Posts tagged existentialism

Self-reflective Consciousness and Existential Concerns


I am currently reading ‘A life worth living‘ and found the introductory chapter by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi quite stimulating and inspiring.

Cover of "A Life Worth Living: Contributi...

Cover via Amazon

In that chapter, Mihaly claims that human brains are unique in lieu of their ability to give rise to self-reflective consciousness (I believe that many primates and some other animals may also have self-reflective consciousness, but that is tangential to our discussion here).  This self-reflective consciousness in turn leads to some interesting psychological effects.

To begin with, the self-reflective consciousness gives rise to a sense of individuality– a sense that one is an individual separate from the nature/ environment. This sense of individuality leads to an anxiety about death. In Mihaly’s own words:

Selfishness and cruelty, which formerly existed mainly as tools for biological survival, now have become extended to protect the psychological needs of the self, for the metabrain cannot help but conclude that its own existence is the most precious thing in the world, and all other goals pale in importance compared to its preservation. The terror of nonexistence, the fear of death, has become one of the ruling motives of humans.

This fear and reality of death is one of the first and foremost existential concern. The second concern that one typically encounters in existential texts is the fear and reality of freedom or choices. Again in Mihaly’s words:

Paradoxically, self-reflection also ushers in the possibility of self-doubt. As humans realized that they were independent individuals with a short lifespan, the question of what choices would lead to a meaningful life became increasingly urgent.

The third reality and fear of isolation is also apparent from the dawning of self-reflective consciousness and a sense of individuality.

The realization of individuality brought about a sense of isolation and finitude, but it also gave the impression of autonomy and freedom.

For understanding the last existential reality and fear of meaninglessness, we need to understand how self-reflective consciousness makes us question the implicit meaning of living and makes us seek for external frames of meaning. For an (non self-reflective) animal, the question of whether life is worth living simply does not arise.

After all, if the spark of consciousness only lasts a few heartbeats in the cosmic darkness, is there really any point in hanging on to life, when so much of it involves suffering? To answer this question, our ancestors—freed and unmoored from the implicit meaning provided by biological existence—had to come up with credible reasons that life was indeed worth living. The myths, religions, and philosophies of every culture have been in large part directed toward answering that question.

With science and reductionist thinking eating up on any semblance of meaning we may derive from earlier systems like myth, religion etc its imperative to ground meaning in new secular and non-mystical terms.

I am sure when Mihaly was writing these paragraphs, existential thinking was not on top of his mind, but isn’t it great to see how even in early days existential thinking and concerns were coupled with a positive psychology focus and PP2.0 is not all that new!

Finite nature of human control and the Existential Givens

In one of the earlier posts we looked at the four existential givens and linked them to the ABCD model. I also related them to personality and emotions here.  To recap, the four existential givens,  are:

  1. Life (vs death): We all live, yet we also all know that one day we will die.
  2. Freedom (vs determinism): We are in charge of (some of) our actions, and yet we are also driven by outside forces.
  3. Community (vs isolation): Man is a social animal and yet one is alone in one’s personal private experiences.
  4. Meaning (vs absurdity): Life seems to be endowed with meaning (and worth living), yet the universe seems incomprehensible, apathetic and absurd.
Towel with the words "Don't Panic" o...

Towel with the words “Don’t Panic” on Towel day (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not navigating the contradictions inherent in these existential givens successfully, leads to conflicts and gives rise to anxiety, depression, guilt and even rage. And yet we know that we can not transcend/overcome these ultimate concerns, but have to learn to live with them.

At root these problems are problems of control, especially the desire for control, while being limited by human capabilities and potentialities. At the one hand we are seriously limited and on the other hand we do have a great potential; and yet our control over these conditions of our life are not infinite, but very much finite and limited.

Let me explain. At core, these problems are respectively problems of control over our bodies, over self, over others and over our understanding of the world. To elaborate,

  1. Death/Life: We have finite control over our bodies and their lifespan. We can prolong life, but never get rid of the fact that one day we will die. We may try to symbolically live forever by making contributions to the world, but that too is ephemeral on the scale of historical time. We are confronted with the finite nature of our existence. And to resolve this, we have to come to terms with our non-being to fully appreciate and indulge in being! To live fully one must first confront death. Despite the fact of our eventual non-being we choose to be! and this is a non-trivial fact. As a matter of fact, Camus started ‘Myth of Sisyphus‘ with this quote: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”
  2. Determinism/Freedom: We have finite control over our own self and its actions. We can exercise free will to an extent, but never get rid of all the different form of conditioning, learning and genetic and other factors that drive our behavior. We are confronted with the finite nature of our agency. And to resolve this, we have to get in tune with our underlying genetics, upbringing etc, to become more self aware and thus more free/ effective. To exercise one’s will fully, one must first leverage and comprehend the outside influences. Can you choose your environment so that in future it elicits out your desired behavior? Despite the fact that all our actions are not under our conscious control, and are driven largely by unconscious (and possibly deterministic) processes, we persist in making our choices. As the famous interaction between Smith and Neo goes: “Smith: Why, Mr. Anderson? Why, why? Why do you do it? Why, why get up? Why keep fighting? …….Why, why do you persist Mr. Anderson?  Neo: because I choose to.”
  3. Isolation/Community: We have finite control over others and how deeply we can relate with them. We can feel connected to some people, at some times, but not to all people at all the times. We have a desire and a need to merge for the common good, expressed in the form of love, and yet an instinct to remain separate and alienated from others, especially when our love is not reciprocated. We are confronted with the finite nature of our vulnerability and ability to reach out. And to resolve this we have to come to terms with our separateness, by getting unhinged from the actions of others , but still putting our best foot forward, we can create positive relationships. To create truly powerful and positive relationships, one has to not think in terms of merging/ dependence/reciprocity,  but move to a space where one is a specific individual in intimate relation to another individual and caring about that individual. By discovering our individuality, we create stronger bonds! Despite the fact of our remaining separate individuals, we choose to love and work towards common /shared identities. Love and community and deep bonds is paradoxically about no bonds. As Richard Bach says: “If you love someone, set them free, if they come back, they’re yours, if they don’t, they never were
  4. Meaning/Absurdity: We have finite control over our knowledge of the world and of whether things make sense, and if so how? We can find correlations and causal relations between a few things in the world, but there are things that happen randomly, unpredictably or by pure luck/ chance. We have a burning need to make sense of things (after all this sense making makes us predict and thus survive), and yet our intellect also makes us acutely aware of the meaninglessness, randomness or absurdity of the things in the larger scheme of things. We feel special and unique and yet know that we are a mere speck in the universe. We are confronted with the finite nature of our ability to know and comprehend. And to resolve this, we have to come to terms with the absurdity of life/universe. Once we discover that life/ world around us may not have any inherent meaning, its left upon us to endow life with meaning and significance. Despite the fact that things don’t make sense, the fact that the world may be random/ insane, we still choose to be sane and consistent. As Douglas Adams mentions in ‘Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy‘ we need extreme amounts of sanity when confronted with absurdity of our position :” And so he built the Total Perspective Vortex — just to show her. And into one end he plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other end he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it. To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.”
English: 42, The Answer to the Ultimate Questi...

English: 42, The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life according to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. ???????: 42, ????? ?? ??????? ?????? ????? ? ???????????? ?????????? ?? ?????????. Deutsch: 42, die Antwort auf die große Frage nach dem Leben, dem Universum und dem ganzen Rest, bezogen auf Per Anhalter durch die Galaxis von Douglas Adams. Italiano: 42, La risposta Fondamentale alla Domanda sulla Vita secondo la Guida galattica per gli autostoppisti. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the end I would like to end with two quotes: One from Camus: “It was previously a question of finding out whether or not life had to have a meaning to be lived. It now becomes clear on the contrary that it will be lived all the better if it has no meaning” and the other a popular anonymous quote: “Relax. nothing is under control.” 

It is only by coming to terms with our finite control, and the possible meaninglessness of it all, yet being driven by our potentialities, that we can hope to live a good life!

Emotions and Personality : take 7

Today I want to approach the question of emotions and personality from an existential lens. In my last post I alluded to the existential givens and you can read more about them here [pdf].

English: Emotions associated with sadness

English: Emotions associated with sadness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To recap, here are the contradictions or tensions that these existential givens give rise to:

This paper considers four existential challenges:
1) Life (and death). We are alive but we will die, and we live a world that both supports and negates life.
2) Meaning (and absurdity). We have a conscious capacity and desire for
meaning, but we live in a confusing and sometimes chaotic world that offers many meaning systems and also denies meaning.
3) Freedom (and determinism). We are free and determined, and we live in a world that allows and constricts our freedom.
4) Community (and aloneness). Human desire and capacity for authentic relatedness are countered by inauthenticity, alienation and loneliness.
For the personalty traits I will be referring to Cloninger’s temperament traits. For the emotions I will be referring to the eight Rasaas framework.
Consider Death (and life). The mere thought of death causes fear, while you need courage to live despite knowing that one day you will eventually die. Navigating this existential given, leads to the emergence of polar emotions of fear and courage. This also leads to existential as well as normal anxiety. This system has a neural basis as in the Avoid system, which may be associated with Serotonin system.  Also sensitivity to this given, results in the personality trait of Harm Avoidance. To recap:

Individuals high in HA tend to be cautious, careful,fearful, tense, apprehensive, nervous, timid, doubtful,discouraged, insecure, passive, negativistic, or pessimistic even in situations that do not normally worry other people. These individuals tend to be inhibited and shy in most social situations. Their energy level tends to be low and they feel chronically tired or easily fatigued. As a consequence they need more reassurance and encouragement than most people and are usually sensitive to criticism and punishment. The advantages of of high Harm Avoidance are the greater care and caution in anticipating possible danger, which leads to careful planning when danger is possible. The disadvantages occur when danger is unlikely but still anticipated, such pessimism or inhibition leads to unnecessary worry.


In contrast, individuals with low scores on this temperament dimension tend to be carefree, relaxed, daring, courageous, composed, and optimistic even in situations that worry most people. These individuals are described as outgoing, bold, and confident in most social situations. Their energy level tends to be high, and they impress others as dynamic, lively, and vigorous persons. The advantages of low Harm Avoidance are confidence in the face of danger and uncertainty,leading to optimistic and energetic efforts with little or no distress. The disadvantages are related to unresponsiveness to danger, which can lead to reckless optimism.

Consider on the other hand, Freedom (and determinism). The possibility of being free agents leads to wonder, surprise and novel behavior; while the possibility of being determined, at the other hand, fills us with disgust. This leads to polarity of Disgust-Surprise. Its my assertion that this state is associated with schizophrenic psychosis. This system has a neural basis in the Approach system, which may be associated with Dopamine system. Also sensitivity towards this given results in personality trait of Novelty Seeking. To recap:

Individuals high in Novelty Seeking tend to be quick-tempered, excitable, exploratory, curious, enthusiastic, ardent, easily bored, impulsive, and disorderly The advantages of high Novelty Seeking are enthusiastic and quick engagement with whatever is new and unfamiliar, which leads to exploration of potential rewards. The disadvantages are related to excessive anger and quick disengagement whenever their wishes are frustrated, which leads to inconsistencies in relationships and instability in efforts.


In contrast, individuals low in Novelty Seeking are described as slow tempered, indifferent, uninquisitive, unenthusiastic, umemotional, reflective, thrifty, reserved, tolerant of monotony, systematic, and orderly.

Now consider Loneliness (and community). While existential loneliness give rise to rage against the universe, the sense of community is made possible and engenders feelings of love. Thus the emotional polarities relevant here are Anger-Love. Its again my thesis that this is associated with bipolar sensitivity. This system has a neural basis in the Attach system, which may be associated with Norepinephrine system. The personality trait associated will be Reward Dependence. To recap:


Individuals who score high in Reward Dependence tend to be tender-hearted, loving and warm, sensitive, dedicated, dependent, and sociable. They seek social contact and are open to communication with other people. Typically, they find people they like everywhere they go. A major advantage of high Reward Dependence is the sensitivity to social cues, which facilitates warm social relations and understanding of others’ feelings. A major disadvantage of high Reward Dependence involves the ease with which other people can influence the dependent person’s views and feelings, possibly leading to loss of objectivity.


Individuals low on the Reward Dependence are often described as practical, tough minded, cold, and socially insensitive. They are content to be alone and rarely initiate open communication with others. They prefer to keep their distance and typically have difficulties in finding something in common with other people. An advantage of low Reward Dependence is that independence from sentimental considerations.

Lastly consider absurdity (and meaning). When confronted with the absurdity of life, the pointlessness of it all, our natural reaction is to become sad and depressed. On the other hand, if one is able to find or bestow meaning to one’s everyday acts, one lives with joy in his or her heart. This leads to polar emotions of Sadness and Joy and failure to navigate this existential given properly results in depression. The system associated with this may be called the Achieve system (all achievements being steps to endow life with essence). The personalty system associated here is Persistence. To recap:

Individuals high in Persistence tend to be industrious, hard-working, persistent, and stable despite frustration and fatigue. They typically intensify their effort in response to anticipated reward. They are ready to volunteer when there is something to be done, and are eager to start work on any assigned duty. Persistent persons tend to perceive frustration and fatigue as a personal challenge. They do not give up easily and, in fact, tend to work extra hard when criticized or confronted with mistakes in their work. Highly persistent persons tend to be ambitious overachievers who are willing to make major sacrifices to be a success. A highly persistent individual may tend to be a perfectionist and a workaholic who pushes him/herself far beyond what is necessary to get by.High Persistence is an adaptive behavioral strategy when rewards are intermittent but the contingencies remain stable. However, when the contingencies change rapidly, perseveration becomes maladaptive.


When reward contingencies are stable, individuals low in Persistence are viewed as indolent, inactive, unreliable, unstable and erratic on the basis of both self-reports and interviewer ratings. They rarely intensify their effort even in response to anticipated reward. These persons rarely volunteer for anything they do not have to do, and typically go slow in starting work, even if it is easy to do. They tend to give up easily when faced with frustration, criticism, obstacles, and fatigue. These persons are usually satisfied with their current accomplishments, rarely strive for bigger and better things, and are frequently described as underachievers who could probably accomplish for than they actually do, but do not push themselves harder than it is necessary to get by. Low scorers manifest a low level of perseverance and repetitive behaviors even in response to intermittent reward. Low Persistence is an adaptive strategy when reward contingencies change rapidly and may be maladaptive when rewards are infrequent but occur in the long run.

So my latest thinking based on different strands, ranging from existential strands to evolutionary considerations, seems to indicate that there are four basic emotional polarities and four basic temperaments.

These are summarized below:

  1. Harm Avoidance: Fear-Courage
  2. Novelty Seeking: Disgust-Surprise
  3. Reward Dependence: Anger-Love
  4. Persistence: Sadness-Joy

Of course, this leaves the question of what happens to the 3 (extended to 4 by me) character traits listed by Cloninger in his TCI. That and four new polar emotions family is the subject of a new post!!

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