletter fostering long-term thinking in a world driven by impatience. Trusted by over 4,300 thinkers, Farview is a concise, thoughtfully organized newsletter helping you handle the self-sabotaging thoughts trying to corrupt you.


Footnotes:

  1. Edwards, V.V. The Guide to Survive and Thrive in an existential crisis, Science of People. Available at: https://www.scienceofpeople.com/existential-crisis/
  2. U.S. teen girls experiencing increased sadness and violence press release. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/2023/increased-sadness-and-violence-press-release.html
Share with others: