Existential Angst & Why It’s Okay to Not Feel Okay

“When you feel happy, really happy, it somehow seems that you’ve always been happy and that you’ll always be happy. The same is often true when you feel sad, or lonely, or depressed, or broke, or sick, or scared. Something, perhaps, to remember.”

Sometimes I don’t feel so well. I expect you’re the same.

Take a couple weeks ago for example—I had a sudden and sort of inexplicable spell of what I can only describe as existential angst.

It was right after a great weekend. I’d just traveled to Seoul, seen all sorts of ridiculous and fascinating things, and spent time with a group of swell people.

Now I was heading back to Busan (my home in Korea), sitting alone on a bullet train, having just said goodbye to a couple friends.

Unexpectedly I became somewhat pensive. I thought about how goodbyes always feel so quick and insufficient. This thought evolved into a series of considerations about how rapidly times slips away, how we’re always saying goodbye to something, always being swept forward into new scenery.

I reflected on the four months that I’d spent in Korea so far. I wondered, ‘What does ‘four months’ mean?’ The simple phrase seemed like a tidy box of nothing, a mere two flicks of the tongue that overlooked so many experiences and struggles. I felt at once like I’d been here for so long and also for no time at all.

These feelings then extended to the two decades and change that comprise my entire life. It seemed again as if it had been an eternity and also an ephemeral bit of nothing. I recalled long days that I’d slogged along the way, haphazard memories like dusty souvenirs, but the years felt light as feathers. All of this lead to a general uneasy feeling, a sort of What Does It All Mean period of nebulous uncertainty.

I looked around at all of the other passengers on the train, imagining their thoughts. Maybe their minds were occupied with ideas of the waning weekend, the upcoming Monday mo(u)rning, or some indistinct worries about things past, things unforeseen. Where were we all speeding off to—on this train, in this strange existence? What was the point?

I often arrive at this conclusion. Paris street art. Photo Credit: Geraint Rowland
I often arrive at this conclusion. Paris street art. Photo Credit: Geraint Rowland

Don’t Feel Guilty About Feeling Bad

Over the next few days, I continued to feel somewhat down about this spontaneous episode. Things seemed a bit grey and muted, and I wondered why it had to be that way. I’d been feeling exceptionally well and “in the flow of things” for several weeks prior. What changed? Why did this interruption occur? What was wrong with me?

These sort of questions were hardly of service to me in this situation. To assume that to feel bad is to be somehow wrong or to scrutinize and scold ourselves for not feeling “happy”—these ways of thinking are counterproductive and tend to exacerbate whatever we’re going through.

For a few days, I forgot about this. I felt guilty about experiencing some rough mental terrain, and it only made me feel more downtrodden and less hopeful. Eventually I realized that I was doing this and remembered that it isn’t feasible to feel “up” or joyful all the time. Everyone feels crappy, meh, uninspired, and blah some of the time.

Once I remembered this, I started to feel okay with the situation and just focused on taking things one day at a time. Pretty soon I was feeling a lot better.

Why We’re Uncomfortable With Negative States

I’ve explained this anecdote because I don’t think it’s unique to me. We (most of us reading this) live in a culture that puts “happiness” on a pedestal and constantly bombards us with images of eerily perky people who can’t stop smiling.

“You too can be this person!” we’re told. “Just a little more productivity or development or money or throw pillows and you’ll reach a never-ending state of bliss.”

We’re conditioned to feel that we’re meant to be “happy”, and that to be happy means to feel almost ecstatic all the time, to be so proud and satisfied with our lives that we can’t help but have a spring in our step. This is the subtext of so many of the advertising and other media signals that are constantly seeping into our lives.

And so we become obsessed with being “happy”. We consider it to be the end-point, the overarching goal of our lives. We start asking, “Am I happy?” and feel vaguely nervous, uneasy, or ashamed if the answer is unclear. Media is conditioning us with a false and unrealistic image of “happiness”, and it will debilitate us if we aren’t vigilant.

What We Can Do + Two Reminders

So, what’s the solution? We can’t escape these media signals, but we can be more cognizant of our cultural conditioning. We can become more aware of how we’re thinking and notice our guilt-ridden thoughts. We can reassure ourselves that no feeling warrants shame or self-loathing, that it’s normal to feel bad sometimes.

This doesn’t mean that we should entirely ignore all bad feeling. Often our conscience or our bodies are actually shouting at us to change our lifestyle, and I think it’s important to be in touch with those intuitions. The point is that we can notice our bad feelings but not judge ourselves for them. We can spend some time considering their causes, but we should accept that some are mostly inexplicable and just let them be, let them run their course.

Reminder #1

One insight that I think is useful to keep in mind when we aren’t feeling especially well is this quote from Nietzsche:

“Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings — always darker, emptier and simpler.”

I read this quote recently and it rang true to me. We feel a certain way, and we try to categorize our feelings using our available repertoire of concepts (based on our language structures) about how a person might feel. A problem with this is that our concepts of feelings tend to be fairly polarized—good/bad, happy/sad, depressed/blissful, etc.

These labels can lead to us feeling like we’re experiencing something more extreme than we actually are, especially in a culture that tends to exaggerate and over-dramatize feelings in the first place (“I am so f***ing pissed at Blaine!” Are you really that upset?).

These concepts of feelings are also necessarily emptier than our more personal feelings. We often think of words as capturing universal human experiences, but this isn’t the case. Not only does every word mean something different to every person (one person’s “depression” could be worlds apart from another’s), but words also simplify complex sensations, allowing the mind to process them. So to classify our feelings might be to diminish them, to hollow out and reduce ourselves.

What I take from this is that we’re better off not indulging in a labyrinth of thought about how we feel. We’ll likely miscalculate and make ourselves feel worse. Better to just be with the feeling; try to see how it really feels instead of immediately categorizing it.

Reminder #2

Somewhat related to that first reminder is another quote (from the well-known email newsletter Notes from the Universe) that I found a while ago:

“When you feel happy, really happy, it somehow seems that you’ve always been happy and that you’ll always be happy. The same is often true when you feel sad, or lonely, or depressed, or broke, or sick, or scared. Something, perhaps, to remember.”

I remember reading this quote and being shocked at how true it seemed to me. Every time I reach a point where I’m feeling really good about things, I get the sense that I finally “cracked the code”. I feel like life was easy all along, and now it’s going to be a proverbial cakewalk till the end.

Conversely, when I feel not-so-good, I can hardly remember a time where I felt swell, and it seems as if there will be no end to my struggles. I’m not sure why it’s like this for me (and probably many others), but it is, and these beliefs are obviously untrue. It’s damaging to think in this way because the highs are taken for granted and the lows become harsher.

So this is another thing to keep in mind. Be with your feelings while knowing that they are never final. If you take a Taoist-esque view (like I often do), you can see it in terms of a cycle that is not to be resisted. The highs and lows will keep repeating (they balance one another), and the best way for us to cope is to embrace whatever we’re experiencing, to not attach ourselves to delusions of permanence, and to have few expectations.

If we can do this—accept our feelings without judgment, know that they aren’t final, and realize it’s okay to not feel okay sometimes—we’ll be much more well-equipped to manage the not-so-shiny-yet-very-real, harsher aspects of life that our culture tends to photoshop away.

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Jordan Bates

In the Internet multiverse, Refine The Mind is a planet for freethinkers and daydreamers. Jordan Bates is the creator, a journalist at Beacon, and the alter ego of Lostboyevsky. He savors time in the woods, dangerous ideas, and all things artistic. Read the mission and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

  • Francis Meyrick

    Good write. Good thoughts. Life’s a puzzle. Interesting, though.
    For what it’s worth, probably not-a-lot…
    1) Time. We tend to see “time” in a linear sense. Continuing in one direction, at the same speed, predictable and routine. But is it? Does Time curve, perhaps? Can we find a spot along that curve, from which we can see both the start and the end of “our” Time? Awareness?
    2) Happiness. To be “Happy”… I think I prefer the word “content”. Content to get up, live, work, think, puzzle, mix with people, and make a maximum effort to exercise kindness, compassion. When I get mad, or frustrated, or really, really ticked off, there always seems to be a good-humored reserve in me, a Taoist streak if you like, that chuckles – wryly – and says “Oh, well, what’s the next step?” And then I go and take that ONE step, do that ONE small task, and ignore the ten thousand other tasks that seem to clamor for my immediate attention. I don’t suffer much from “existential angst” anymore, but I used to. I think age helps with a sense of humor, a sense of perspective. And finally, you always have, in a most un-philosophical tradition, that “middle finger”.
    Which I mentally raise quite a bit, with an accompanying mental raspberry. It seems to happen a lot when I listen to rah-rah-rah politicians on the Gogglebox…!!

    • http://www.refinethemind.com/ Jordan Bates


  • Justin Lawler

    Great post – I recently read a tweet from Alain de Botton that reminded me of this article:

    “It isn’t disrespectful to the complexity of existence to point out that despair is, often, just low blood sugar and exhaustion.”

    • http://www.refinethemind.com/ Jordan Bates

      Someone on Reddit mentioned that very same quote after reading this post. Crazy. I like the quote too. Thanks for the generous feedback. Best.

      • Justin Lawler

        Ah… that was me also :D, completely forgot I wrote that. I read your article twice and was reminded of that same quote twice – independently!

        And thank you for your generous work on your blog :)

        • http://www.refinethemind.com/ Jordan Bates

          Haha! How serendipitous. Cheers.

  • http://existentialpuzzle.wordpress.com/ Emily Chu

    I enjoyed reading this. Feeling not okay doesn’t get nearly quite the credit it deserves…a space to sort out things we usually think we have sorted out..

    • http://www.refinethemind.com/ Jordan Bates

      Word, Emily. We’re too quick to rush for the anti-depressants. Perhaps we ought to sit in that space for a while and see what’s there to learn.

      (not saying that anti-depressants aren’t necessary for some people)