What is "Angst"? A Brief Guide in Plain English

Does a sense of meaninglessness point the way to meaningfulness?

Article by LiveReal Agents Blake and Kevin

What is “angst”?

Something about the word bugs us. It leaves us a little...unsettled.

But why? Is there a reason to try to define and understand the word "angst" in a serious, practical way?

Maybe not. Maybe there is no point. Maybe it's all totally meaningless.

But then again, "angst" is another word that gets thrown around a lot. It rarely gets defined clearly. Even when it is defined, it's often done in a way that's overly simplified.

So, might as well look into the source of that "unsettled" feeling, right?

After all, if it's all meaningless, then this makes as much sense as anything else.

And maybe, if this really comes into focus, it might suddenly offer some insight into something important.

So, here goes.

Some use the word "angst" to describe a sense of meaninglessness, boredom, ennui, dread, despair. By this definition, it's a feeling.

Other angles see it as a dark take on the human condition: we're trapped in a place where we long for meaning in a place that's meaningless, we long for happiness in a place where we're miserable, we long for love in a place where we're ultimately all alone. (We can call this definition "the knee-slapper.") It’s part of a worldview.

For others, it's just a deep sense of unease or unsettledness that we can't put our mental finger on. It's a "splinter in our minds," driving us mad. It tells us we're totally insignificant, yet somehow, this fact also matters a great deal. It gives us the sense that there's something bigger going on here, but we don't really know what. It’s a vague sense. It's something we can't articulate. It's definitely there, but we can't make it explicit. It’s an intuition.

Some describe "angst" as a stage of development. It's essentially a period most teenagers experience during the awkward years. It's a phase.

This "phase" definition of angst is usually described as a period of adolescence when someone first starts asking, in a genuine and serious way, the “Who am I?” question. The basic idea is that it's a temporary “stage” almost everyone goes through. "Angst," then, is often defined as just a developmental period that involves wrestling with the core existential riddles we all have to confront.

The implication of this definition is that you just go through this phase of “wrestling with The Big Questions” for a while. Then you “grow out of it,” and move on to more important things like mortgages, collecting status symbols, and celebrity gossip.

But that "phase" definition of angst doesn't really seem to break open the piñata either.

It seems a bit toothless.

It makes it easy to reduce and dismiss.

"Oh, it's just a phase."

The implication is that we should just wait it out, and soon we'll be able to get back to the important stuff, like dinner and clothes and whatever's on television.

But there's clearly a lot more to it than just that.

Other definitions of angst dig deeper.

We often seem to conflate two different elements.

One first is the stuff of “identity crisis.”

This is a phase of life where someone makes critical choices about "becoming a self" in the world.

A person makes major life decisions about careers, relationships, lifestyles, leisure activities, religion, approaches to happiness, and so on, that they’ll carry through life. All of this can be difficult, but essentially, it's part of the normal drama of life. (Drama can be unpleasant, but if life had no drama, we'd get bored. And boredom would lead to angst, which takes us right back where we started.)

This can sound a little anxiety-inducing, right? "Critical choices" and "major life decisions." Exactly. That's the weight of angst.

The second element, on the other hand, is different.

It involves asking fundamental questions about the nature of life itself.

In other words, this second area doesn't just wrestle with choosing a career, for example. It wrestles with why we work in the first place. It's not merely about finding the right relationship, but about understanding the nature of relationships themselves. It's not just experiencing life, leisure activities, happiness itself and so on - it asks, "What's the deal?" with all of those things, en toto, from the ground up.

It isn't about the content. It's about the process. It's not about what's happening in the play, it's about why there's a stage itself, and actors, and scenery, and all the rest.

It asks "Why?" about everything. What's the point? What's it all about? 

We could describe it as “wrestling with the riddle of birth and death.”

It means getting serious about existential riddles.

“Wrestling with the riddle of birth and death” is not something you tinker with while going through a pimply phase, and then neatly wrap up, tie a bow around, and stack in the top of the closet.

For the person going through it, it's profound, it's soul-rattling, and it's messy. It's so messy that many throw it in the basement as soon as they get a taste of it, slam the door shut, padlock it, and run to the boob tube. It's a wrestling match that starts, but is typically unfinished, and unfinished to a profound degree. It’s something most of us work on, in various ways and in many different forms, throughout the rest of our lives.

This definition of “angst,” then, is simply “wrestling with the riddle of birth and death.”

This "wrestling" might not be fully conscious. In fact, it usually isn't. It often happens in the backs of our minds, in the depths. We might not have words for this inner cage match that rumbles deep in the bowels of our selves. We might only be aware only of the dull roar of the crowd in the stadium seating, heard only from a safe distance, outside of the arena of battle, and at a safe distance from ourselves.

But at this point, let’s check ourselves. Let's look around, and see what other folks have had to say on the matter.

Kierkegaard came at all of this a bit differently.

He described angst (or "anxiety") not as some stray, random quirk, but as something baked in to our very nature, the way sugar is baked in to chocolate-chip cookies.

Animals are guided by instincts.

Humans aren’t.

Not entirely, anyway. We have some instincts, of course. But we also have a different relationship with them. We seem to have a critical ability to go beyond instincts. We can exist outside of them. We seem able to follow them, fight against them, repress them, exaggerate them, ignore them, or adopt dozens of different kinds of relationships to them.

This complex relationships to instincts seems to be an essential part of human nature.

We don’t simply “experience anger,” for example. We can feel it in our bodies (physically), we can feel it as an emotion (emotionally), we can become aware of it with our minds (mentally), and we can also observe all of these aspects, and differentiate ourselves - our observing selves - from all of the rest. We can say, “I experience anger, but I am not anger itself.” We can see “I” and “my anger” as two different things. We can experience it as a kind of subject/object relationship, where “anger” is a kind of object and “I” am the subject.

This ability can work both for us and against us.

Just in regards to emotions, this can mean there’s a capacity, for better or worse, to avoid it, repress it, exaggerate it, stuff it down, overreact to it, and so on. In other words, the key idea is that we don't simply follow and "obey" our instincts. Even those ideas convey two different parts: the "leader" and the "follower," the "commander" and one that "obeys."

We seem to have wiggle room.  (This gets explored in The Perennial Psychology. (Apologies, shameless plug.))

In some cases, we seem to have a lot of wiggle room. So much, in fact, that we sometimes don't know what to do with ourselves. (Here enters "the problem of boredom." Which is a form of the problem of the meaning of life. But we digress.)

This ability seems unique to humans, for the most part. Plato often described various instincts (or “passions”) as things that get in our way, throw us off course, cloud our judgment, or cause us to do things we otherwise wouldn’t.

Without instincts to guide us, we experience a sense of freedom.

This sense of freedom can seem exhilarating and empowering.

Yet it can also strike us as terrifying.

Which brings us to Sartre.

The protagonist of Nausea in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nobel Prize-winning novel seems downright horrified at his own existence. (We could understand this, in our words above, as a highly unpleasant, I-ate-a-bad-burrito version of wrestling with the riddle of birth and death.")

This horror builds to an overpowering sense of what he calls “nausea.” This sense of inner nausea (not the bad-burrito kind, or literal nausea) could be described as a profound sense of alienation and strangeness, like the feeling of being a trespasser in the universe. A staunch atheist, Sartre described with visceral detail a sense of the absurdity in the world around us. Just a small taste of it:

“I want to leave, to go somewhere where I should be really in my place, where I would fit in…but my place is nowhere; I am unwanted.”

This isn’t merely alienation from others (although that’s part of it.) It’s an alienation from life itself. It’s feeling separated from whatever it is that others seem to be fully immersed in.

“I am alone in the midst of these happy, reasonable voices. All these creatures spend their time explaining, realizing happily that they agree with each other. In Heaven’s name, why is it so important to think the same things all together.”

He described a sense of meaninglessness, and a sense of just not knowing who or what he is on a profound level.

"The faces of others have some sense, some direction. Not mine. I cannot even decide whether it is handsome or ugly. I think it is ugly because I have been told so."

Sartre had studied Heidegger.

One key existential riddle Heidegger (a bad-but-influential guy, it seems) wrestled with was the appointment with the pine box condo we're all scheduled for. He described it as “Being-toward-death.”

“Being-toward-death” could be described as a perspective gained by facing death squarely, thinking about it deeply, and not being shy about it.

The idea that we're all going to die, of course, can be terrifying. It can be so terrifying, in fact, that some also throw this whole matter into the basement and padlock the door. Then they can imagine that death isn't really that scary after all (because, after all, it's locked in the basement, at a safe distance.) It's nothing to worry about. We’re alive now, so why worry?

Enter Ernest Becker with The Denial of Death.

Becker's existential land mine of a book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974.

When it came to “what makes us tick,” as Becker described, death wasn’t a minor detail or curious oddity in the composition of our inner makeup.

Just the opposite. According to Becker, death – or more specifically, our head-in-the-sand denial of death – secretly underlies everything we do. Everything. The only difference lies in whether we're conscious of it, or not.

Others such as Rollo May, Paul Tillich and others have also explored similar territory in some depth.

“Life is not superficial. The real problem is how you exist in a world that is antagonistic, that hates you. How are you able to live in a world where we are all alone, where we all die?”
- Rollo May

All of this describes what might be a surprising reversal.

This also brings us back to our original question.

The “reversal” is this:

“Angst” in this sense isn’t “neurotic” or “morbid” or “unhealthy.” It's not a mere "phase" to simply pass through and grow out of. It’s not a “problem” to be avoided, a “condition” to be treated, or a “disorder” to be pharmacologized out of existence as quickly as possible. It’s not a symptom of something being “wrong.”

Just the opposite.

It's a sense that something isn't right. And in this way, it's an intuition that is fundamentally correct.

A superficial, distraction-obsessed, softly nihilistic society sees "angst" as a buzzkill.

"Angst," on the other end, sees a superficial, distraction-obsessed, society as confused, incoherent, and lost.

Choose your side.

Becker, May, Tillich and others who have thought deeply about this have chosen sides. They say this sense of angst is accurate, and worth investigating. The "angst-as-buzzkill" perspective is, in a word, nihilistic. In this sense, angst means facing what much of polite society is trying to deny. And as they say in Egypt, nobody likes getting out of denial.

In a society obsessed with shiny-object distractions and temporary amusements, angst can be the young child that points out that Emperor has no clothes. It means standing up in the midst of all the frantic scurrying about, and shouts, “Stop the presses! What the heck is this? What the heck is going on?”

In this sense, it isn’t a diversion.

It moves in the direction diametrically opposed to the current of almost everything else in modern life.

“Angst,” in this sense, isn’t a temporary distraction. It reframes everything else as a temporary distraction. “Angst” can be what happens when we decide to stop distracting ourselves. When we face up to it and own it, it suddenly transforms into an effort to become aware of our actual situation.

It can be compared to a worker bee suddenly asking why he’s working, a character in a game suddenly asking what game he’s playing and why (ala “Free Guy”), or someone “waking up” inside The Matrix.

All of this can make some folks uncomfortable.

If someone is working desperately to distract themselves from an elephant in the room, someone talking about the elephant in the room can grate some nerves. They didn’t kill Socrates because he robbed banks. Jamming up denial mechanisms can be a thankless task. But those who move in this direction tend to be appreciated later, from a safe distance.

Socrates is a good example.

He asked a lot of questions - driven in part by angst, no doubt - and they killed him for it.

Lao Tzu is another.

As his story supposedly goes, Lao got sick of all the nonsense, said “to heck with it,” and decided to go live in the woods. On his way out of town, a gatekeeper recognized him, stopped him, and pleaded with him to share a few words before he left. Those words became the Tao te Ching, and the result eventually became one of the major spiritual traditions of the world. As for Lao Tzu, he went into the woods and was never seen or heard from again.

Buddha is another example.

In a time before cell phones and Prozac, a young guy named Siddhartha one day looked around, had a moment of “angst,” and realized that he was in a certain predicament. This “predicament” was that he – and everyone he knew – was going to eventually get old and die. He was trapped in the body of a dying animal, as the saying goes.

Instead of drinking, drugging, or distracting this realization away, he decided to embark on a whole-hog search for an answer to this problem (despite the protests of his parents and probably everyone else around him.) The result of that quest, yet again, eventually became one of the major spiritual traditions of the world.

We could keep going here.

The key point, though, is that all of this is hardly something that fits alongside pimples as part of the awkward phase of adolescence.

It's something closer to a wake-up call.

“The vitality that can stand the abyss of meaninglessness
is aware of a hidden meaning
within the destruction of meaning.”
- Paul Tillich

So, where does this leave us?

All of this combines to offer us something along these lines.

Since we aren't mere slaves to our instincts, we're able to get outside of them, to varying degrees. When we really become conscious of this, we realize that we have a great deal of freedom.

Some describe this as terrifying.

But why? "Freedom" as it's typically defined, seems like it should be a good thing.

Of course, like Sartre, we can use that freedom to think ourselves into a profound state of alienation. But if we weren't really enjoying ourselves with that, we could just unthink ourselves out of it. After all, according to Sartre, we're free, right?

But here's where we arrive at the critical part.

Mere “freedom” by itself isn’t the problem.

What's inherently terrifying about freedom? Nothing. We like it. When anyone takes it away, we'll often die to try to get it back. (Or at least, complain about it a lot.)

The problem of having freedom only enters the picture when we factor in another problem: meaning.

If there truly is no goal, aim, or meaning in life, then our choices don’t really matter. Whatever we do is ultimately fine. Freedom, then would be a free pass at an amusement park, where all the rides are great. "Nothing matters!" in this perspective. "Do whatever you want! It's all good!"

But of course, this terror of freedom that Sartre talks about is a real thing. And valid.

Why? Because if there is real meaning in life, then it becomes possible to miss it.

If it's possible to miss it - to miss out on the meaning of life - then suddenly, there are stakes in the game. There's an objective. There's a way things can go right, but there's also a way things can go wrong. There truly is genuine "human potential." But the flip side of that coin is that there's a chance for that potential to remain untapped, or worse.

Kierkegaard might call this "dread."

Suddenly, choices can become filled with a sense of anxiety.

Suddenly, it can all start to make sense.

With this freedom comes a burden of responsibility. What should we do with this freedom? Is there anything we should do? Or, does it not matter at all what we do?

Sartre, as an atheist, articulated what is today a popular existentialist position. "Do whatever you want!" The basic idea is that we form ourselves, and our own meaning in life.

There's a lot in this idea that resonates widely. Part of life, it seems, is really up to us. We need to confront life ourselves.

But are there limits to this?

What if someone decides to "exercise their freedom" by doing heroin? Swallowing detergent? Kicking puppies?

If we could appeal to common sense for a moment, most of us would probably say: that would be a bad thing. There some sort of waste of potential there. There are better choices.

But what's the basis for those "better choices"? What's the yardstick for "better" choices, or worse? In other words, Big Question - how should we live?

Implicit in this question is the sense that our choices matter.

This, it seems, is the source of angst. We have freedom. And we sense that we should do something with that freedom. And we sense that it's really important. But we aren't really sure what, exactly, we're supposed to do about it.

And that is a state we can live in, year after year.

It can be haunting.

It can be like being tasked with a problem that our very life depends on solving, but not knowing how to solve it.

It gets at why boredom can be so uncomfortable.

We might have some kind of gut feeling that we're living in The Matrix. We sense, on some level, that life in a tiny, slimy bubble isn't all that great. And we have an intuition that there's something better - some kind of higher life - that would be a much better. It would mean there's a much happier state. And we might find it. Or, we might not.

Let's imagine that “the meaning of life” for a caterpillar is to become a butterfly.

We can say that our caterpillar friend also has a Netflix account.

Now let’s imagine that our fun-loving caterpillar friend is faced with a choice: he can either build a cocoon, or he can spend all day, every day, watching Netflix.

Now let’s also imagine that this particular caterpillar doesn’t know quite as much as we know about the nature of caterpillars.

To that little caterpillar, building a cocoon can seems like a lot of work. It's dirty, it's tiring, and it's slimy. Our caterpillar friend might not really see the point in building some strange, yucky ball of slime for some unknown reason that he can’t fully envision, where he's apparently supposed to climb in, and never climb out.

So, he bails. Instead, he watches Netflix all day. Every day is easy, and comfortable, and way better, it seems, than getting off the caterpillar couch and going through the weird, thankless work of building a cocoon.

So, very reasonably, the caterpillar starts to binge one show after another - chain-smoking entire seasons for weeks and months at a time, with no end in sight.

Eventually, our caterpillar friend will probably start to experience a deep sense of unease.

It could be called a sense of “dread.”

“Anxiety,” by some definitions, is directed toward an object.

If I have only one shot to give a speech in front of the United Nations and convince the world not to blow itself up, that speech might provoke at least a small degree of anxiety. But at least, in that case, I know what I’m anxious about.

“Dread,” on the other hand, isn’t directed toward a known object.

With dread, there’s nothing in particular to point to. There’s no speech at the United Nations on the schedule. There’s not even a speech to the Neighborhood Badminton Club on the schedule.

There’s nothing tangible at all to point to.

There's no external object. There's no thing, or event, or tangible idea. It’s just a deep sense of unease, pointed toward…we don’t know. It just seems to hang there, for no apparent reason, aimed toward no apparent event.

It creeps up on a caterpillar, often just as he wraps up one Netflix marathon and just before he dives into another.

It’s a sense that something’s not quite right.

But that sense that “something’s not right” might not be a problem.

It might be the inklings of a solution.

It might be some inner distress signal that some deeper part of himself is trying to send through.

That signal – that inner flare that gets shot toward the inner sky in a dark night, might be an effort to send a signal. And if we can understand that signal properly, we might realize that it contains a message.

That message might be something like this:

“There’s something better out there.”

"But what?" we might ask. "What is that 'something better'?"

All too often, the signal goes to static at this point.

But we could imagine that the caterpillar turns off the Netflix. He decides to get to the bottom of that sense of discomfort. He resolves that real happiness, if it exists, probably isn't going to be found in yet yet another twelve seasons of whatever. He decides to stick with the initial  discomfort, and stay there until he gets an answer.

Eventually, he works his way toward building a cocoon.

And that would be a good thing.

It's a way that he would "become himself."

After a period of struggle, even a few moments of flapping those wings might be immeasurably better than a thousand ten-season binges. A few moments as a butterfly might taste sweeter than centuries as a caterpillar.

"It is better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied;
better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied."
- John Stuart Mill

Maybe we have freedom, as Sartre mentioned, but maybe there's even more than that, and better. Maybe there's structure for what to do with this freedom.

In a football game, we can run, kick, or throw. We can also cloud-watch, dig holes on the football field, or strip off all our clothes and do headstands. There's plenty of room for freedom, which can easily become a kind of aimless, pointless, existential anarchy. But figuring out the game, and playing it well, is a vastly superior use of that freedom.

Maybe, once our caterpillar friend starts building that cocoon, he suddenly finds that the uneasy sense of dread that had been haunting him, gradually dissolves and vanishes, one little bit at a time. Alienation evaporates, nausea subsides, the urge to read Sartre thankfully vanishes, and the world starts to change from something alien and menacing into something else. Something much better.

Maybe angst, then, isn’t something to explain away, distract ourselves from, or ignore or turn into an illness.

Maybe it’s a homing beacon.

“All philosophy is homesickness.”
- Novalis

“This is an adventure
that every human must go through –
to learn to be anxious
in order that he may not perish...
whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way
has learned the ultimate...
The more profoundly he is in anxiety,
the greater is the man...
Then anxiety enters into his soul and searches out everything
And anxiously torments everything finite and petty out of him,
And then it leads him where he wants to go...
[Thus] the individual is educated into faith.”
- Soren Kierkegaard

If you liked this, check out:

The Perennial Psychology: A Timeless Approach to Understanding Human Nature

Experiential Spirituality: A User's Guide

Does Human Nature Have a Spiritual Component? 50 Pieces of Evidence

10 Existential Riddles Life Asks Each Of Us

"The Everything Problem"

"An Existential Crisis: What it is and What to do About it

"Know Thyself": A User's Guide

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