Feeling anxious is the price we pay for an authentic life.
So said Martin Heidegger, one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century.
Heidegger also thought people should live authentically by accepting death, experimenting with life by exploring all its possibilities and taking responsibility for their actions.
As well as being a philosopher, Heidegger was also a kind of early positive psychologist.
Positive psychologists ask how we can live an optimal life by working on our strengths and improving daily experience.
Heidegger believed that becoming better is a choice we make ourselves, which is the first step to authenticity.
Here are six of the main points from Heidegger’s philosophy that bear on how we can live an optimal life.
- Be an existentialist.
- Live an authentic life.
- Avoid the inauthentic.
- Anxiety is the price for authenticity.
- Escape guilt.
- The limits to freedom.
Martin Heidegger was an existentialist philosopher.
This means he was interested in the meaning of human existence.
He wanted to place the human being at the centre, focusing on our ability to feel, choose and be individuals.
He was reacting against rationalist philosophers like Hegel and Kant who downplayed the importance of thoughts and feelings.
Heidegger said that people and the world in which we live are inseparable.
Without the world, people would not exist and without people, the world would not exist.
He used the word ‘Dasein’, which literally means ‘to be’ (sein) ‘there’ (Da).
Human existence is something special to Heidegger.
We are in a constant state of change: we have to choose what to accept and reject, how to expand and evaluate what is around us.
Human beings choose the nature of their existence.
Heidegger said it was vital to live an authentic life.
An authentic life involves coming to terms with the fact that all of us will one day die.
With that knowledge accepted, we can get on with building meaning in our lives.
An authentic life involves becoming all that we can become.
Martin Heidegger (above)
The certainty of death brings urgency to the search for our individual potential.
We must explore all of life’s possibilities in order to become the most authentic version of ourselves.
An authentic life is exciting.
Here is a quote from Steve Jobs’ Stanford University commencement speech:
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.
Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.
Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.
You are already naked.
There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
The inauthentic life has pretence at its heart — it is a fake life.
Inauthentic people pretend they are not going to die, which reduces their urgency.
One way of being inauthentic is by living a conventional, traditional life that simply follows society’s rules.
Inauthentic people give up on the freedom that is given to them and let others make their choices.
A sign of an inauthentic individual is often saying things that one doesn’t actually believe or that doesn’t reflect one’s inner feelings.
One of the main barriers to leading an authentic life is that it provokes anxiety.
The reason is that freedom involves accepting responsibility for one’s actions.
If one is truly free and living an authentic life, one cannot blame genetics, circumstances, parents or anyone else for our choices.
That means that we must take responsibility for our actions.
This is a key problem at the heart of existentialist philosophy: we cannot be truly free without taking responsibility.
To be authentic, for Heidegger, means experimenting with life, trying different things to see what happens.
The unknown creates anxiety, as well as being the path to authenticity — it is the price we have to pay.
Given the anxieties linked to living an authentic life, most people are not fully authentic.
Most people give up at least some of their freedom in order to minimise anxiety.
This generates guilt: the feeling of regret at violating our own standards.
The only way to escape from this guilt is to try and live more authentically.
Although Heidegger believed strongly in personal freedom, he recognised that it had limits.
We are each constrained to some extent by our circumstances, including our upbringing, culture and personal characteristics.
He accepted, then, that anyone cannot become anything they want.
Rather, we can become better, given whatever we start with.
Becoming better is a choice which we make ourselves and this is the first step to authenticity.
Find out what these other philosophers had to say about living a happier life:
- Epicurus: The hedonist philosopher’s guide to happiness
- Schopenhauer: Extreme self-help for pessimists
- Confucius: Eastern style happiness