02 Sep Nihilism can make you happier, even in the Covid era. No really, let me explain
via the Guardian by Wendy Syfret
Writing a book about nihilism in 2020 was a strange experience. Whenever anyone asked about the project they’d offer the same feedback: “It’s a great time to be nihilist!” I get the sentiment. In the face of rolling health, financial and climate crises, the population is rich with existential dread. But, as I have rebutted many times, nihilism isn’t relevant because it mirrors our fears and apathies; it’s relevant for its ability to soothe our exhausted 21st century brains.
Historically, nihilism hasn’t had the sunniest reputation. At its simplest, it’s a declaration that life is meaningless. That the systems we subscribe to, to give us a sense of purpose (religion, politics etc), are constructs. Notions of morality, decency and goodness are not inherent to the fabric of existence, but concepts we allow to dictate our collective reality. Sure, stating that everything you love, value or seek comfort in is meaningless can feel like a bitter declaration. But it doesn’t have to be.
After spending two years engrossed in nihilism, I’ve become particularly sensitive to our relationship to “meaning” as an opaque but all-consuming idea. The desire to live a meaningful life isn’t a bad thing. Foundational theories of community, ethics, logic and equality were born from humanity’s investigation of it. My issue is with how meaning has been commodified.
There’s a game I like to play: spot the meaningless meaning. It refers to the increasing desire for every brand, product or service to present itself as somehow meaningful. Sometimes it’s a podcast advertisement that talks about community, memory, nostalgia and values for two minutes before revealing it’s talking about mortgage insurance. Or a pharmacy brand mascara that positions itself as a radical weapon of self-expression. At first this obsession with meaning is little more than annoying. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll realise how noxious it can be.
A sense of purpose is a prized possession, but also one that takes a lot of time and effort. If a brand, product or service is able to offer a shadow of that satisfaction for a fraction of the toil, it’s (on the surface) a good deal. At first, it feels great to pretend every mundane task is a noble pursuit. But looking at our lives – and all the ways these artificial, yet heroic, messages of meaning are pushed on us – does this habit actually make anyone feel better?
The reality is, all this meaning doesn’t improve our understanding of the world; it distorts it. Before the market for it exploded, most people located meaning in a few areas: a handful of relationships, religion, a single creative passion…
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