What Is the Will to Live?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

The will to live is a type of survival instinct that prompts individuals to put forth effort to overcome situations that are life threatening and continue to enjoy the benefits of living. Considering a strong psychological force within most human beings, the will to live can often provide the motivation for people who are seriously ill or injured to hold onto life even when the prognosis for survival is not very good. Many physicians believe that this desire to continue living provides significant psychological benefits to people who are facing major surgery or are attempting to overcome major diseases such as cancer, sometimes helping to provide the strength to live many more years than anyone anticipated.

The pleasure principle, part of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theory, attempts to explain the basis of the will to live.
The pleasure principle, part of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theory, attempts to explain the basis of the will to live.

There are a number of factors that may contribute to the will to live, even when life’s circumstances are less than favorable. People who are dealing with major illnesses that tend to undermine their personal zest for living may find that connections with loved ones and the desire to spend more time with them provides the motivation to keep fighting for a restoration to wellness. A sense of having more to accomplish before death comes may also contribute to the fight to overcome and remain alive. To a degree, the fear of dying itself may serve as a motivator to continue the struggle and remain alive for as long as possible.

Various schools of thought have emerged over the years that attempt to explain the basis of the will to live, including Sigmund Freud’s pleasure principle and Adler’s will to power. Inherent in most of these approaches or theories is the concept that humans tend to seek social interaction with one another as a means of nourishing their own lives. When for some reason that social interaction is curtailed, that can weaken the will to live. For example, someone who is isolated from other people and has no reasonable hope of ever reuniting with people may come to care less about living and possibly even welcome the prospect of death as a way to escape the isolation.

While the will to live is considered one of the primary drives of human beings, it will often work in tandem with other factors that influence the mindsets of individuals. For example, religious convictions or love of one’s country may prompt an individual to willingly give up life if there is a belief that doing so will be for the greater good. In like manner, people who suffer from severe mental and emotional disorders may come to the conclusion that life is too difficult and unrewarding, prompting them to take their own lives. While the will to live is typically very strong, it can be undermined by a number of factors and over time become so weak that this will no longer can provide the inspiration for any desire to remain among the living.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

After many years in the teleconferencing industry, Michael decided to embrace his passion for trivia, research, and writing by becoming a full-time freelance writer. Since then, he has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including wiseGEEK, and his work has also appeared in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and several newspapers. Malcolm’s other interests include collecting vinyl records, minor league baseball, and cycling.

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Discussion Comments


I was looking for reasons people who have terminal cancer choose to fight to live with chemo and radiation. Going through all that for a little more time, Is it worth it? To me they endure so much more pain and go through more of an emotional roller coaster by choosing to do treatment. Their families also go through the pain and agony, only to lose the person they love. I want to understand what the will to live is, and why we keep fighting when there is no hope.

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