Life Instinct versus Death Instinct

Life Instincts

Eros versus ThanatosIn Greek mythology, Eros is the son of Aphrodite and is the god of love. Sigmund Freud saw Eros as the drive toward life, love, creativity, sexuality, and species preservation. Thanatos was the Greek god of death. Freud thought of Thanatos as a drive toward equilibrium, and he saw death as the final equilibrium. Thus in Freudian theory Thanatos is seen as the drive toward self-destruction and death. I see it in somewhat broader terms as the drive toward discouragement, disillusionment, depression, decay and eventual death. Freud identified these two concepts as drives that coexist, and are in conflict within the individual.

Is there any reason to believe that these two drives really exist within us?

Take a walk through the woods, and what do you see? You see sprouting, budding and growing things, and you see fallen trees and rotting logs. You see life and growth, and you see decay and death.

Most people have heard of the concept of entropy. Entropy is a tendency, rather than a force per se, in nature. It is the tendency for energy to move from a state of greater organization to a state of lesser organization – to become less concentrated and more spread out. But it is clear that there is another tendency in the Universe besides entropy. Physicists and cosmologists have taught us that in the early Universe there was only hydrogen, helium, and a trace of lithium. Yet here we are, 13.7 billion years later, with about 100 elements in the periodic table, complex molecules, and life. Clearly, there is also a tendency in the Universe for things to become more complex, and this tendency is sometimes referred to as “emergence.” So in nature, entropy and emergence are opposing tendencies. As we are a product of nature, it is reasonable to think that these two tendencies are present within us as well as around us. Thus, the drives of Eros and Thanatos do make logical sense.

Contact and Withdrawal

The life and death instincts should not be confused with the Gestalt concept of contact and withdrawal. In Gestalt psychology. Individuals are thought of as going through a cycle of contact, satisfaction and withdrawal. In fact, the cycle of contact and withdrawal is sometimes thought of as necessary to achieve clarity.

Just as we have times of sleep and wakefulness . . . . . just as the tides come in and recede . . . . . and just as growing things bloom in spring and die back in winter . . . . . we have variations in our contact or immersion in experience. We can think of this as a natural rhythm of life. We exercise and then rest. We work hard and then relax. We engage in intense interpersonal experiences, and then take time to process. These experiences are not the same as expressions of life and death instincts – of Eros and Thanatos.

How may Eros and Thanatos manifest themselves?

More than just the usual rhythm of life, Eros manifests itself as major efforts or tendencies toward life, enthusiasm, love, differentiation and growth. Examples:

  • Maintaining a consistent exercise regimen,
  • Learning about and practicing good nutritional habits,
  • Taking academic courses and focusing your efforts on learning,
  • Seeking new learning experiences,
  • Working diligently at your occupation or profession,
  • Leaving social events early enough to get sufficient sleep,
  • Working toward greater understanding in relationships,
  • Organizing your efforts to maintain order in your household and finances.Good decisions regarding risk and reward.
  • Marshaling your resources to rebound when we feel down or depressed.
  • Expressing optimistic views of your future.

Thanatos, on the other hand, manifests itself as either a lack of energy in life-enhancing pursuits, or behaving in health-reducing or dangerous ways.


  • Failing to maintain an exercise regimen,
  • Frequently indulging in unhealthy foods,
  • Frequent and/or heavy intoxication,
  • Apathetic attitude toward new learning,
  • Complacency or laziness in your occupation or profession,
  • Failing to get enough sleep,
  • Allowing your household and/or finances to fall into disorder.
  • Reckless driving,
  • Poor decisions regarding risk and reward.
  • Giving in and withdrawing when you feel down or depressed.
  • Expressing pessimistic views about your future.

A Word about Risk and Reward

Risk-taking in and of itself is not an indicator of Thanatos. It is the risk versus reward ratio that determines whether a risk is indicative of Thanatos. For instance, consider technical ice climbing. People may equip themselves with ice axes and crampons, use appropriate roping techniques, and climb on icy slopes. Despite appropriate safety techniques, risk is present. On the other hand, there is a potential reward in the form of highly enhanced self-confidence. The argument that the potential reward is worth the risk is a reasonable one. Many people drive their cars at high speeds, change lanes without signaling, and follow too closely behind vehicles in front of them. The potential reward is a minimal saving of time.

The argument that the potential reward is worth the risk is a specious one.

What can you do if you suspect that your proportion of Life Instinct versus Death Instinct is not as favorable as you’d like?

First, a comprehensive or detailed set of remedies is far beyond the scope of this handout. If you suspect that you need to make adjustments in your life and are unsure of what methods to apply, you may wish to consult with a psychologist. With some assistance, you may be able to assess your attitudes, habits and strengths and come up with a plan to put your positive life instinct in the driver’s seat.

Initiatives for Happiness

One method you may apply is to make a list of all possible life-enhancing interests and activities you can think of in five categories, as follows:

  • Physical and recreational
  • Enjoying the beauty of nature
  • Your sense of curiosity and wonder about the natural world
  • Culture: art, music, movies, television, history
  • Social relationships.

If you make an effort to engage in pursuits in these five categories, you may experience increased happiness, increased zest for life, and a change in the relative strength of your life and death instincts.

Creative Depression Management

You may read about this idea in more detail in chapter 6 of my book entitled Your Life: An Owner’s Guide, available for download at If you are in a slump and lack your usual energy, enthusiasm and motivation, it is often helpful to admit it to yourself. You may set a daily agenda that fits your reduced energy state. By succeeding at a reduced agenda, you will help yourself regain your sense of mastery. This could shorten the slump. Insisting on your usual daily agenda may result in frustration, a sense of failure, and prolonging the slump, or even deepening it into a significant depression.

A Final Note

The concept of Eros versus Thanatos is one of many ways to conceptualize the complex organization of our thoughts, feelings, behavior and lifestyle. Think carefully about how you conduct yourself in such important areas as exercise, nutrition, sleep, education, work, money management, relationships and future plans. If you feel your tendency toward withdrawal, discouragement and decay are out-competing your tendency toward life and growth, perhaps these concepts can serve as a wake-up call. Perhaps you can springboard yourself back toward a more satisfying life.

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