On Nihilism and Happiness

These days I find myself at a certain crossroad, a culminating point in my life so to speak.

As soon as you finally graduate from college, after the initial thrill of achieving presumed freedom after years of education – freedom from exams, freedom from having all your spare time organized by other people’s requests and agendas, you find yourself facing a decision of a career to follow and the lifestyle that will inevitably come with it. You realize that you are facing another 40 or more years of your life spent as a sort of slave. Whether it is for someone else or your own business, you’re never ultimately free.

As these difficult decisions come, maybe you’re smart and lucky enough to find something that you’re truly enjoying and never grow bored or tired with it. Perhaps, you set up a certain system for yourself where you change careers periodically to keep yourself active and learning and prevent yourself from getting bored. But at a certain point you will end up asking yourself: why? Why am I doing what I’m doing? Where am I headed? Once death comes and touches the lives of all the people that ever knew me as well, will anything that I have created in this life survive? Will anyone care so much as to give me a thought in the midst of their full, busy lives?

In Chuck Palahniuk’s novel “Survivor”, the main character, Tender Branson says: “I just want some proof that death isn’t the end. Even if crazed zombies grabbed me in some dark hall one night, even if they tore me apart, at least that wouldn’t be the absolute end. There would be some comfort in that.” At the face of everyone he knew as a child committing suicide, he finds himself confused and devoid of meaning or a goal. He is terrified of the idea of ceasing to exist, receding into nothingness.

Many people find their relief in religion. In the belief that God is awaiting them on the other side, together with their deceased relatives. Perhaps it is so that the people who find themselves scared and without a clear direction or meaning are in majority nihilists, holding on to the life on Earth, certain that it’s the one and only important place in the universe, selfish enough to think that the human race is the only one that matters, the only one in power in this world, the only world that exists.

What gives us a meaning at least for a little while, at least a tiny distraction from the fear of emptiness, is the illusion of progress. Taking action, getting yourself occupied. Trying new things to get a kick of adrenaline, of freshness. Still, as Tender Branson describes it, “You’re going up and up and up and not getting anywhere. It’s the illusion of progress. What you want to think is your salvation. What people forget is a journey to nowhere starts with a single step.”

The question is, do we really need to get somewhere? Do we need some deity to save us? Do we need a goal to be truly happy? Do we really need to be remembered by the next generations? Will that even matter after we’re not here any longer?

How will it feel not to be anyway? Will our consciousness survive in some form of energy? Perhaps not existing will bring some sort of relief. Perhaps upon death we will mix with the whole Earth as one gigantic entity.

As characters of Donna Tartt’s “Secret History” notice, “Any action, in the fullness of time, sinks to nothingness.” Whether we want to accept it or not, each of us is a mere drop in the ocean of history of human race.

But does that really mean we’re doomed? Does nihilism have to exclude enjoyment of life or happiness? I believe there are two ways we can go about this.

Firstly, we can bet on progress. Tender Branson says that at some point “You realize that our mistrust of the future makes it hard to give up the past. We can’t give up our concept of who we were… Our way of getting nostalgic for what we just threw in the trash, it’s all because we’re afraid to evolve. Grow, change, lose weight, reinvent ourselves. Adapt.” Constant movement keeps us alive and setting up small goals to strive for gives us reasons to do something and the enjoyment of achieving some kind of aim, a meaning. It is the dwelling on the past, this inborn tendency to nostalgia, that often gets us lost in the depressive moods.

Secondly, we can bet on moments. If we learn to be fully mindful in each moment, we can enjoy it more fully, with all our senses. This also implies giving up on the constant reminiscing of the past. Whatever it was, we can’t do much about what has already happened. Because of that, dwelling on it makes us feel helpless and miserable. If we find happiness in small things, even if it’s a coffee break at work, we can feel more free, liberated of the weight of the past. We can feel the bliss in its truest form. If the issue is that you hate your job in which, after all, you spend a huge amount of your life, you might want to either change it or re-evaluate it. I think that the problem often lies in our approach. We associate the word “job” with something negative, something we “have to” or are “forced to” do. But if you try to look at it from a slightly different perspective, and look closely at the tasks you are asked to perform, I am sure you will find that you actually enjoy at least a few of them.

“People don’t want their lives fixed. Nobody wants their problems solved. Their dramas. Their distractions. Their stories resolved. Their messes cleaned up. Because what would they have left? Just the big scary unknown.” (Chuck Palahniuk, “Survivor“) Perhaps we keep on searching for answers, ready-made recipes for life, but, in the end, deep inside, we don’t want to implement them. We are scared of change, of the unknown, as much as we are afraid of nothingness or emptiness. I believe this is where all the problems begin. It’s this inexplicable fear that we all seem to share, that at times can even make us cease to enjoy our hobbies or previous thrills.

“Why does that obstinate little voice in our heads torment us so? Could it be because it reminds us that we are alive, of our mortality, of our individual souls – which, after all, we are too afraid to surrender but yet make us feel more miserable than any other thing?” (Donna Tartt, “Secret History“)

The mindset free of fear and attachment to the past might be just what we need in these difficult times. If we can make a decision to release ourselves, we will find that even in nihilism we can find happiness…

6 thoughts on “On Nihilism and Happiness

  1. I’m not sure that that what you are describing is nihilism. It may be that it is, and that I simply find nihilism to be an untenable doctrine, by which I mean that no one ultimately holds a nihilistic position even while claiming that they do. The most famous nihilist – Nietzsche – declared that happiness is the feeling that power increases – that resistance is being overcome. The problem, of course, is that he still wanted a locus of power, which means precisely something that resists change. The question is what?

    The Futurists -following Nietzsche – declared what was unchangeable to be the will (to power) and on the basis of that declaration created their rapacious manifesto. We are still struggling through the aftermath of that manifesto with its celebration of speed and violence. In case you are under any illusions about what the futurists were after, let me quote from Marinnetti’s Futurist Manifesto, principles 9 and 10: “We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of
    freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.
    10. We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.”

    That is betting on the future, and attempting to free oneself violently from the past. Reflection on the past does not need to be wasted. What needs to be recovered, in our age, is the distinction between tradition and haunting. You may choose to forget the past; it will not forget you. And when the dead remember us, that is when we experience horror. We live in a time of great forgetfulness, and what we have already forgotten leads us to an even greater desire for that elixir that would exterminate the eternity of our actions.

    This, it seems to me, is what the nihilist is afraid to face; their own immortality. Not the immortality of their soul, but of their deeds. You have said that “any action, in the fullness of time sinks to nothingness.” This, I suppose, is the credo of the nihilist. But it is a credo, it is not knowledge. Every action, in fact, is a seed whose fruition, even if it is nothing, is unknown. Every action, furthermore, is implicated in a series of other actions. The idea that you can take one action, and isolate it, and determine that its meaning is nothing is strikingly absurd. Experience teaches otherwise, since actions have effects, and the thought of nothingness is an impossible thought. To think nothing, you first have to think something and then negate it.

    Effectively what this means is that, before you can articulate a pure concept of non-being, then you have to fully understand what it means to be. The problem is that, whatever you say, there is the irrefutable fact that you are saying it – the ego gets in the way of the journey to non-being. “I am a nihilist” seems an intrinsically absurd statement, since it is still very much a reflection on the self. If you opt for a negation of the self, on the basis of a nihilist philosophy, then what you seem to end up with is a sort of metaphysical suicide. Intriguingly though, suicide is effectively a refusal to change/live. It is the opting for power over life.

    Nihilism, in a similar way, is to opt for power over life and, even when the language used is that of adaptation/evolution it is manifestly false. “I change/ reinvent myself” suggests that a natural course of events will not cause me to evolve/adapt sufficiently and therefore I must take action in shaping my own destiny. This means two things. First, I have a destiny, and second that there is something terribly powerful within me, that is, myself, a creature that can shape evolution and destiny. Reflexive evolution is no longer simple adaption, it has a moral dimension. At some level you have decided to make choices; to choose this road and not that one. You decide to take a path that will lead you somewhere, and in going somewhere you are not going nowhere. You decide to do something, and in doing something you do not do nothing.

    Nihilism, it seems to me, cannot be used as an excuse for finding enjoyment in temporality. If things have no meaning, why on earth should I enjoy them? If the perspective that finds enjoyment is false, then why should I entertain that perspective? It would be one thing if I could enter unself-consciously into the flow of things and simply be (or not) blissfully unaware. But if I have to enter into the fiction of nihilism willingly, while at the same time recognizing that I do not either experience myself as nothing or will to be nothing, then I will not be able to enjoy it.

    I would agree with you that meaningful work is necessary for a full and vibrant human life. However, I think that the work has to be actually meaningful for our enjoyment of it to be anything other than a pretense. What I would challenge you to do, and what I think your work here already suggests that you have begun to do, is to think freedom for, rather than freedom from constraints. Freedom to shape our lives, however they have been bequeathed to us, for a positive good. Attending to moments is, naturally, a part of this for we always live in this moment. But there is also the integral unity of all the moments. Who I will become depends on the decision of this moment, but the interpretation of this moment will change when I look back on it. I will not give up on the past, in part, because I have learned to recognize it within the total determination of all things. The past is not fixed, with respect to the fullness of its meaning, because the actions which have been sown and those that are being sown have not all been harvested.

    Any action, in the fullness of time, rises up into eternity. Whether we want to accept it or not each of us is an ocean in the mere drop of the human race. Or, as Oberman says: “For the universe nothing, for myself everything.” But, not quite. Not quite, because what is eternal in me is action. It is what binds me to another, to the total determinism of all things past, present and future; to the Other. This is true, even though I do not have a total control over what I do and what its effects will be, on myself, on others, on the world. The nihilist, in the despair, both yearns for and abhors nothingness as a kind of salve that would extinguish their pain and their desire in a fell stroke. But it is of no great import, because nothingness is not and cannot be had at any price.

    Even if you reinvent yourself, even if you die, you will have been. Your life will be marked in the air you have breathed, in the ground you have walked, the words you have spoken, what you have done. It is marked in the lives of those people you known. In a kind of biblical idiom, you might say that you are marked in the Book of Life. Whether that passage is repeated in a physical monument to your memory is, in a sense, immaterial. The world will have known your singular presence; the course of events will have been shaped by you.

    • Hi Joshua. Thank you for your insights. First of all, I have to say that I’m really glad that my article sparked so many reflections, which was, in the end, my aim here.
      Having said that, I understand that you are talking here about nihilism on a much deeper, philosophical level than I meant to tap into when I wrote this article. Talking here about nihilists, I aimed simply to describe people who reject all faith and believe in life being meaningless. This is in the same way, I would say, as Chuck Palahniuk’s novels are often described as nihilistic (whom I quoted in the article itself).
      When I talked about freeing oneself from the past, I naturally didn’t mean rejecting it altogether. I used the word ‘dwelling’ as to say that dwelling over past failures or being stuck with ones thoughts in the past and consequently, not being present or giving up on certain things because ‘the experience taught us’ that we can’t do something rather than trying again until we succeed, can be really harmful and limiting. Therefore, what I promote here is rather an approach connected to mindfulness.
      Thanks again for sharing your view. Let’s not forget that we don’t need to all agree with each other, but discussing and sharing our respective approaches to life can prove to be really enriching.

  2. Very insensitive to use the word slave in this context. Slavery is far worse than anyone’s job.

    • Hi Anonymous. Thank you for your comment. It might seem insensitive, but it is a way a lot of people describe their feelings about their jobs these days. It is, therefore, not a historical but rather a symbolic meaning. That’s why I have actually called it “a sort of slave”. I am also in a way criticizing such approach towards work in a further paragraph: “If the issue is that you hate your job in which, after all, you spend a huge amount of your life, you might want to either change it or re-evaluate it. I think that the problem often lies in our approach. We associate the word “job” with something negative, something we “have to” or are “forced to” do. But if you try to look at it from a slightly different perspective, and look closely at the tasks you are asked to perform, I am sure you will find that you actually enjoy at least a few of them.”

  3. The philosopher Simone Weil wrote-

    “I do not need any hope or any promise in order to believe that God is rich in mercy. I know this wealth of his with the certainty of experience; I have touched it. What I know of it through actual contact is so far beyond my capacity of understanding and gratitude that even the promise of future bliss could add nothing to it for me; since for human intelligence the addition of two infinites is not an addition.”

    The point, I think, being that if we have once touched eternity then we know that it exists and, moreover, that it exists *for us*. The memory of that experience and the hope for its renewal can sustain us and guide our actions through the years of tedium or stress that make up the normal activity of our lives because it is more than a belief it is a knowing.

    • Hi Steven! Thank you for sharing your approach. Such a deep level of faith can indeed change the way we think about the Earthly existence.

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