Commonly, we start life in reverse. We emerge. We get told how to survive – eat, dress, rest, a job of some sort. We even get acquainted with a belief system that aims to explain our place in the world and what we should do on a daily basis – live a moral life, so we can one day end up in heaven.
But as days turn into months. Months turn into years. And our progress in life reaches the middle – sometimes sooner. We get to question certain things.
- Is there really a God?
- Should I really have to be with the same person until I die?
- Should I make my bed in the morning if the universe doesn’t even care about making sense?
- Why bother trying to make my Instagram account pretty when we are all just stardust playing dress-up in an existential farce?
Instead of learning hard-to-understand algebra, molecular biology, the history of the world, or other topics considered must-haves in society.
We should first learn about existential nihilism. This life-denying branch of nihilism highlighting the absence of inherent meaning in our lives.
In this installment of doomsday Monday – or whatever day it is today. We talk about…
- What is existential nihilism?
- Why is existential nihilism important to understand?
- Why on earth is existential nihilism never mentioned by big media outlets?
- How on earth can you cure yourself of the agonizing dread that often supplements the idea of a meaningless existence?
- And more…
If you are excited to learn about the pointlessness of living, let’s go!
What Is Existential Nihilism Simplified?
Existential nihilism is the belief that life and the universe, as a whole, lack inherent meaning or purpose. Existential nihilism asserts that there is no objective or ultimate significance to human existence. Furthermore, it says that any attempt to find meaning is ultimately pointless.
Yes, that’s right. Existential nihilism is quite a party pooper. The idea of cosmic emptiness mocks our desperate search for purpose by stating that life on its own is purposeless.
Existential nihilism has been the subject of intense discussion among sage thinkers throughout history.
Celebrity-status philosophers like Arthur Schopenhauer, Søren Kierkegaard, and Jean-Paul Sartre are often cited in relation to existential nihilism. But one has become a major figure in relation to this concept – that’s Friedrich Nietzsche.
Nietzsche diagnosed living as a crisis. That we are exposed to existence “in its most terrible form… without meaning or aim.”1
This begs the question, “Why then push yourself?”
If there is no real purpose for our existence, why strive to be more than what you are now?
It turns out, that this is a major question among philosophers as well.
Alber Camus stated that:
“Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.” Alber Camus
Handling the idea of the meaninglessness of life is something I struggled with recently.
Why care when the universe is careless?
And while I found a flicker of hope. A path toward self-cure to address the vast existential void in the world – something that’s probably good material for another post.
What most piques my curiosity about the absurdity woven deep into the fabric of the universe is this:
If life is indeed meaningless – as stated by the concept of existential nihilism. And if we have the power to create our own subjective meaning and purpose in order to escape bad faith – as the school of existentialism suggests. Why are we not introduced to this choice early in life?
Before being forced into a religion.
Before being forced to do what others tell us.
Before being forced to worry about fashion trends and early retirement.
Why Existential Nihilism is a Rarely Discussed Subject?
Philosophers have grappled with the question of how to respond to nihilism – lack of meaning – since our brains were able to produce a thought.
I imagine it something like this.
A long, long, long time ago… The elders had a fierce discussion.
“Look, long-bearded brothers! People don’t really want to do good stuff. The only thing they care about is platonic sensations. Live for the moment with little consideration for the future. Act impulsively and punch others with axes. We need to figure out a way to unlock their creativity and channel their powers toward the divine good – and our own personal welfare.”
This is when and how mass religion was born.
Before gods and the idea of an afterlife, in general, life wasn’t worth planning. No one cared what will happen to him after a year or two. Everybody was interested in-the-moment happiness because getting eaten by an animal was part of life.
But once religion was born, advertising life after death with a big disclaimer – but only if one behaves. Things turned around. You were no longer snorting pre-drug drugs from a stone table in the local pub. Your values and belief system were grabbed by a religious framework inscribed in a stone.
While this idea about a divine entity worked for a while. When the condition of the average man improved…
- People stopped sleeping in the mud and transitioned into houses made out of wood and stone.
- People no longer had to engage in decade-long wars.
- People began to explain natural phenomena with science.
Thus, the question of whether or not life is worth living was back on the table.
One even went as far as saying that “God is dead!” – that was Friedrich Nietzsche.2
But what Nietzsche shouted wasn’t a claim referring to the literal death of a high-in-the-sky deity. More in the sense that there was a rapid decline in people subscribing to the notion of mass religion. All of this, coupled with the erosion of traditional values in Western society.
All I want to say is that…
Theoretically, it makes sense to not promote the idea that life is meaningless. Hardly any kid will be thrilled to realize that…
“Hey kid, do you know that there is no point in living? Nothing really matters! No one really knows what we are doing here. Life is just a wild ride on a roller coaster with no destination in sight. So, do whatever you wish!”
Instill this belief in people from an early age, and soon there won’t be anything to worry about – the world will be destroyed by the avalanche of riots.
Existential nihilism, and what the concept entails, is uninterested in being promoted because it can often lead to depression. Because pointing out the shortness of life and the indifference of the universe to human existence can hardly lead to optimistic thoughts.
Here are a couple of examples to illustrate the essence of existential nihilism:
What Is an Example of Existential Nihilism?
A famous example of existential nihilism can be found in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Notes from Underground. Published in 1864, the novel is considered a classic of existential literature and provides a powerful exploration of the human condition.
The unnamed protagonist, known as the Underground Man, questions the very essence of human existence.
The Underground Man’s rejection of conventional values and his refusal to conform to societal expectations result in a profound sense of alienation and self-loathing.
Dostoevsky’s portrayal of the Underground Man serves as a poignant representation of existential nihilism. Illustrating the despair and existential angst that can arise from the realization of life’s inherent meaninglessness.
Existential nihilism is like a black hole of nothingness.
People who face the idea that life has no inherent purpose might experience a sense of emptiness and absurdity. They question the meaning behind their actions and the pursuit of societal goals. Recognizing the indifferent universe and wondering whether anything they do truly matters.
All of this leads to the following…
Why is Existential Nihilism Important to Understand?
Existential nihilism is perhaps the most depressive philosophy there is. By defining living as pointless, one can wonder:
“Why learn about this topic? Wouldn’t this turn me into an emotionless sociopath?”
Sure, nihilism suggests that there is no intrinsic value or meaning to life. But from there, it gets a bit more optimistic.
Yes, your birth package doesn’t include a purpose map – describing what you should strive for and what your personal core values should be. Things are more configurable. It’s up to us to create meaning in our lives through our own freedom of choice.
And while failure to decide won’t cause mayhem in the universe as a whole. It will cause chaos in our own lives.
What makes existential nihilism important to understand is that if you don’t decide what is meaningful and important to you. Someone else will decide that for you.
As mentioned above, people are trying to figure out the meaning of life since our inception. “Why are we here?” and “What we should do?” are all questions that circle our minds daily.
A lot of people have found answers to these questions and think that what they have discovered should apply to everyone else – e.g., Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc.
And even if you don’t consider yourself a member of any of the major religions. Your life has surely been influenced by all sorts of things considered worthy by society – fame, money, material possessions, etc.
Existential nihilism challenges the pursuit of these societal values and says that nothing is important.
Does Nihilism Lead To Depression?
Existential nihilism can surely evoke feelings of sadness, despair, and hopelessness.
After all, it’s hard to motivate yourself to act when you suddenly realize that we are like clueless ants lost in a cosmic picnic.
No wonder people enter a state of what we call a midlife crisis.
I’ve surely felt lost in the world more than once.
The realization that one day you won’t wake up makes you question your efforts in areas that surely won’t be remembered. For instance…
- Why bother having values in this valueless world?
- Why bother chasing academic excellence when we’re all stardust in a cosmic library of absurdity?
- Why bother even talking about our insignificance?
But precisely because of the idea that there isn’t any meaning to be found in the world. This gives us the freedom to create our own.
Existential nihilism sets on fire what we thought was worthy. And from the ashes of this meaninglessness, we can create our own guiding map.
This leads to the following question. A question that acts like a guiding light in what we can portray as a dark tunnel of despair…
What Is The Opposite of Existential Nihilism?
At first, reading that life has no meaning whatsoever. The diagnosis made by the philosophy of existential nihilism, which states that the universe is devoid of purpose. All of this, can unlock a series of depressive thoughts. But if you ponder on the question long enough, things can take a turn for the better.
For one, precisely because there is no grand scheme. You can do something different with your life. You can take a long, hard look at your current condition. Highlight something in your life that you give way too much attention to – then stop caring for a week, or more. Whether this is the desire to impress others, that nagging thought about being perfect all the time, excessive overthinking, a boring job, that unpleasant neighbor who annoys you – whatever it is, stop caring for a week. Then see how you feel.
The belief that life has no inherent meaning or purpose can feel like you are carrying a black hole in your heart, sucking away any sense of hope or purpose.
But it can also do something positive.
The opposite of existential nihilism, optimistic nihilism, can liberate us from the chains of societal expectations. Granting us the power to forge our own meaning and purpose.
All of this means that success shouldn’t be defined by climbing the corporate ladder. Winning awards, making your mark in history – all things advertised in the modern world that will unlock ultimate happiness.
Optimistic nihilism confirms that we are all dancing on the edge of a meaningless abyss. But then it adds – as I explain in my post optimistic nihilism explained…
“Precisely because there is no inherited meaning in life. There is no cosmic plan forcing you to act a certain way. We are the ones who can create our own path. And more importantly, we are the ones responsible for creating our purpose.”
Instead of feeling crushed by the realization that life is a big void of meaninglessness.
You feel hopeful and optimistic about exploring new ways of living. To adopt new values and habits that feel closer to your identity. To what you consider important.
This means that you shouldn’t necessarily agree – nor care – with what everyone else is preoccupied with. You accept the fact that life is yours for the making. Your own personal project that you can tailor to your needs.
How Do I Get Out of Existential Nihilism?
The genuine problem related to existential nihilism is overcoming the depressive thoughts emerging from the answers to these questions:
- “What is the purpose of the universe?” There is none.
- “What is the meaning of life?” Ditto.
- “Why am I here?” Just dumb luck.3
Yes, the dark and dreary realm of existential nihilism can toy with your emotions and mark your personal plans as pointless.
But instead of letting the existential angst corrupt your body and mind. You can use the vastness of the cosmic void as an opportunity to become a freethinker.
Here are three steps for overcoming existential nihilism:
Step 1: Embrace the Pointlessness of Life
Recognizing that there is no meaning. That life is not predetermined, can have a positive net effect on your thinking.
Instead of worrying about the rules and the constraints of society or religious traditions. We can define our own purpose. Set our own direction to follow.
Viewed from this angle, existential nihilism can be seen as a source of freedom. Allowing us to define the trajectory of our own lives.
Step 2: Engage in an Intellectual Roller Coaster
The freedom that comes attached to the idea of having no purpose can be overwhelming.
OK, there is no meaning. There is no purpose. And according to existentialism, I am free to craft my own path in life. But what do I want? What type of path should I pursue?
While you bring meaning to your life. It’s hard to decide the “right” way to live.
So, step two is about engaging in an ongoing process of learning new things and trying these new things.
All of this, can help you decide in what direction you should focus your efforts. Help you forge your own path through the existential fog, and find meaning in the pursuit of what sets your soul on fire.
Step 3: Understand The Responsibility
Since you are not tied to any particular ideology or belief system. And from a cosmic perspective, you are free to craft your own path. This means that it’s your responsibility to make your life better.
Many people can feel crippled by the burden this type of thinking unlocks.
A moment ago, your happiness was (probably) related to how many followers you have on social media. Life was easy, you simply posted stuff online.
Now, after the realization that how many people like your posts is utterly insignificant. You not only wonder what should now bring you happiness. But also feel crushed by the concept that it’s up to you to decide.
As we confront the realization that life lacks inherent purpose, we are faced with a choice:
- Option 1: To succumb to existential despair.
- Option 2: To take ownership of our lives and embrace the freedom to create our own meaning.
While surely the second option means a lot of work. The responsibility to create our own meaning can become a profound – enjoyable – quest. A personal journey strewn with both obstacles and triumphs when overcoming adversities.
Some Closing Thoughts
Are you sensing the absurdity -a.k.a. the absurdism philosophy – in all of the above?
On one side, existential nihilism defines life as meaningless. On the other, we, as individuals possessing feelings and emotions, can’t properly function without some sort of higher purpose.
Philosophers label this inner struggle as a “condition of tension, as a disproportion between what we want to value (or need) and how the world appears to operate.”4
Yes, the world seems to operate far differently than what we want – or what we were told. Unless you are a devoted believer in one of the big religions. Your sense of existence can severely suffer from the realization that the world is pointless.
Yet, as I also pointed out. This lack of a clearly defined universal purpose can – and I believe that it should – unlock a sense of responsibility. A sense of drive to bring reality into better accord with our personal desires.
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- Nietzsche, F.W., Hollingdale, R.J. and Kaufmann, W.A. (1968) The Will To Power. New York: Random House.
- God is dead. Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God_is_dead
- Dach, Stefanie & Marvan, Tomáš. (2014). Review of Alex Rosenberg The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions. Science & Education. Available at: 10.1007/s11191-013-9661-y
- Carr, Karen Leslie (1992). The Banalization of Nihilism: Twentieth-Century Responses to Meaninglessness. SUNY Press. Available at: https://philpapers.org/rec/CARTBO-5