What‘s the difference between living and being alive?
One of the things that fascinates me the most about the world is hearing what drives people. Why they do what they do, why they live where they live, what they want from the world and why. I am intensely curious about what drives us to want to live and create. I think this drive is fundamentally linked to our feeling of “being alive”, and I think that we feel alive when actively connected with our environment, often while engaged in tasks that bring about a change in the world.
Lust for life, the way I interpret it, is the feeling we get when we want to create, to bring something into being, to change the current state of the universe. I associate this with its positive connotation, when we want to improve the world, when it’s love that drives us to want to do, want to be, want to live in a beneficial way. Lust for life is synonymous with our motivational drive, and similarly essential to our experience of “feeling alive”.
While asking my friends their thoughts on this subject, most people knew what I meant when I asked what the difference between living and being alive is. My friend Allie agreed that “everyone dies but not everyone lives”. I wondered what makes the difference? What is responsible for the feeling of “being alive”? I used what I had experienced, the people I knew who seemed more “alive” than others to create a theory. Someone’s level of “liveliness”, the strength of their motivational drive & lust for life can be mostly simplified to two main factors: consciousness and effective application of energy.
Everyone has different desires, and some people aren’t yet aware of what they want. This is the factor of consciousness: the people who are aware of the environment they’re in and know what they want to do in this environment are a lot more likely to experience “liveliness” than people who don’t know what motivates them.
It’s one thing to know what you want, but it’s a different thing to actively pursue it, to invest the energy and take the risks, to commit to and take action by changing something or creating something. Humans, like all matter, adhere to the law of inertia: everything will remain in its current state unless acted on by a force. Consciousness is essential to impacting the world, but ultimately it’s the actions that count and have an effect that ripples outward into the universe.
The people which are aware of their environment and their desires are more engaged with the world in which they live, and as a result are better able to effectively devote energy toward achieving their goals. This makes them more successful at achieving those goals, which helps to inspire a feeling of purpose and fulfillment in people. The positive experience we have, the feeling of lust for life, must then be evolutionarily favorable; after all, the people with more lust for life have more lust and as a result seem to be more successful in terms of reproduction and survival of the fittest. This is one explanation why most people who are around and impacting the world feel like they have a purpose, feel driven to do things, to change things.
If this theory is applicable to humans, how does it apply with other organisms? Where does consciousness come in on an evolutionary timeline? How has our ability to impact the environment made us so successful? I found you could apply the same concepts here: conscious awareness of the surrounding environment in terms of data interpretation and ability to impact the same environment using energy distribution are two key to determining perceived “liveliness” of a species.
“It is easy to overlook this thought that life just is. As humans we are inclined to feel that life must have a point. We have plans and aspirations and desires. We want to take constant advantage of the intoxicating existence we’ve been endowed with. But what’s life to a lichen? Yet its impulse to exist, to be, is every bit as strong as ours – arguably even stronger. If I were told that I had to spend decades being a furry growth on a rock in the woods, I believe I would lose the will to go on. Lichens don’t. Like virtually all living things, they will suffer any hardship, endure any insult, for a moment’s additional existence. Life, in short, just wants to be.” ― Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything.
What separates us from the lichen?
The ability of an organism to self-replicate is widely cited as the defining quality for a collection of molecules to be categorized as a living thing. Another important feature of living things is that they are able to alter their environment, by changing the concentration of specific elements within and without their cellular membrane. The organism must take everything from and return everything to the external universe, however the creation of a closed system containing different conditions than its surrounding environment allows for things to happen in the cell that would not happen in the environment and allows for introduction of new compounds. This usually happens in a way that favors the organism’s continued existence; according to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the organisms that are currently alive are those whose ancestors were the most successful at surviving and reproducing in their environment. If an organism is not well-suited to its environment, it simply won’t live long enough to propagate, and its genetic information will be discontinued.
For an organism to be well-suited to its environment, it must first be aware of the makeup of its environment, able to process the information coming in from the external system. This awareness or consciousness of the surrounding environment is fostered by the ability of an organism to accurately process data, which is determined by its degree of connectedness to the outside universe. Higher levels of consciousness are more intimately connected to the universe and better able to accurately process larger amounts of information.
Additionally, an organism is better suited to its environment when it is able to use its circumstances to its advantage, process the nutrients and harness the energy surrounding itself to its greatest use. This drive to maximize situational circumstances is essential to the triumph of life on Earth, and is the main reason why humans are so successful. It is evolutionarily favorable for organisms to alter their environments in a way that allows the environment to better suit the organism. The more suited an environment is to the organisms that inhabit it, the better chance of survival and reproduction of those organisms. Anything that allows you to change your environment makes you more likely to suit it better, survive better and reproduce. It’s true that over time our genome will be randomly altered and these mutations will be selected for by the environment (this is what natural selection is), however the opposite is true and is faster to act. The Earth waits millions of years for life to evolve, however we can change our environment in a matter of seconds.
This ability to impact our environment through our actions is the human race’s biggest strength and the key to our evolutionary success. As humans, we have had a bigger impact on our environment than any other species in the history of the Earth. The agricultural, industrial, and technological revolutions have vastly altered the face of our planet, and changing our environment to allow us to become vastly more successful as a species. A direct example of this can be found in places where it gets very cold; instead of freezing outside and waiting to evolve thick fur, we have created heated buildings that keep us warm, directly altering the temperature of our environment. The people who live in these buildings didn’t die of hypothermia and instead reproduced, so the people still alive live inside instead of outside in the cold.
Our nervous system is what allows us to think, to plan, to make decisions and take action based on our perception of the world. Our brains are able to process massive amounts of data from the universe we inhabit, and the combination of chemical signals and electric potentials allows us to interpret the environment in which we live. Despite the large amount of data we are able to process, we are not directly connected to the universe the way single-celled organisms are, through a simple membrane. Instead, all of our sensory input is organized and processed by specialized areas of our nervous system. There is an absurd amount of information incoming all the time, so a significant portion of our brains are devoted to determining what’s worth processing. We are only consciously aware of the input we attend to. Subsequently, our world view is determined by the input we attend to, which form our observation of the world. The decisions we make are based on our respective interpretations of the world, the images we remember that are conjured by our brain, not accurate reproductions of the universe. Since unattended sensory input is not remembered, it cannot factor into our perception of the world, and it therefore cannot have any impact on our decision-making process. Awareness is key because it determines our outlook which determines the actions we take which impact our environment are based on the decisions we make.
I believe that what separates us from lichen is both the amount of data we can process and how we can use it to impact our surrounding environment; we have significantly greater consciousness and control. To reference the previous example, lichen not suited to cold weather would not survive in cold weather because they would have no way of regulating the temperature of their environment. As far as we know, they aren’t even aware of the greater part of their environment, only their immediate surroundings. (Side note – to be fair, no person has ever experienced being a lichen, so their experience could theoretically be vastly different than what we imagine). Humans, on the other hand, have learned through conscious experience that being near a source of energy such as fire increases the surrounding temperature. We are able to see the fire and experience it because of our increased awareness of the environment, while the lichen is pretty much absorbed with its rock since its processing capacity is significantly lower. Lichen are not able to observe the wood, connect it with a memory of warmth, light it aflame, and huddle next to it all night as we are. This is not part of their experience, but it is part of ours. This is one reason humans are able to live in areas where lichen are not.
So what does this mean in terms of our lust for life?
Because our perception of our environment determines our impact on it, focusing attention on the current moment is not only important, but evolutionarily favorable. The more information about our environment we can process accurately, the more aware of our environment we are, the faster and better we can adapt to our environment (usually by making our environment more favorable for us). Though our ability to plan for the future and learn from the past is essential to the successful continuation of our species, devoting energy to the analysis of something that isn’t real takes energy, leaving less to process information we are currently surrounded by2. This causes us to be less aware of the current moment, reducing our consciousness. This gravely impacts our ability to change our current environment. our motivational drive, because you have to be aware of something to be able to change it.
The feeling we experience of being alive, our lust for life, is inextricably linked to our want to change our environment for the better. The lust for life we feel is a result of our ingrained want to leave a mark, to change the world. To create something that will have an impact. This is also deeply connected with love, the feeling of peace and acceptance which comes from immersion in the moment. We feel love and joy when we let go of everything keeping us from the present moment.
Some activities are more effective at instigating this state of mind, at heightening conscious awareness than others. Being immersed in our environment forces us to inhabit our highest levels of consciousness and gives us the awareness to cause the maximum amount of impact. As a result, activities that force us to focus make us more effective and feel good. I think this is what drives creativity. The feelings of love and positivity we experience when immersed in the moment while pursuing an activity that impacts the world make us want to do it more.
I have a lot of memories, times while watching the world move, where my heart feels so full. No matter where I am or who I’m with or what I’m doing, I feel alive when I’m connected to the world around me, to the moment I’m in. This is when I feel love. This is what I feel love is – connection. Whether it’s a research project, a painting, a journal entry, a relationship, or a life you are proud of, anything that allows us to focus on the current moment, especially if we believe it will leave a mark on the world, makes us feel alive. This is at the core of our human experience – we experience a feeling of joy when we connect with the world we live in, with one another, when we can change it in any small way for any small period of time.
This is what makes us feel alive. The neural signals that produce the feeling of euphoria most people associate with “feeling alive” make us feel good. The fact that we like feeling good makes us more likely to repeat the behavior that caused this feeling. And this is evolutionarily selected for because it makes us more likely to change our environment for our benefit. The feeling of being alive is evolutionarily favorable because our conscious awareness of our environment allows us to modify our environment for our own benefit. This makes us extremely successful and significantly more likely to reproduce.
The people who are more effective are often more immersed in the moment and more in control of their situational circumstances. We believe that life must have a point, that we have a purpose. This drive makes us more effective when we believe it. We want to make a difference for our own benefit, and by making our environment more favorable, we make it better.
We want to feel significant because it makes us more effective. We want to change the world because it makes us more successful. To optimize our potential to do this, we immerse ourselves in the current place and time, here and now. We create meaning in the things we do, the places we live, the people we love. These are acts of faith, of subjective perception, not of objective truth. Reality is perceived. What matters is what matters to you, and to me love and connection is all that matters.
The fundamental makeup of the universe and the metaphysics of human experience should help us understand the world we live in, but not trivialize our experience. All we have is our experiences, which are based on our perception of the world, and the fact that we are not only alive but self-aware enough to know we’re alive and think about why is absolutely incredible. I think it’s so cool that we have been selected to be this way. Even if we weren’t placed here by a higher power for a specific purpose, the fact remains that we are here. We’re alive. Our creativity, our behavior, our actions are here for a reason, whether that reason is chosen by an omniscient creator or chance. Ultimately, it’s us who get to decide what that reason is – we get to create our own meaning in life.3
The title of this post and the term I use is taken from the Lana Del Rey song of the same name. I love the images Lana creates in her music; they resonate with me as vivid idealistic images of human experience. She portrays a life where you’re always living in the moment, where nothing matters but the love you give, where all that matters is what you do right now with the time and energy you have.
I feel lust for life looking in the eyes of someone I love, running barefoot in the rain, spinning in circles with my head tilted to the sky watching the city lights blur around me. Gliding underwater, exploring a new place, learning what drives other people, seeing someone else happy as a result of something I’ve done. Being here, now, absorbed in what I’m doing. Feeling strongly about something, anything. Finding passion. Creating. Connecting to the surrounding universe, love. Experiencing, feeling in the moment: this is ultimately what matters.
We live. We love. We want to create; we want to leave a mark. We have the power to change our world. This is what’s important and what’s true about human experience, because we make it that way.
Disclaimer: This is all my opinion. The answers I give to the questions I ask make sense to me but they are by no means the absolute truth! My only evidence is my own experience and a few theories I’ve been introduced to (see citations) – this is mostly a reasoning process I’ve gone through. Everything I say is conjuncture but it helps me makes sense of the world. I hope you found this interesting, inspiring, maybe you learned something along the way. Use your own experience to come to your own conclusions!!
Works Cited – these are all resources I highly recommend!! If anything seemed interesting definitely check out the whole resource.
- Bryson, Bill. A Short History of Nearly Everything. New York: Broadway Books, 2005. Print.
- Tolle, Eckhart. The Power of Now. Vancouver: Namaste Publishing, 1997. Print.
- Wolf, Susan, et al. “Meaning in Life.” Meaning in Life and Why It Matters:STU – Student edition ed., Princeton University Press, 2010, pp. 1–33. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7t3cm.5.