The Will To Survive – Where Does it Come From?

About a month ago, I was browsing through Amazon Prime movie selections and one captured my attention.  Simply titled Jungle it looked like an adventure/thriller story with a promising hook “Nature Only Has One Law – Survival.” Looking for a little escapism in an Amazon rainforest, I clicked “Play.”

Surprisingly, it was based on the 1981 true story of Yosseph “Yossi” Ghinsberg, an Israeli adventurer who at age 21 traveled to La Paz, Bolivia, befriended a couple of fellow travelers named Kevin and Marcus and all three were talked into trekking deep into the heart of the Bolivian jungle to discover unknown tribes and gold by a mysterious elder Austrian adventurer. Bad idea.

The story, however, does not veer off into the stereotypical good vs. evil theme with some kind of murderous intent, but rather it is about survival, loyalty and humanity.

About 50 minutes into the film, Yossi and Kevin choose to separate from the Austrian and Marcus to take the river instead of walking to their destination point, but they hit fast rapids in a narrow canyon and they are both flung from the boat. From that point forward, it is Yossi’s story as he struggles for 20 days to survive on his own with no supplies. He faces tropical downpours, flooding, parasites, a jaguar, sinking in deep mud, starvation and exhaustion as he tries again and again to point his inner compass towards the settlement he has memorized on a map. He thinks Kevin is there. He is determined to survive, literally crawling towards the river again after a failed attempt to be seen by an airplane higher up on a cliff.

When the point of view changes, I see Kevin. He has indeed made it to the village. While I watch him pleading with Bolivian officials to do a search and rescue and finally convincing a local who “knows” the river to go out, even though every official has insisted that it is too late to save him, the movie changed for me. By the time the credits rolled, I had to rewind the last several minutes and watch it again. And once again. I didn’t want what I was feeling in that moment to end.

Immediately afterwards, I started writing thoughts down about survival. Is the will to survive genetic? Can it be passed down from mother to son? Father to daughter? Why do some people never give up while others are unable to endure the challenges?

Yossi was interviewed by The Sun when the movie was released in 2017. (Yes, he survived.) I thought his explanation of how he made it through was fascinating. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

“On the 17th day, a plane flew overhead but did not see me.

When the plane passed it just broke me, that surge of hope was the worst thing that happened to me.

I was sobbing in the mud when, to my amazement, I looked up and seemed to see a girl.

She appeared in the worst moment when I really gave up. I talked to her all the time but she didn’t talk back. I built a camp for us both and made a space for her to sleep next to me. But then one night the girl vanished into thin air.” (She was never real.)

But he believes the “girl” saved his life — because she needed him.

Yossi continued “That’s something very deep about human nature. We’ll do more to save someone else’s life than our own because I couldn’t help myself any more. I felt it was over. But the moment she was there, suddenly I had responsibility.”

Near the end, Yossi’s mind conjured up someone to be responsible for and that was his way through. His mind overcame the physical deterioration of his body. But for me, I still wondered, where does that core to keep going come from?

Wikipedia states that “In psychology, the will to live is the drive for self-preservation, usually coupled with expectations for future improvement in one’s state in life. The will to live is an important concept when attempting to understand and comprehend why we do what we do in order to stay alive, and for as long as we can. This can be related to either one’s push for survival on the brink of death, or someone who is just trying to find a meaning to continuing their life. Some researchers say that people who have a reason or purpose in life during such dreadful and horrific experiences will often appear to fare better than those that may find such experiences overwhelming.”

Doctors at Stanford concur that in some instances, when patients face a serious illness like cancer, patients with positive attitudes are better able to cope with disease-related problems and may respond better to therapy. In fact, they are experimenting with methods of actively enlisting the mind in the body’s combat with cancer, using techniques such as meditation, biofeedback, and visualization. Certainly, the viewer can see Yossi’s positive spirit from the beginning of the movie.

Researchers Shimizu & Pelham performed a 2008 study which looked at death records for millions of people using Social Security Death Index (SSDI) records. This database contains more than 70 million records of people who died in the U.S. in the past 65 years. The researchers wanted to determine whether people died more often before a major holiday (Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s Day) or event (the person’s birthday), or after it.

The research showed, for this particular category, that people indeed have a will to live, that we have it in us to extend our lives, even if it is just for a few weeks or months, in order to reach some significant goal.

I cannot even guess what milestone or goal my own 91-year-old mother seems to have as she continues to fight despite a significant decline. This is why I question whether it’s in our DNA. I know that her own mother was an incredibly strong-willed woman; can inner strength be modeled and ultimately used as fuel in the fight to stay alive?

For others, there is a strong belief that our lives (and deaths) are determined by God. Faith is absolutely a powerful force, and prayer can sometimes be the difference between life and death.

I think Yossi had a secondary desire: to make sure his friend Kevin was okay, I guess that reverts back to the feeling responsible for someone theory. And Kevin feels that responsibility in return. His loyalty towards Yossi and his tenacity to find him was incredibly uplifting. It’s the kind of loyalty which restores your faith in humanity. It’s a touching ending.

I don’t even pretend to have all the answers, but I remain fascinated by the question.

Additional Resources:

Stanford Medicine “The Will To Live”

Wikipedia: Yosseph “Yossi” Ghinsberg

Photo by Tomas Anunziata


  1. Survival is such an interesting topic, Melanie. I used to think about this a lot as a teacher, wondering how some kids managed to survive in unfit environments.

    I have no evidence other than anecdotal, but I believe that survival skills can be inherited and learned from a good role model. It’s not quite the same thing, but everyone in our family has a strong work ethic. I think those types of personalities are less likely to give up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Pete and what an interesting perspective coming through the eyes of a teacher. Living in an unfit environment is not a short-term crisis (like Yossi) but rather a chronic situation where a child’s will has to adapt and stay strong for potentially years. Sometimes it’s more emotional survivability, but in some environments, it’s physical too. I bet your heart broke on occasion. And you’re right about personality types and certain behaviors and outlooks on life passed down. This makes me wonder if Yossi’s parents had positive spirits and an inner strength they shared with him.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It was heartbreaking and reinforced the belief of how important stability was in children’s lives. More than once, I met someone now holding the position of “mom” or “dad,” who was out of the picture two months later. How are children supposed to make sense of that?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. What a fascinating article Melanie. It truly made me think about the will to live on so many levels. What struck a chord with me was our becoming more motivated when we’re responsible for someone else. I could never see myself in Yossi’s position if I was by myself in a jungle. I truly believe I’d give into despair fairly early….but if I were responsible for someone else I feel I’d summon the courage to fight. Maybe we’re all born with a sense of parental protection whether we have kids or not? Interestingly I’ve had several friends whose parents have passed away but only after all the family was bedside. One 90+ grandma of my daughters friend waited until her son flew to Ireland and made it to the family home to say goodbye. Literally 5 minutes later his mom passed. This article really made me think! I hope I’m made of stronger stuff but if pushed to find out I’m not so sure!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much Pam for letting me know this post really made you think. I appreciate that. Your comment gave me a new perspective on Yossi’s sense of responsibility – I hadn’t seen that through the eyes of a parent protecting a child. Yes, that is a huge force to feed the will to survive – to either save or help or see our children. What a story that a son flew in from overseas and made it home and then his mom died. Wow. We all have the instinct, but some are able to dig deeper to keep going and since I know you, I can assure you that you are one of them.


  3. You are digging deep with this post. I don’t believe there are easy answers to the whys and wherefores of the will to survive. I suppose part of the answer lies in what’s at stake. You mention, “But he believes the “girl” saved his life — because she needed him.,” so perhaps a symbiotic relationship with another person boosts the desire to survive. Also, I believe personality type plays a role.

    I will be interesting to see how the conversation unfolds here. Thanks for sharing this, Melanie!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s funny Marian how some posts work. I wasn’t looking to dig into a heavier topic, but it literally found me. I practically ran to my book of notes to start jotting down my thoughts; my brain was lit up. I like how you say “the answer lies in what’s at stake.” The drive to be with someone or family again, to finish a passion project, to save someone else, there are dozens of reasons why people tap into that instinctual force. And you’re right, certain personality types can tap deeper than others. We are a sum of our life experiences, genes, beliefs and certain traits, and I’m realizing as I write this that there is no specific answer. Everyone will face a survival crisis just a little differently. Thanks so much Marian for helping me bounce ideas around. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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