Essentially, anxiety is a fear of the unknown. But it is also a call to the unknown.
While it may seem counterintuitive, one of our great problems today is too little anxiety, at least of a certain kind. As the psychologist Rollo May and before him philosophers Paul Tillich and Soren Kierkegaard contended, a modicum of anxiety is necessary—and indeed urgent—to live a vital and fulfilled life; at least for many of us.
These observations of anxiety have turned out to be even more prophetic today. For today we have so many means to avoid anxiety, any kind of anxiety. Let me count a few of the ways (some of which are admittedly beneficial in some circumstances): Our tech industry gives us ample means to make instant but remote connections with people; enables relationships to be conducted in the comfort of our highly controllable and familiar silos; provides us with instant directions when we’re out on the road; and gives us instant answers to our everyday questions, like what the side effects are of a pill, or how you define clinical depression, or where to get that sweater you like.
It provides us with instant entertainment and books, and it allows us to “cancel” people without having to deal with the consequences of our decisions. We also find instant answers in many of our political leaders and ideologies today. The leader or ideology that can squeeze a provocative message into a tweet can rally thousands, even millions, to march or even riot. The soundbites we get on social media or television can condense political messages into readily-digestible slogans or calls for action.
The look or style of our leaders can sometimes have more sway than the substance of their messages. Many search for solutions in popping pills or simplistic creeds, whereas others find comfort in easy divisions of “us vs. them,” “truth vs. falsity,” or “winning vs. losing.” Yet few of these “remedies” actually resolve the complex issues of getting along together as families, communities, and nations, let alone individual personalities.
Even psychology has a tendency to avoid anxiety through its stress on overt and measurable behavior as distinct from the complex and often ambiguous experiences of living. As the great observer of human folly Blaise Pascal put it some 370 years ago, “the heart has reasons that reason knows not.” How much has our stress on “happiness” or “seven steps to success” pervaded our mindset in psychology rather than the more messy yet likely accurate recognition of the great paradoxes that beset human life, like the fact that we are in the process of dying the very moment we’re living, or that love and sorrow are so often intermixed, or that meaningful engagements can be and often are riddled with doubt?
Of course, arguably, the most perilous example of anxiety avoidance in our society—and many others—is the heavy reliance on weaponry to resolve both personal and international disputes. Our society is permeated by guns. Some politicians seem only too ready to send us into war at the slightest provocation, and too many civilians are quick to resort to armaments—or discharge them in the most heinous acts of revenge.
It is for these reasons that I call for a renewed appreciation for anxiety—an appreciation that would preempt a lot of the mayhem we see in the world. The term I have chosen for this preemptive anxiety is “life-enhancing anxiety.” Life-enhancing anxiety is the dynamic emancipatory anxiety that bolsters our vitality in living. It is the signal that we are awake and alive, exploring new fields, and experiencing fresh discoveries. It is the anxiety of poignant and meaningful relationships, profound experiences of awe, the vibrance of creativity, and the richness of intercultural exchange.
How do we cultivate life-enhancing anxiety? This is the basis of a very long conversation (and the forthcoming book Life-Enhancing Anxiety: Key to a Sane World), but I think we can start by looking much more critically at the conditions we co-create both as caretakers and cultures; what we encourage in regard to livelihood; and what we emphasize in our politics and cultural leadership.
In short, I define life-enhancing anxiety as anxiety that enables us to live with and make the best of the contrasts and contradictions of our human condition. I also define it more formally as supporting us to live with and make the best of the depth and mystery of existence; which is foundational for a sane and flourishing world.
Author’s note: I want to thank Otto Rank scholar and close associate Robert Kramer for helping me to conceptualize life-enhancing anxiety, as well as Rollo May, Ernest Becker, and Irvin Yalom for their trenchant inquiries into this topic. Finally, the foregoing blog is adapted from a Psychology Today blog titled “What the World Needs Now is Life-Enhancing Anxiety” (July, 2022). It also draws from my forthcoming book from University Professors Press: Life-Enhancing Anxiety: Key to a Sane World.
Kirk J. Schneider, PhD, is a leading spokesperson for contemporary existential-humanistic and existential-integrative psychology. Dr. Schneider was a 2022 Candidate for President of the American Psychological Association (APA), a cofounder and current president of the Existential-Humanistic Institute (an award-winning psychotherapy training center), and a two-term Member of the Council of Representatives of the APA. He is an adjunct faculty member at Saybrook University and Teachers College, Columbia University.
Dr. Schneider has published over 200 articles and has authored 14 books, including The Paradoxical Self, Horror and the Holy, Rediscovery of Awe, Awakening to Awe, The Spirituality of Awe, The Polarized Mind, The Handbook of Humanistic Psychology, Existential-Humanistic Therapy, Existential-Integrative Psychotherapy, The Wiley World Handbook of Existential Therapy, Supervision Essentials for Existential-Humanistic Therapy, The Psychology of Existence, and The Depolarizing of America: A Guidebook for Social Healing. His latest book Life-Enhancing Anxiety: Key to a Sane World will be released on February 1, 2023, published by The University Professors Press.
For more information on Dr. Schneider’s work visit https://kirkjschneider.com.