The Uncomfortable Truth About Why You're Still Unhappy

November 23, 2021
Illustration of a man feeling alone in a crowd

Ever wonder why so many people with successful careers and high standards of living, who on paper should feel happy and content, actually feel unhappy and disconnected from life?

The answer might be that they are escaping from freedom.

The burden of freedom

In the book Escape from Freedom from 1941, the German psychologist Erich Fromm argues that in the Modern Age, powered by the idea of progress and self-actualization, each of us is free to shape our life as we want to and be the master of our own fate.

At first, the idea of freedom is appealing: it’s empowering to think that you are free to live life on your own terms! However, as Fromm points out, when you are confronted with freedom in real life you soon realize that it’s not as desirable as you first imagined.

True freedom means no structure, no guidelines, no clear path to follow. It means you have to figure out who you really are, what you really want out of life. It means you have to give yourself your own aims to pursue, regardless of what other people say or think.

Silhouette of a man at sunset
Photo by Jeremy Perkins

The experience of true freedom will inevitably make you feel scared and filled with doubt. As Fromm writes:

“The individual stands alone and faces the world—a stranger thrown into a limitless and threatening world. The new freedom is bound to create a deep feeling of insecurity, powerlessness, doubt, aloneness, and anxiety.”

And that’s because, “to know what one really wants is [..] one of the most difficult problems any human being has to solve.” There is no easy way around it.

The effort required of you to figure out what you want in life is overwhelming, almost unbearable. Most people don’t even know where to start in tackling the problem, so they avoid it altogether.

Karma Chameleon

According to Fromm, most people escape the burden of freedom (the responsibility of shaping one's life) by giving up their spontaneity and individuality. What does it mean? As he explains:

“To put it briefly, the individual ceases to be himself; he adopts entirely the kind of personality offered to him by cultural patterns; and he therefore becomes exactly as all others are and as they expect him to be. The discrepancy between “I” and the world disappears and with it the conscious fear of aloneness and powerlessness. This mechanism can be compared with the protective coloring some animals assume. They look so similar to their surroundings that they are hardly distinguishable from them. The person who gives up his individual self, becomes an automaton, identical with millions of other automatons around him."
A chameleon
Photo by Christopher Ott
“By conforming with the expectations of others, by not being different, these doubts about one’s own identity are silenced and a certain security is gained. However, the price paid is high. Giving up spontaneity and individuality results in a thwarting of life. Psychologically the automaton, while being alive biologically, is dead emotionally and mentally. While he goes through the motions of living, his life runs through his hands like sand. Behind a front of satisfaction and optimism modern man is deeply unhappy; as a matter of fact, he is on the verge of desperation.”

The irony is that people are not aware of the trade-off. They live under the illusion that they are actually choosing their goals, and so they pursue them with great intensity and energy, which only reinforces the illusion. As Fromm points out, “intense activity is often mistaken for evidence of self determined action, although we know that it may well be no more spontaneous than the behavior of an actor or a person hypnotized. When the general plot of the play is handed out, each actor can act vigorously the role he is assigned and even make up his lines and certain details of the action by himself. Yet he is only playing a role that has been handed over to him.”

Two young people with a VR headset on
Photo by Michelangelo Buonarroti

This is the essence of the problem. The reason why so many people feel empty inside despite having everything they think they want is that they have given up the freedom (and responsibility) to give themselves their own aims. Instead, they have embraced conformity and ready-made goals from the society they live in.

No matter how intensely you pursue an aim, if it’s not your own aim you can never experience that feeling of spontaneity and engagement with life that you are looking for.

If you find yourself in this situation, how do you reclaim your spontaneity and become engaged with life again?

How to be free

Fromm suggests that:

“The realization of the self is accomplished [..] by the realization of man’s total personality, by the active expression of his emotional and intellectual potentialities. These potentialities are present in everybody; they become real only to the extent to which they are expressed.”
A girl feeling great on a sunny day
Photo by nappy

I know it sounds a bit vague, but by definition each person will have different ways to express their personality and spontaneity so you have to figure out what that means for you. I’d recommend starting by figuring out what kind of work you’d love to do.

One thing is sure, If you truly want to get back in touch with “the full stream of life” you must live with courage. You have to take responsibility, trust the process, and step into the unknown land of freedom. If you do, you will be rewarded.

As athlete and writer Jerzy Gregorek once said:

“Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life.”
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