In this Covid-19 era, there’s a word you’ve probably heard over and over. It’s a word most of us know intuitively, likely learned by grade five, but few of us have ever dug into its definition. I know I didn’t. This word describes something tangible yet abstract. Like a Russian babushka doll, its purpose is elusive. So, what do we really mean when we say the word “essential”?
Naturally, we can first reach for a dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “essential” as the “fundamental elements of something.” Interesting. But what does fundamental mean? It’s that relating to the “essential nature of something.” I see.
Rather than play ping pong with circular reasoning, where the paddles are the semantics and the ball is this ever-elusive meaning, let’s go a step further and consider “essential” more deeply.
For starters, our fundamental elements may be the things that, you know, keep us alive. It’s like Baloo says in The Jungle Book, the essentials are our “simple bare necessities.” Think of food and water for nutrition, clothes and shelter for homeostasis, and sleep so we can later perform the daily tasks of, well, everything.
By this definition, my midterm marks aren’t essential, nor are my Pokémon cards, no matter how vital they both seem. But we’re human. Our conscious experiences aren’t the same as Baloo’s nor his real-life grizzly cohorts. We’ve evolved to have greater cognitive capacities. We can reason, ponder our pasts and fret over our futures, and introspect on the meaning behind it all—like what I’m doing now, belabouring the meaning of a single, nine-letter word. With all this in mind, at least for us humans, the essential should reflect something more intellectually and emotionally profound than our simple bare necessities.
I imagine some people would consider money as essential. Money is fundamental to civilized societies, no question. We value money. We fulfill our physical needs with it. But in actuality, we don’t crave money itself—the flimsy plastic printed with maple leaves and historic figures. We value money for what it symbolizes and indirectly provides us. Money symbolizes social rank, success if you will, among other people. Even the things we buy aren’t inherently essential to us. I can buy a matte black Audi R8 because I think it seems cool. But why does it seem cool? An evolutionary psychologist will say I desire the sports car to show off my genes, rank high in the esteem of our society, and increase my desirability among potential mates. It’s the same thing as a peacock strutting its feathers—except in this case, I bought the feathers.
But let’s remove the evolutionary lens and replace it with a psychological one. Can money buy happiness? Well yes, but actually, no. Contrary to the adage, research across countries and cultures shows that money only buys happiness to a certain point, above which it has no significant impact on our emotional well-being. Estimates vary slightly, but most studies show that money loses its mood-boosting effects after we hit an annual income of $60,000-75,000 American dollars.
According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a famous psychologist with a notoriously cool name, the meaning of life “isn’t something we can buy.” Instead, life is about the search for meaning. Writing this essay is my way of searching for meaning, discovering what’s essential, translating the swirling nonsense in my head into coherent words on the page. Such an exercise is almost therapeutic for me, helping me to reconcile with what matters most and is deeply personal. I want this piece to mean something to me, but also something to you.
Put simply, I think the essential concerns one thing: experience. To experience or not to experience, that is the quarantine question. But are all experiences essential?
I think essential experience is anything that feels fulfilling and aligns with my unique sense of purpose. It’s what Greek philosopher Aristotle called eudaimonia.
To me, there are three types of essential experience. The first are enriching experiences. The second are prosocial and altruistic experiences—experience which reflects rigid biological, sociological, anthropological, and psychological research (and probably a few other -ologies). The third essential form is more personal, abstract, and philosophical. It’s meditative experience. In all, the essential involves the little experiences in our waking life, and the emotional impacts they have on us individually, contributing to a sense of flourishing and fulfillment. It’s baking a cheesecake. It’s the relaxed silkiness of your skin after a warm bath. It’s hearing your cat purr as you cradle her in your arms.
For the first few weeks of quarantine, I was fine. I had no problem staying home. I’d wake up, eat the same breakfast, and scroll through Twitter a bit. Then, just an hour later, I’d crawl down into the basement where the sun can’t creep through the closed blinds, climb onto the creaky couch, and sleep. My favourite podcasts went unplayed for days, weeks, piling up in my feed. I chose instead to sleep the afternoon away. I’d wake up for dinner. I’d see my parents. Then, I was back on the couch. By day 34 of quarantine, the intrigue of this lifestyle waned. I felt lonely and confused. I felt helpless. Worthless.
Sure, I was alive and experiencing day-to-day things, but was I really experiencing them? The psychologist Csikszentmihalyi would say no. I wasn’t having any enriching experiences, or what he calls, optimal experiences—the “deep sense of enjoyment” we get from doing something we love and being in control of our actions. What I find enriching in this moment differs from what I did at 10 years old and may differ mightily from what you feel now. Each is valid and essential.
So, to shift my helplessness to eudaimonia, I had to find optimal experiences. I needed to take baby steps to break free and so I picked novelty and challenge, two of Csikszentmihalyi’s components to achieve optimal experience.
The novelty component felt easier to tackle. I consider myself a cinephile. I’ve seen more than 1300 movies. But somehow, before the pandemic, I’d never seen an Ingmar Bergman film. So instead of casually browsing Netflix, I took control of my actions and set out for novel film pastures. I subscribed to the Criterion Channel and, over the 14-day free trial, I watched 14 Ingmar Bergman films. I laughed at Smiles of a Summer Night, swooned at Summer with Monika, and wept at Through a Glass Darkly. Slowly, quarantine life didn’t feel so worthless.
While these movies offered novelty, I also needed a challenge. I turned to what I’m most passionate about—movies, books, sports—and cranked up the challenge metre. For a month straight, I watched two movies a day, read a book every three days, and biked for longer and longer distances around my town.
Was I getting stronger? Was I practicing for the Tour de France? Was I changing the world? No, no, and certainly not. But by introducing challenges, and sprinkling in some novelty, I found enjoyment and a form of eudaimonia in my life.
And yet, something was still missing. I was doing all this alone. I didn’t experience social connection, or at least, not wholeheartedly. I wasn’t being prosocial or altruistic.
To many people and theorists, social connection is the most essential aspect of humanity. It is the fundamental source of our emotional well-being, eudaimonia, and sense of fulfillment. The reassurance that people care about us, support us when life throws its curveballs, and maybe more direly, remember us after we’re gone. It makes sense, evolutionarily and otherwise, to deem social connection as essential. Like all mammals, especially hyper-social ones like humans, we need love and companionship to feel fulfilled.
No person illustrated this idea better or more beautifully than Viktor E. Frankl, who discovered one of life’s essential meanings while trapped in a Nazi concentration camp.
On September 25, 1942, Frankl, his wife Tilly, his brother Walter, and his parents were forced out of their homes and deported to various Nazi concentration camps. Surrounded by death, decay, famine, and illness, Frankl saw his father die from starvation and pneumonia. His wife, mother, and brother were all later killed. Amid all the horrors and tragedies around him, Frankl clung to life, to something essential and greater than himself. To him, his meaning in life had to change with the environment he was forced into.
He learned to live for other people. He set up a watch unit to help despondent, resentful, and suicidal prisoners find hope and meaning in their life. While at the Theresienstadt and Auschwitz concentration camps, his purpose was to help others who gave up hope. By shifting their perspective outwards, Frankl found that some prisoners could live relatively happy and fulfilling lives, even amid the horrors around them. It’s about finding your purpose in the moment, whether that’s contributing research to a particular field or being there for your friend who has lost their will to live. Being an altruistic person becomes your purpose.
Frankl’s experiences lie at the heart of logotherapy, which he developed while in captivity and under slave labour. The loosely collected papers later became his most famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning.
Back in 2010, I hadn’t yet opened Frankl’s book. I was in grade eight, playing house-league hockey with some of my best friends since kindergarten. And in March of that year, we won the championship. I remember the day so vividly: the walk into the frigid arena, the wet, muddy snow still lining the grass outside. I remember never seeing so many people in the stands before, the chatter on the bench, the clock ticking down on the giant scoreboard overhead, the clattering of sticks and helmets as my teammates hugged and patted each other on the head, and, of course, the shiny trophy.
I remember all this, a decade later, and I didn’t play a second in that game. I couldn’t. I smashed my collarbone two weeks before in a skiing accident.
I could’ve scored a hat-trick in the championship game. I could’ve had a longer hockey career. But I broke my collarbone. My purpose had shifted in that moment years ago. I was no longer living for myself. I needed to help my teammates. I needed to help them remain calm on the bench, to crack jokes between shifts and help remove the stress of the shiny trophy staring them in the face.
While in quarantine, I’ve tried to find ways of helping others. When a friend was having a sad day, I became an outlet they could trust and find comfort in.
I didn’t endure a concentration camp. Most people, thankfully, don’t. But even in the harshest conditions imaginable, after losing all your loved ones to senseless killing, humans can still find emotional fulfillment in life through social connection. It’s a testament to altruism. If eudaimonia is the end goal, then prosocial experience is essential.
Reflecting on what matters most in my life, I also find purpose in meditative experience. Meditation is practiced across cultures, religions, and philosophies. It’s seen in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and in Stoicism, the latter a philosophy I strive toward.
The ancient Stoics preached various forms of meditation, one of which was negative visualization. This is where you reflect on the worst possible outcomes and imagine your emotional responses to them. I can imagine losing a loved one in a car crash. I can imagine coming home one day and finding all my cherished items stolen or reduced to ashes. Then I can remember that none of this has happened, that the impending stress of school performance or whatever other anxieties I have that day pale in comparison. It’s not to invalidate our anxieties, but rationalize their severities, which often aren’t as bad as they seem.
A welcome by-product of meditation, and another essential experience, is gratitude. Through meditation and negative visualization, I become more grateful for what I’m experiencing now. As Marcus Aurelius said, a famed Stoic and Roman Emperor on the side, “When you arise in the morning, think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love.”
It’s all pretty individualistic to introspect. While meditation is often an inward experience, it doesn’t have to be. You can be mindful of your relationship to things outside yourself, to your loved ones. If you’re thankful for your accomplishments and reminisce on those triumphant moments, you can also consider the people who sacrificed to help shape you, directly or indirectly. There’s beauty in both recognizing the strength and determination you give to your experiences, and the host of people who helped get you to that point.
We take many things in life for granted. I take for granted my family and friends, universal health care, and the warm clothes on my back. It takes meditation to recognize how wonderful and valuable these things are in my life and to my emotional well-being.
Going back to hockey, my memory isn’t an individual experience, but a collective one. It’s a memory I’ll forever share with my teammates, with my friends. I didn’t win. We won. It’s something I wouldn’t have known if not for my parents paying the exorbitant amounts to register me for hockey, let alone buy all the equipment and drive me to the rinks across town, sometimes picking up my friends along the way if they needed a ride.
So, what I shouldn’t take for granted are these positive moments in my life. Life is like an ocean wave flowing between soft ripples and raucous tides, from happiness and eudaimonia to sadness and anhedonia.
But I’ll take it a step further. I should also cherish my sad moments. Feeling sad shows that I’m alive, conscious, and can experience emotions. And these negative emotions can help me better understand my life and the world around me in ways that joyful experiences cannot. Because eudaimonia isn’t just happiness. It’s living virtuously, doing what’s personally right in an absurd and ever-changing world. Meditation produces gratitude. Gratitude produces flourishing.
While there are different essential experiences, surely there’s the possibility for universals among us. Reliable psychological research reveals that, no matter our age, race, religion, culture, whether we’re blind, or whether we live in nomadic tribes, humans experience six universal emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, and disgust.
Even in our deeply complex everyday lives, the rich differences between us permutate from the same basic blueprints. We’re made of almost identical DNA, but the proteins they synthesize produce massive differences between our conscious experiences.
Maybe it’s better to think of ourselves as antique radios. We’re each the same make and model, but with hundreds of dials, finely tuned to different degrees. Frankl’s radio would have the empathy dial turned way up, while my extraversion dial would be turned way down. The finer differences we have shape how we perceive the world. The essential is not what we experience or how, it’s that we experience at all. That is what’s essential, absolute, and fundamental.
As Frankl says, “The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day, from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”
It’s day 224 since Canada went into lockdown. When I look back on the preceding months, the endless days that bled together, these are the moments I remember most—the ones where I tried new and challenging things, cared for others, and meditated on the relationships in my life and the nature that breathes life into us all. Now, I no longer sleep the afternoons away. My basement blinds are open.
Appreciate life’s smallest moments and experiences—the good, the bad, and everything in between. They are essential. They are what make us human.