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The philosophical power of anxiety

Teenagers have every right to be anxious about the modern world. But philosophy tells us there is much to be gained by confronting that feeling head on
April 16, 2024

The evidence is clear and mounting: teenagers are increasingly miserable and anxious, and the grown-ups are desperate to allay this. But as we decry the factors contributing to the crisis—social media addiction, climate despair, collapsing public civility, economic insecurity—the work of great philosophers suggests the value of a different response. What if anxiety is less a problem to be solved, and more an enduring truth of the modern human predicament? What if its hallmark discomfort opens us up to unique opportunities for transformation? Teen suffering is not a good thing. But in our headlong rush to pathologise and medicalise, to diagnose, curb and treat it, it is helpful to turn to European philosophy for a richer view. 

Anxiety became a central preoccupation of cultural and intellectual life in the 19th- and 20th-centuries, as religion declined and a more secular, scientific, human-centred worldview took hold. In the perceived absence of any transcendent moral framework or pre-established plan for human life, people began to grapple with questions of freedom, responsibility and meaning in new ways. This gave rise to modernity’s defining moods—anxiety, boredom, alienation—which in turn became subjects of intense philosophical reflection and debate. 

The existentialism of the mid-20th century shows how the horrors of the Second World War forced a generation to confront the truths of human existence in a bleak register, giving rise to feelings of absurdity (Camus), nausea (Sartre) and guilt (Heidegger). But the roots of Europe’s reckoning with anxiety go back much further. 

Kierkegaard put a modern spin on the issue by linking anxiety to the very idea of becoming a self. For the 19th-century Danish philosopher, anxiety expressed the individual’s predicament of being open to innumerable, open-ended possibilities, which can occasion both paralysis and despair—as well as the opportunity of overcoming these emotions through transformative acts of faith. Here we find a tight link between anxiety and individual freedom, and the loneliness and responsibility that can go with it. These themes were given a radical twist by various 20th-century existentialists, who denied that the self has a pre-given nature, insisting instead that we “create ourselves” through our actions and choices. 

Schopenhauer, another 19th-century giant, offers an opposing perspective, according to which it is not so much our power and freedom that occasion anxiety as our restless, futile attempts to overcome our limits. As finite creatures doomed to die, we cannot but experience our innate will-to-live as a font of suffering and anguished longing. In striving to live, we are at every turn frustrated by reminders of our finitude. Heidegger picks up and transforms elements of this view but, unlike Schopenhauer, finds hope for redemptive personal authenticity in our encounter with nothingness and non-being.

Marx, on the other hand, opts for an economically driven analysis of the problem. It is not so much that modern life leaves the agent alone in the universe, responsible for determining her own fate, or in a radical encounter with finitude and death. Instead, it robs her of agency by trapping her in coercive, dehumanising modes of work. It is not the human predicament as such that provokes anxiety, but capitalism’s alienating dynamics, which can only be overcome through emancipatory class politics. 

Despite their differences, most of these thinkers agree that we should not close ourselves off from experiences of anxiety, alienation and disquiet, but instead turn towards them. It is through the perceived collapse (or diminishment) of self and world that fundamental, even revolutionary questions arise: Who am I? What next? What should we do? More than a mental health problem to be solved, anxiety is seen as a singular opportunity for growth and transformation, whether personal, social or political. 

I would wager that many of today’s young people mourn the collapse of a stable and hospitable natural world, functional democratic politics, and a social life freer from isolation and self-loathing. Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Anxious Generation, raises the alarm on what he calls “an epidemic of mental illness” among teens. But the path from anxiety to despair and illness is hardly foreordained. 

The existentialist movement, with acute anxiety at its centre, became a catalyst for cultural renewal, bringing about innovation in fields as diverse as politics, faith, the arts and mental health. Spiking teen distress is certainly concerning, but let us not forget what Greta Thunberg has done with her climate anxiety or what Malala Yousafzai has accomplished out of her anguish over gender violence. 

Overzealous attempts to control and diminish anxiety risk minimising what this mood can teach us. More importantly, they risk thwarting the vital opportunities for action that arise from it.