Eventually, we learn that the sparkling things that exist somewhere far away in the universe are not light bulbs switched on especially for us, they just are. We learn that the sun will rise. And the moon will take over at the end of the sunny day. The natural disasters that befall the earth are not caused by monstrously big immortal deities trying to make us worship them. But most importantly, you, at some point, without forcing yourself to think about it, realize that things will continue to move even without you. That, in the grand scheme of things, a person – or all humans for that matter – are utterly insignificant.
Earth is big. Really big. But space is even bigger. A human mind can’t grasp how vastly, hugely, astonishingly enormous the place we exist in is.
Yet, we’re not at all impressed by the gigantic universe. We are concerned about something else. Something smaller in scale, but critical for us as individuals – our own survival and prosperity. For us, we’re the most important things on this planet. In fact, for quite some time, for somewhere between 10 and 20 years – sometimes even longer – we think that the world is somehow indebted to us. That others should praise us. Take care of us. Tell us how special we are. This shouldn’t surprise us. After all, for at least 5 years, we were cared for, nourished, fed, washed, and put to sleep by our parents.
Somewhere along the way though, we learn that the other individuals who roam the streets, who attend the school we attend, who work alongside us, have their own personal views and their own personal desires. And further along the way, we also learn that these desires, even if the cumulative aspirations of all who live on this planet, no matter how good and honorable they may be, are insignificant for the universe to continue to exist.
Or in other words, life is meaningless. All values and goals are baseless. And from a cosmic perspective, there is no point in what we are doing here – none! Even after we all die, things will continue to still be.
I know, that’s a pretty grim, pessimistic way of looking at things. To be more precise, a nihilistic way of looking at things.
Nihilism is the philosophy that captures what I just shared. It’s a spectacularly harsh way of looking at life. A true nihilist would believe in nothing. Aim for nothing. And question every concept embedded with meaning by humanity.
But amidst the darkness and the hopelessness that emerge from the perception that nothing matters, there is a glance of brightness that can turn things around and convert even the darkest critic, who sees no light in the upcoming future, into a purposeful go-getter with goals and ambitions. This twist is called optimistic nihilism.
What is Optimistic Nihilism?
Optimistic nihilism is the realization that the lack of meaning in the world and the universe as a whole can be liberating. 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 path. In fact, we are responsible for creating our purpose. An optimistic nihilist basically reaches the following conclusion: “Since there is no grand scheme here, I can, myself, decide what I should do with my life.”
Optimistic nihilism is the ability of a person to create his own meaning after fully accepting that the universe is a large place of meaninglessness.
It might seem scary and depressing, but it’s not. Quite the contrary, it’s the thing that sets you free. Optimistic nihilism removes all obligations that society tries to impose on you and helps you reshape your life. In simple terms, you realize that you can be everything you want to be. And more importantly, it also means that you shouldn’t be the things you don’t want to be.
Starting a family, prophesying a faith, working a 9 to 5 job, and living in the same city for the rest of your life are all considered normal. Even mandatory. But these things won’t get you extra points when you finally disengage from your body. These are just things we do to fit in. Not that they are bad per se. They are bad if we’re doing them only to make others, not necessarily ourselves, happy.
“Since I only get one shot in life,” says the optimistic nihilist, “why don’t I play it on my terms?” After all, all suffering, all humiliation will eventually be forgotten once you’re gone.
That’s the grand idea of optimistic nihilism. You don’t feel crushed after understanding that there is nothing important to go after. You feel blessed and aggressively motivated because you realize the potential – that you can form your own worldview based on your personal desires.
Why Optimistic Nihilism is Important?
If you’re a nihilist – you believe that there is no intrinsic meaning to life – it can be hard to revise the realization that time is slowly guiding us towards inevitable death. Thereby, attempts to do something of importance on your end probably won’t occur.
Regrettably, we are all suffering from this conclusion in one way or another.
After all, we all know that one day we will die. And based on observable facts – since we also know that life will continue to exist after someone is gone because we’ve seen it before – it can be extremely hard to motivate yourself to get out of bed and do what you’re supposed to do.
Optimistic nihilism takes this grim view of life and gives it a sunny, happy face. Yes, most things are meaningless but that’s a good thing.
Optimistic nihilism allows you to reshape your life the way you always wanted to be.
Don’t believe there is one and only God? That’s OK. You can now believe in everything you want and others will be kind of forced to not judge you because we live in the most liberal century in the history of mankind.
Less than a century ago, it was hard to imagine that a non-believer will be accepted by the masses – or someone with different from the considered normal sexuality or color skin. And these are all good things. This means that our culture is evolving and beginning to take different perspectives on what should be considered “normal.”1 It also means that you no longer have to hide your real personality nor do stuff that doesn’t bring you joy. The opportunities are countless and it’s up to us to find our path.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that it’s going to be easy. This doesn’t even mean that you can immediately switch countries and become a magician stunt performer. It means that you have the opportunity to do these things. It means that you don’t have to worry about small disasters and appoint them a value – what someone said about you, for example. Because there is no inherent meaning in life, there is no grand scheme, there is no reason not to give everything you have and try to create your own path, your own universe, your own vision. A place where you’ll be truly happy.
The Dark Side of Optimistic Nihilism
So far, things seem really optimistic for the optimistic nihilism philosophy, don’t they?
You reject all society-imposed beliefs, you create your own small stance based on your personal motives and desires, and you become the central figure of a religious movement where the worshipers are bound to idolize the creator – you.
Or, exactly because you realize that things should happen the way you want them to, or because you accept the fact that life is indeed absent of larger meaning, you do only things that make you feel good here and now – play video games, scroll Instagram, and eat chocolate crispies all day long.
You say, “Nothing in life matters, I’ll do whatever the hell I want!”
However, the above will not only make your life even more difficult, literally poorer, and miserable eventually, but can also put you in jail. Or worse, turn you into a self-imposed dictator who believes that he’s the central figure of the world.
Life is meaningless, but not lawless (at least not for you and me). There are certain social boundaries that must be obeyed – regardless of the philosophy we profess.
The smart move is not to play against nor within boundaries, but to play with boundaries (more about that later).
To explain this better, let’s first look at the most common ways people behave in life:
How Optimistic Nihilism Compares To The Other Ways of Life?
According to my observations, there are 4 different ways we can live our lives:
- Live in an Illusion:
Here I don’t mean living in a computer simulation controlled by an evil genius. I mean living in an illusionary state where we wholeheartedly believe that we’re the center of the universe. That things revolve around us and that everyone we meet should be superbly interested in our lives and hobbies.
The benefits of this way of living are not few: We’re confident. Bold. Motivated. Often act without care of what others think about us which can be useful for our mental health and prosperity.
Downsides? It hurts when things don’t go the way we want them to – which can happen quite often.
- Live in a herd:
We adopt the views and the beliefs of others, and society, without questioning them, and we diligently obey more ambitious people, who are usually part of the first group.
The main benefit here is that we don’t trouble our minds with big questions. We swiftly avoid responsibilities hoping to live a carefree life. Downsides? Out-of-the-box thinking and progress are not our strong sides. We rely on others to move the world forward and we most probably earn an average pay.
- Live in depression:
We’re highly pessimistic of where the world, and we inside the world in particular, is going. We don’t see value and meaning in the things around us and we don’t make any attempts to make a change.
The benefit here is that we are not self-delusional. We have a perfectly clear idea of what’s happening. Indeed, people don’t care about us. And yes, we tend to expect only bad outcomes, often accompanied by a grim look and a gloomy mindset, but at least we see the world as it is – harsh. Downside? We can’t get past the harsh reality. We think that it’s all rain and storms. In modern words, we see the glass as half empty. We are a true nihilist.
- Live on your own terms:
Realizing that life is what you make of it is our go-to mantra. We know that we are the ones responsible for our own prosperity and we are actively pushing to achieve the goals we have set for ourselves.
The benefits here are plenty: We are not afraid of what others think of us and we aggressively pursue our goals. We realize that the glass is half empty but this realization doesn’t lead to despair. Quite the contrary, we see this as an opportunity to make a change. Downsides? Often problems with people with set beliefs and misunderstood by the masses.
The last categorization best describes the optimistic nihilism way of living. But sometimes we are all the types at once.
Depending on the situation, we can be narcissistic and cruel, seemingly blind-folded and obedient, broken and in a need of a holding hand. And at the same time, we can see hope in the sometimes hopeless everyday life.
How To Apply The Optimistic Nihilism Philosophy in Your Life?
In order to turn the feeling of purposelessness proposed by the optimistic nihilism philosophy into an empowering belief, you need two things: Figure out what you want to achieve as a person. And second, “play” with the boundaries set by society.
The first is quite personal and I won’t go into details. “What you want to achieve” is something different for everyone and it requires a lot of time and reflection.
The second is more interesting to explore:
What does playing with the boundaries mean and what are these boundaries exactly?
By boundaries, I mean the social norms set by society and considered the common, expected way of behaving. The most easily recognizable “boundaries” regardless of your location in the world are: money, laws, values, traditions, regulations, taboos, social status, religion, employment, healthcare.2
Yes, the world is meaningless, the universe doesn’t care about you individually, but despite this grim realization, you need to pay taxes. For the government, the amount they collect from you is far more important than how you view the world.
There are other examples.
Even if you fully accept that there is no point in everything, you still need income, a place to stay, access to fresh food and water, people to talk to, and regular doses of encouragement to keep doing the things you’re doing.
A smart optimistic nihilist won’t reject these norms to construct his meaning, he will “play” with them.
Considering what was described above – about the different groups of people – let us see how members of the four groups might approach the society-established norms: A representative of the first group thinks that he sets all the rules, one from the second diligently follows the laws, the third feels oppressed by the norms, the optimistic nihilist, on the other hand, acknowledges the boundaries and uses them to construct the life he believes is worthy for himself and probably for a group of people – his family.
For example, a self-obsessed person will steal money because he inherently believes that he deserves others to give him money. The second group will ask for average pay. The third will feel anxious, pressured by this need to fight for money. The fourth, by articulating that income is needed to create his own universe, will find a way to make money based on his core values and ambitions.
Now, let’s see how we can put everything together in a 3-step process so you can apply the optimistic nihilism concept in your life:
1. Realize That There Is No Grand Scheme
There is no grand scheme. The universe is careless of humanity and your lapse from the physical realm won’t be the end of everything. I know, this is a brutally honest realization, surely not something you read often, but it’s a very true one.
Of course, you can attach yourself to an established concept that will give you meaning – by becoming a member of one of the famous religious institutions, for example.
But based on what I’m trying to present here, I think, along with the person who first introduced the nihilistic concept, that organized religion is just a diversion from the real deal.3 Our ancestors – the less successful civilizations – appealed to supernatural powers for protection. But as we all know, the voices of their gods were never heard. They were ignorant and always addressed the requests of their worshipers with silence.4
2. Recognize The Established Social Norms
As discussed, there are certain laws that exist regardless of whether we like them or not. As you can’t reject gravity and the laws of physics, you also can’t easily outmaneuver taxes. Sure, you can hide from the government and create an offshore account, hire a skilled accountant and save thousands, but it’s not going to be easy. Plus, it’s not the right thing to do.
But even if you manage to pull that off, taxes is probably the easiest to cope with. Life is not hard because there are certain norms involved – taxes, costs, traditions, beliefs, etc. – but because there are people and feelings involved.
This means that: It’s not hard to create a product. It’s hard to convince others to buy your product; It’s not hard to enter a relationship. It’s hard to keep the relationship going; It’s not hard to be faithless. It’s hard to live around others who have faith.
You need to move carefully in the theatrical play we are all involved in and try to not hurt – physically and emotionally – others. Not only because it’s a bad thing, but also because the “wounded” will surely come after you.
3. Construct Your Own Meaning
Once you have a clean slate, you know that the cosmos is not forcing you to become a lawyer, it’s something our parents usually want from us. And you also know that you have to wear pants when you go outside – because this is considered the normal behavior – you can figure out how to spend your time on the planet.
Ultimately, it all comes down to you. It’s up to you to decide what you want from your life. However, this moment of enlightenment won’t happen on demand. Your calling won’t start knocking on your front door just because you now know that life has no grand scheme. It might take years to uncover what you want to pursue. Years of trial and error. Years of iteration. Nonetheless, it should be something to search for until you find it.
Some Closing Thoughts
Life is meaningless whether you like it or not.
We’re all just a speck of dust in the cosmic vastness stuck on a sphere that is spinning, seemingly endlessly, around a larger burning sphere. There is no higher purpose and there is no grand goal behind all of this.
As we zoom in, we can see people coming in and out. But while the population of our planet is in constant rotation, nothing is really changing. Yes, some figures affect the world more than others, but in general, things are still the same – trees, water, wind, oxygen, and a couple of other chemicals.
While surely pessimistic, we shouldn’t let the nihilistic view of life depress us and leave us with no obvious cause.
Optimistic nihilism allows us to break free from the chains set by society that try to enslave us and gives us the opportunity to choose the things, the people, the activities, and the lifestyle that feels natural and good for us.
An optimistic nihilist realizes that he will be forgotten after he’s gone, that the universe is meaningless, but instead of moaning, he acts.
Essentially, optimistic nihilism allows us to do what is right. Allows us to move ourselves to a place attuned to our own personal desires. It’s not going to be easy, and surely going to take a lot of work, but these things always come along when you strive to do the right thing.
Attitude is a choice. Happiness is a choice. Optimism is a choice. Kindness is a choice. Giving is a choice. Respect is a choice. Whatever choice you make makes you. Choose wisely.” Roy T. Bennett
- The modern workplace, and the world as a whole, is putting a lot of emphasis on diversity. Which is the right thing to do, of course. The proposition that each of us has a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” remains the best definition for all humanity.
- The formal name of this is called Social Rule System Theory. It means that most human social activities are organized and regulated by socially produced and reproduced systems of rules.
- Who created optimistic nihilism you might ask? Nihilism is most often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche. He used the term to describe the Western world’s disintegration of traditional morality.
- For more on meaningless, I’d recommend reading the book Existentialism Is a Humanism by Jean-Paul Sartre.