If you’re experiencing a crisis of any sort, first, listen to this. [2 min]
What is meaningful in life? How should I spend my time? What will make me happy and fulfilled?
These questions are critically important, yet many of us don’t seriously consider them until something forces us to. A divorce, the ending of a relationship, the loss of a friend or family member, health problems, or something else.
Maybe you moved to a new city or country, or realized your job or career is unfulfilling.
Whatever brought you here, it’s important to take a moment and give these questions their due.
In this article, I’m going to share with you how I’m handling my existential / quarter-life crisis with the hope that you’ll find some useful parts you can explore yourself.
Note: Though a quarter life crisis and existential crisis might not be the same thing exacty, I’m going to lump them together here for simplicity.
First, how did we get here?
After almost a year of living overseas, I was back in the U.S.
My girlfriend and I had done it together. Hopping from one country to the next, experiencing different cultures, meeting new people, seeing a variety of lifestyles.
It was great.
But then it was over.
We moved in with her parents in North Carolina to regroup and figure out next steps.
Only we never figured out what those next steps would be.
She wanted a commitment of marriage and a family.
I wasn’t quite ready.
After a painful period of doubt and uncertainty, we decided to part ways.
I moved to Seattle to spend time with my family, then moved to San Francisco to explore new opportunities.
Let’s take a step back for a second.
Since graduating college in 2011, I’ve had one dominant desire that’s consistently influenced my life choices…
To be an entrepreneur.
In my mind, entrepreneurship was a valiant, bold, meaningful, and empowering profession which anyone who desires contribution and significance should embrace.
Despite living in Silicon Valley, the epicenter of entrepreneurship and startups, I wasn’t any happier.
Here in San Francisco, I’m living in a “tech house” where my house mates are all entrepreneurs and startup types.
I’ve come up with new ideas, started work on some of them, received help from developers in the house, and learned a lot in a short period of time.
Yet, I still experience loneliness, sadness, and doubt.
These emotions can easily be attributed to my recent breakup, but, if I experience them despite being significantly closer to something I’ve held so dear (the pursuit of being an entrepreneur), what does that mean?
I began to question myself.
Why do I want to be an entrepreneur so badly?
Was breaking up with my ex a mistake?
What is truly meaningful in life?
What will really make me feel happy and fulfilled?
I began looking for answers.
Finding answers to existential questions
There are no easy answers to your questions, but here’s my plan – which I haven’t quite completed yet:
- Exercise consistently to keep my spirits up (helllllooo endorphins!)
- Read philosophy
- Learn the history of homo sapiens
- Be grateful
I’ll address each of these briefly, with a small conclusion at the end with answers I’ve found so far.
If you’re facing a crisis, it’s important to manage your emotions and do your best to not let them dip too low.
Exercise helps with that.
When you push your body – be it running or lifting weights – your body releases endorphins.
These endorphins have a positive effect on your mood, and if you had a good workout, you’re likely to feel significantly happier, or at least less stressed.
I’m not going to dig into the science behind it, but if you search online you’ll find plenty of evidence.
I recently finished Mark Manson’s “The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck“.
While not your traditional philosophy book, I was surprised at how insightful and articulate Manson is in describing the human condition and what makes us unhappy.
Some takeaways from this book specifically:
- Whether you’re rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, everyone has problems. The goal is to pick better problems, problems that you enjoy and are willing to struggle for. But you can’t have NO problems.
- Emotions = feedback. Negative emotions are a call to action (it’s time to make a change). Positive emotions are a reward for having taken the right actions.
- To be happy, you must solve problems.
Other books on my reading list include:
The knowledge in books like these will provide you with a fundamental framework for understanding your life and how to answer your questions.
Learn the history of homo sapiens
You might think this is an odd step, but I think it’s crucial.
It’s easy to look at the murder, violence, war, corruption and other atrocities of our time and throw your hands up in despair.
That is… until you compare it to our history as a species. (HINT: Now is the best time to be alive, period.)
For this task, I recommend Yuval Harari’s “Sapiens“.
This knowledge will give you context to understand life as it is today. This is important, and will possibly change the way you live.
While meditation has been heralded by many as a panacea for all modern ills, my research has not found this to be true.
The best evidence I could find was:
- Mindfulness meditation had moderate evidence of improved anxiety: effect size 0.38 [95% CI, 0.12-0.65] at 8 weeks and 0.22 [0.02-0.43] at 3-6 months. Study
- Moderate evidence of improved depression: 0.30 [0.00-0.59] at 8 weeks and 0.23 [0.05-0.42] at 3-6 months. Study
- Moderate evidence of improved pain: 0.33 [0.03-0.62]. Study
- Reductions in stress correlated with decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress. Study
While this isn’t the earth shattering evidence I was hoping to find, it’s still powerful enough to warrant integration in our lives.
I recommend Tara Brach’s free podcasts on iTunes.
It’s important to remember that what you’re experiencing right now, as painful as it may be, is much more desirable than what many other people all around the world are experiencing.
- Over 8 million people die from ischaemic heart disease
- 6 million die from stroke
- 3 million from lower respiratory infections
- 3 million from progressive lung diseases
- 2 million from lung cancers
- 2 million from diabetes
- 1.5 million from Alzheimer’s + dementias
- 1.5 million from diarrhea
- 1.5 million from tuberculosis
- And over 1 million from road injuries
If you’re reading this, then you can be grateful you haven’t died from any of those common killers (yet, at least).
And less dramatic than that, there are likely countless privileges you experience that others don’t. Clean water, free speech, religious freedom, labor laws, etc.
By practicing gratitude, you may find yourself better appreciating what you have, which can help put your problems in perspective.
To boot – there’s emerging research that suggests that gratitude exercises actually re-wire your brain.
I recommend you make a habit out it.
Every morning, I write down a list of things I’m grateful for.
The list often includes things like my loving and supportive parents and sister, my health, my remote job, and big things like these, but sometimes includes smaller things as well: a free trip to Austin, an older woman smiling at me in the grocery line, a friendly Trader Joe’s cashier.
Answers to existential questions
I don’t have perfect answers to your questions, but here are some takeaways from my research that might help.
- Accepting death is difficult, but by facing your mortality you will feel more alive and many of the problems in your life will seem insignificant in comparison.
- Knowing that you ultimately will die, that anything you do won’t matter for you past your life, why not try and do something? There’s nothing to fear, since no matter what you do, you die.
- Embrace pain and negative emotions as feedback.
- Deep relationships provide emotional support and long-term happiness.
- True happiness occurs when you have problems you enjoy solving.
I hope this has been helpful.
Have feedback? Leave it in the comments below. I’m new to this line of thinking and I’d seriously appreciate your thoughts.