If you, like so many people, have struggled or are struggling with depression, then you understand all to well the belief that everything is meaningless.
You know what the other name for this belief is?
Existential nihilism is a philosophical theory that life has no intrinsic meaning. It claims that nothing that we do matters in the end, and that we either should live a pleasure-seeking lifestyle or we should make up our own meaning. Anyone who tried to make up their own meaning of life will tell you – it doesn’t work. You either truly believe something is meaningful or you don’t. You can’t fool yourself in this way.
This is good though, because if the meaning came to you and you truly believe in it, then it likely makes a lot of sense and is useful. To have meaning in life is to have direction. And those who are traveling with intent and a map, are more likely to get to their destination.
Nihilism in relation to depression
Nihilism, while a completely valid philosophical theory, is often accepted by people not because of careful consideration and rational thought, but because of emotional turmoil. A depressed person for whom everything in life has lost meaning will search for answers. And while doing so, they’re likely to stumble upon nihilism, which for a depressed person will make all the sense in the world, and so they will accept it as their philosophical view of the universe.
The problem here is that once the depression passes, the person will hold onto the nihilistic view of the world. That’s because when they were depressed, it was the answer to their pain. It legitimized their feeling that nothing matters and so it ingrained itself in their minds.
When no longer depressed, such person might be a happy cheerful nihilist. But how long is it going to last? If you believe that nothing has meaning, even though somewhat more rationally now, without feeling it emotionally, it will still affect how you see the world, think, and behave. And if you’ve been prone to depression in the past, then the nihilistic world-view is quite likely to eventually lead you back to it.
Nihilistic person can still contribute to society, help others, and strive to improve, because we often behave in ways that do not match our conscious beliefs. But when encountering challenges in their life such person will be prone to analyze them using their nihilistic thought patterns. This will lead the person to deem their goals as optional and not that important really. And they will be driven to do something else that seems more pleasurable.
Because of that, such person will have difficulty achieving self-realization, developing high-quality relationships, or having any direction in their life as these things go against their nihilistic beliefs.
Finding the Meaning
So, you’re probably thinking – yes, nihilism is bad, and you also said that one cannot just make up their own meaning of life. Then how should we proceed? Is once a nihilist always a nihilist?
Yes, it’s true, I don’t believe that a person can make up their own meaning and be satisfied with that. Not a nihilist, especially. But what I do believe is that you can discover your meaning if you just let go of the false sense of objectivity that the nihilism provides you with, if you are open to having your world view challenged, and always keep striving to learn new stuff.
The meaning will come to you if you work for it and are ready to accept it. When it does, it might turn out that you might have to work even harder! Meaningful things often require work and dedication.
Keep searching and good luck.