Overcoming Meaninglessness and Existential Depression
A humble guide to navigating a pointless, empty, dead-end world. Or is it?
"It is only when we realize that life is taking us nowhere
that it begins to have meaning."
- P.D. Ouspensky
article by LiveReal Agents Thomas and Will
What's the point?
Day after day, we get up, do what we must, and go to bed. Then we repeat it the next day, and the day after that. And so on.
What's it all about? Where is this all heading? What's the point?
Is there a real, no-nonsense answer to "the meaning of life" that actually makes sense? Why is meaninglessness and even nihilism so popular these days?
Suddenly, the world can just stop making sense.
It can happen out of nowhere, for no apparent reason.
All at once, the familiar can become strange. It’s like waking up in the middle of a bizarre dream.
With no warning, you can be surrounded by questions: “Why am I doing this?” “Where is this all heading?” “Is this going anywhere?” “What’s the point?” And so on.
This is no abstract philosophical fluff.
Camus understood it well:
"There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest...comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer."
This swarm of questions might be triggered by a job, a relationship, or life itself.
Let's call it an "existential crisis."
It can be unsettling. Confusing. Disorienting. Disheartening.
And it can be...powerfully good.
"To have a reason to get up in the morning,
it is necessary to possess a guiding principle.
A belief of some kind..."
- Judith Guest
The Problem of Meaninglessness
Here's a good illustration of this problem in a nutshell.
"Imagine a happy group of morons who are engaged in work. They are carrying bricks in an open field.
As soon as they have stacked all the bricks at one end of the field, they proceed to transport them to the opposite end. This continues without stop and every day of every year they are busy doing the same thing.
One day one of the morons stops long enough to ask himself what he is doing. He wonders what purpose there is in carrying the bricks.
And from that instant on he is not quite as content with his occupation as he had been before.
I am the moron who wonders why he is carrying the bricks."
- suicide note,
as quoted in Existential Psychotherapy by Irvin D. Yalom
Unfortunately, a lot of folks these days encourage us to just keep carrying bricks.
There seems to be an entire cottage industry around it. (Especially, ironically enough, somehow, a lot of philosophy professors.)
"Just carry your bricks," they seem to say.
Their message is, essentially, “Don’t think about it, just put your head down, distract yourself, find something else to do, move on, and hopefully your questions will go away.”
So let’s be clear on this:
Asking these questions (“What’s the point?” “Where is all this heading?”) are good questions to ask.
They’re questions that intelligent people can, should, and do ask in certain situations.
Asking these questions isn't a sign that there's anything wrong with you.
On the contrary: asking these is a sign that you're an intelligent person in a situation that raises questions.
We should ask these questions.
"The important thing is not to stop questioning."
- Albert Einstein
Experiences of meaninglessness can be difficult. But treating this like it’s a flu or virus or symptoms of some horrible condition or other is missing the point. It's pathologizing healthy, intelligent behavior.
Existential crisis bring up important questions that should be explored.
More from Camus:
"Whether the earth or sun revolves around the other is a matter of profound indifference. To tell the truth, it is a futile question. On the other hand, I see many people die because they judge that life is not worth living. I see others paradoxically getting killed for the ideas or illusions that give them a reason for living (what is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying). I therefore conclude that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions."
The idea here is that those who ask basic questions ("What's the point?") might actually be more perceptive and sensitive to the real and actual condition of things than those who don't. They might be more in touch with reality. Not less.
It could well be that life, at least at is is usually lived, actually is absurd when seen from a certain perspective.
It could well be that an existential crisis doesn't come from seeing too little; it comes from seeing too much.
It could well be that this kind of crisis isn't a matter of "failing to see the world correctly." Rather, it comes from successfully seeing the world as something closer to what it really is.
And that can be...well, a bit overwhelming.
"Reality is the leading cause of stress
among those in touch with in."
- Lily Tomlin
"Ivan Ilych's life
had been most simple and most ordinary
and therefore most terrible."
- Leo Tolstoy
If this is true, it should be the case that lots of smart people - even some of the greatest, most intelligent, most perceptive minds throughout history - should have experienced this also...right?
And that is exactly the case.
"...five years ago
something very strange began to happen to me. At first I began having moments of bewilderment, when my life would come to a halt, as if I did not know how to live or what to do; I would lose my presence of mind and fall into a state of depression. But this passed, and I continued to live as before. Then the moments of bewilderment recurred more frequently, and they always took the same form. Whenever my life came to a halt, the questions would arise: Why? And what next?
At first I thought these were pointless and irrelevant questions. I thought that the answers to them were well known and that if I should ever want to resolve them, it would not be too hard for me; it was just that I could not be bothered with it now, but if I should take it upon myself, then I would find the answers. But the questions began to come up more and more frequently, and their demands to be answered became more and more urgent . . .
The questions seemed to be such foolish, simple, childish questions. But as soon as I laid my hands on them and tried to resolve them, I was immediately convinced, first of all, that they were not childish and foolish questions but the most vital and profound questions in life, and, secondly, that no matter how much I pondered them there was no way I could resolve them. Before I could be occupied with my Samara estate, with the education of my son, or with the writing of books, I had to know why I was doing these things. As long as I do not know the reason why, I cannot do anything. In the middle of my concern with the household, which at the time kept me quite busy, a questions would suddenly come into my head: "Very well, you will have 16,200 acres in the Samara province, as well as 300 horses; what then?" And I was completely taken aback and did not know what else to think. As soon as I started to think about the education of my children, I would ask myself, "Why?" Or I would reflect on how the people might attain prosperity, and I would suddenly ask myself, "What concern is it of mine?" Or in the middle of thinking about the fame that my works were bringing me I would say to myself, "Very well, you will be more famous than Gogol, Pushkin, Shakespeare, Moliere, more famous than all the writers in the world - so what?
And I could find absolutely no reply.
My life came to a stop. I could breathe, eat, drink, and sleep; indeed, I could not help but breathe, eat, drink, and sleep. But there was no life in me because I had no desires whose satisfaction I would have found reasonable. If I wanted something, I knew beforehand that it did not matter whether or not I got it.
If a fairy had come and offered to fulfill my every wish, I would not have known what to wish for. If in moments of intoxication I should have not desires but the habits of old desires, in moments of sobriety I knew that it was all a delusion, that I really desired nothing. I did not even want to discover truth anymore because I had guessed what it was. The truth was that life is meaningless . . .
The only thing that amazed me was how I had failed to realize this in the very beginning. All this had been common knowledge for so long. If not today, then tomorrow sickness and death will come (indeed, they were already approaching) to everyone, to me, and nothing will remain except the stench and the worms. My deeds, whatever they may be, will be forgotten sooner or later, and I myself will be no more. Why, then, do anything? How can anyone fail to see this and live? That's what is amazing! It is possible to live only as long as life intoxicates us; once we are sober we cannot help seeing that it is all a delusion, a stupid delusion! Nor is there anything funny or witty about it; it is only cruel and stupid.
- excerpt from Confession
- and Herman Melville . . .
". . . take high abstracted man along;
and he seems a wonder, a grandeur and a woe.
But from the same point,
Take mankind in the mass,
and for the most part,
they seem a mob of unnecessary duplicates . . ."
- excerpt from Moby Dick
- and William Shakespeare . . .
"O God! O God!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world . . .
This goodly frame, the earth,
seems to me a sterile promontory;
this most excellent canopy, the air, look you,
this brave o'erhanging firmament,
this majestical roof fretted with golden fire,
it appears no other thing to me
but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.
What a piece of work is a man!
How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty!
in form, in moving, how express an admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god!
And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
man delights not me; no, nor woman neither . . .
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of dispriz'd love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life . . . "
- excerpt from Hamlet
- and the author(s) of a 2,500 year-old Sanskrit tale...
". . . Because I have no wish for victory, Krishna,
nor for a kingdom, nor for its pleasures.
How can we want a kingdom, Govinda, or its pleasures or even life,
When those for whom we want a kingdom,
and its pleasures, and the joys of life,
are here in this field of battle about to give up their wealth and their life?
Facing us in the field of battle are teachers, fathers and sons;
grandsons, grandfathers, wives' brothers; mothers' brothers and fathers of wives.
These I do not wish to slay, even if I myself am slain.
Not even for the kingdom of the three worlds:
how much less for a kingdom of the earth!"
- excerpt from The Bhagavad Gita
- and King Solomon...
"I have seen all the works that are done under the sun;
and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.
That which is crooked cannot be made straight;
and that which is wanting cannot be numbered . . .
Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought,
and on the labor that I had labored to do:
and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit,
and there was no profit under the sun . . ."
- excerpt from Ecclesiastes
Some individuals - but only a few who possess a certain measure of intelligence - see life in a certain way that it appears meaningless. After all, we live for several years, then die. We work and work, but eventually everything we are working on crumbles to dust. What, then, is the point?
"She's polishing the brass on the Titanic, man.
It's all going down."
- "Tyler Durden,"
from the Chuck Palaniuk novel/David Fincher movie Fight Club
Why, since living means suffering to one degree or another - sometimes suffering immensely - how and why do we push through it? How and why can we move through and beyond the slings and arrows?
Or in a sense, this is another way of asking "Why Are We Here?"
"The truth is that your daily life is but a thin strip of experience
barely seeming in the profundity of who you are at depth.
Your activities and relationships never capture the grandeur
that wants to unfold from your heart into the world.
There may be moments of palpable glory,
brief openings through which magnificence effulgence without curtail,
but mainly your life is a tragic almost-there
of unfulfilled longing and partial gestures of tense effort."
- David Deida
Other Approaches to the Problem of Meaning
Meaningless as Loss of Attachment
Many individuals might experience meaninglessness as a kind of depression after experiencing a loss.
For example, suppose a person loses a house, a car, a job, a relationship, or a person who meant a great deal to them. After this loss happens, the individual can experience a painful "emptiness," an absence, something like a newly-lost tooth of the soul, which feels extremely uncomfortable.
The process of healing from this loss lies in grieving and eventually accepting the loss, and allowing oneself to move on, honoring what has been lost while continuing to live.
And since, in the way life is built, loss is an inevitable part of things, a large part of this aspect lies in preparing oneself...
Preventing Meaninglessness from Attachments
In a way, some unnecessary suffering can be avoided through not getting wrongfully and disproportionately "attached" to certain things, whether they be houses, cars, jobs, relationships, ideas, theories, or even people.
There is a phrase "All is change," pointing to the truth that everything changes (except possibly for change itself) - which is a short version of the Buddhist teaching on "Impermanence." When we truly understand "impermanence," then we can also understand that becoming too attached to anything - because any "thing" is, given a long enough time span, necessarily impermanent - then suffering, when that change comes, is inevitable.
This is why many spiritual teachers speak of an attitude of "detachment" - which is not coldly keeping oneself removed and distant from life, but maintaining a proper perspective in things, and not making them the ground and nature of one's own purpose of life. In a way, ignoring impermanence is like looking for "IT" in all the wrong places, or searching for something permanent in the impermanent, for God in places or things where God will not be found.
"It is not for man to seek, or even to believe in, God.
He only has to refuse his ultimate love to everything that is not God.
This refusal does not presuppose any belief.
It is enough to recognize what is obvious to any mind:
that all the goods of this world,
past, present, and future, real or imaginary,
are finite and limited and radically incapable of satisfying
the desire that perpetually burns within us
for an infinite and perfect good."
- Simone Weil
Meaningless as No "Games Worth Playing"
"Seek, above all,
for a game worth playing."
- Robert S. de Ropp
Meaninglessness can arrive for a person who sees life as more or less a series of "games" - and none of those games are worth playing.
This can be viewed as spending one's entire life working one's way to the "top of the ladder, only to find that there is nothing there, slaving away at an unpleasant, unrewarding job for one's entire life, only to be rewarded with a demotion, mandatory retirement, or a cheap gold watch; giving one's life to a business, a relationship, a family, a work of art, only to come in the end to see that all the work, sweat, and pain involved is essentially for nothing.
This is the situation for many sensitive and perceptive individuals, who see through many of the games, and so, don't see them as worth getting involved in.
The "solution," in this case, lies in finding "a game worth playing." How does one do this? Well, every individual finds the way for themselves . . . but many alternate option are available, such as, for example, the search for God, the search for Love, or one suggestion proposed by a guy named Robert de Ropp is something called "The Master Game" . . .
"The fact is
that this is what society is
and always has been:
A symbolic action system,
a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules for behavior,
designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism . . .
It doesn't matter whether the cultural hero-system
is frankly magical, religious, and primitive or secular, scientific, and civilized.
It is still a mythical hero-system
in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value,
of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning."
- Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death
Meaninglessness as an urge to "Grow"
One perspective offered here by David Deida is that it is actually a positive sign that we are growing more mature as human beings.
For example, when we were children, most of us enjoyed playing with toy cars or dolls or sandboxes. After a period of time, we "outgrew" these toys, and as we grew older, we moved on to other things, such as making money, buying houses, and having sex.
If we had never gotten "tired" or "bored" in a way, of playing with sandboxes, then we probably never would have moved on, never taking on larger responsibilities in the business of life.
Often, "meaninglessness" is the same process on another level. We know or have proven that we can survive in the world at a fairly basic level - we can pay bills, work jobs, have relationships, and so on.
But the question still arises - "Is this all there is?"
When a sense of dissatisfaction, boredom, or the pointlessness of life arises, this may be a symptom that we have outgrown, in a sense, our current goals and dreams and activities, and need to move on to newer, more meaningful, more challenging tasks. This does not mean abandoning one's family or job, but rather, perhaps looking more deeply into the big questions of life, or digging more deeply into figuring out why we, or specifically, you, are here.
(Note: This type of scenario is played out in the movie Scent of a Woman. Lt. Colonel Frank Slade, weary and bored with life, makes one last run with all his old pleasures (fine dining, lodging, women, a Ferrari) - but the old pleasures aren't enough to make his life meaningful . . . so he has to discover it in a new way . . .)
Meaninglessness as Created by Wrong Meditation
Spiritual teacher Albert Low speaks of the single fundamental "koan" of life - the single "problem" which gives rise to all other "problems" - as the dilemma of "participant" verses "observer," a fundamental split at the core of our being, so that we are at different times "participating" in life and at others "observing" life, and the tension entailed in being sometimes one, or the other, or both, or neither.
Some meditations and spiritual teachers try to resolve this dilemma in a wrong way, that produces experiences of meaninglessness.
"There are many pitfalls along the path of meditation,
but there are two principal ones:
the first in which the meditator seeks to be pure observer
by suppressing the (identity of being a) participator (in life),
the other in which the meditator seeks to be pure participant.
In both there is the search for the One at the expense of two...
Both extremes, observing and participating, simply "get rid of" ego by a trick.
Both, if used as a form of meditation, lead students
to resent the "interference" of life with their "practice":
on the one hand, seeing life more and more
as a meaningless parade,
scorning people who participate and get involved;
and on the other hand, feeling more and more put upon by things,
feeling increasing self-pity and seeking quiet
- or paradoxically, seeking intense orgiastic situations
such as acid rock, strobe lights, drugs, or the rallies of demagogues and faith healers."
- from The Iron Cow of Zen by Albert Low
Low does not propose a simple "solution" that can be accurately expressed in words, but essentially recommends a true practice of meditation or Zen as taught by a genuine teacher.
Let's Get a Handle on "The Problem"
"It is here that we encounter the central theme of existentialism:
to live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering."
- Viktor Frankl
We can approach the experience of meaninglessness in at least three broad ways:
1) The view that "life is meaningless" is an illusion. Life is actually meaningful, we just for some reason can't see it.
2) The view that "life is meaningful" is an illusion. Life is actually meaningless, and some individuals are merely sensitive and perceptive enough to see it.
3) Life is a combination of both meaning and meaninglessness. It's "meaningless" in some ways and "meaningful" in other ways, and it depends on the state of a person's perspective on the matter.
So what can we do about it?
"It is only when we realize that life is taking us nowhere
that it begins to have meaning."
- P.D. Ouspensky
Solutions to Meaninglessness?
“The vitality that can stand the abyss of meaninglessness
is aware of a hidden meaning within the destruction of meaning.”
- Paul Tillich
There is a vast different between:
- a random and unrelated series of events ("The post office opened, then the sun went down, then a dog ate his food . . ."), and
- a "story."
What is the difference?
In a way, the difference between a mere series of events and a "story" is that a "story" has "meaning" and mere events in and of themselves, don't.
One aspect of anything resembling a "solution" to meaninglessness, then, might have something to do with whether your life is a random and unrelated series of events, or a story.
A story makes sense in some kind of fundamental way.
A random and unrelated series of events...is just that. It doesn't make sense.
Part of digging yourself out of this, then, involves taking what might seem like the random and unrelated series of events from your life...and figuring out the story.
Nietzsche might call it making "order from chaos."
In this sense, some of the existentialists might really be on to something: life gives us raw material, but from that point on, we are able to write the story. ("Story," here, being the events of our own lives, or the "story" of our lives.)
(more on this to come later)
While there is definitely no quick fix to the problem of meaninglessness (or much of anything worthwhile,) and each individual must approach the situation in their own way, there may well be some general guidelines to finding a "cure."
1) addressing potential emotional issues underlying the perception of meaninglessness
2) "creating" a subjective meaning that "works for you", aka, "get a hobby."
3) embark on a quest to discover whether or not actual, objective meaning in life does in fact exist...and if it does, finding and realizing it.
Let's discuss each of these in more detail.
Option 1 | Underlying Emotional Issues:
A.H. Almaas, Haridas Chaudhuri, and Roy Masters all speak about the condition of being "cut off" from one's true essence, or true self, or higher self, or whatever you want to call it; this leads to feelings of alienation and isolation.
The "cure" they recommend is (in brief) to re-connect with one's true self or "essence."
Easier said that done, for sure. But the core process is a process of inner work, a key component of which is meditation.
Option 2 | "Creating" Meaning:
Many existential thinkers recommend finding some kind of fresh new activity to occupy one's time. They seem to recommend this solution, basically "finding whatever works for you," whether it be drinking, stamp collecting, hunting llamas, alligator wrestling . . . whatever "makes you tingle."
In our opinion, this is flawed.
If it was that easy, you probably would have solved it yourself.
"Ah, I haven't tried stamp collecting! Let me try that!" "Caring for others? Never heard of that one before! Let's give it a whirl!"
There are plenty of flaws with this "find a hobby" school of thought. (Eg, if you choose the wrong "meaning," similar to arbitrarily choosing the wrong "dream" or wrong "ideal" that is not based on reality, then, well, things can go badly. At best, the solution might be temporary, because sooner or later, you'll get tired of your new hobby, too.)
That said, there can be some benefit in creating meaning where it might not naturally exist. For example, deciding on a telos, goal, aim that inspires you - eg "I want to know myself," "I want to master myself," "I want to be the best wife/husband/father/mother/worker/etc I can," etc.
And also: "My meaning in life is to find meaning."
Much of this hearkens to a move away from merely subjective meaning, and more toward "objective" meaning.
Option 3 | "Objective Meaning":
This option entails the idea of meaning that is "objective" - that isn't personal.
This can get complex, but essentially, it can entail experiences that can relieve feelings of meaninglessness.
These experiences, in other words, can provide meaning. They can infuse meaning into something that otherwise seems meaningless.
Of course, the entire idea of "objective" meaning can be controversial, because some folks assume that everything is meaningless, full stop, end of discussion.
But of course, that's an assumption.
Just because a particular person hasn't seen a black swan doesn't mean that no black swans exist anywhere. (They do exist.)
Similarly, just because a particular person hasn't discovered a form of objective meaning doesn't mean that no objective meaning exists anywhere.
Take a common light bulb.
It sits on a store shelf for several weeks, doing nothing.
Then it's bought, taken home, and put in the cabinet for months and months.
Alone and in the dark, in a way, it could feel that life, alone and in the dark, is a stupid, futile, pointless exercise.
When, however, it is taken out of the cabinet and plugged in to the socket, all of a sudden, it lights up.
All at once, it serves a purpose.
All of the parts and pieces work together harmoniously to serve as a conduit for light.
It is now "doing" "what it was designed for."
It is performing the job it was created for.
Could it be that something along the same lines could happen with us?
"Wisdom is knowing I am nothing,
Love is knowing I am everything,
and between the two my life moves."
- Nisargadatta Maharaj
And of course, this raises some other big questions.
For example, is there a God?
Believers and atheists share common ground on this.
Essentially, if there is no God, then life is meaningless (in the Big Picture, objective sense.) Or if there is a God, then the meaning of life lies somewhere in that direction.
"Unless you assume a God, the question of life's purpose is meaningless." - Bertrand Russell, atheist
"...everything...find its purpose in him." - Colossians I:16
So at this point, the question becomes...is there a "God"?
So, how do we explore that?
Well, one way is by "taking the quiz."
Another way is by "running some experiments."
Much to explore.
The problem of meaning in modern times isn't as simple as some folks might say.
It takes some digging.
But this isn't carrying bricks.
This, now, is a different path.
This is digging for a good reason.
To Be Continued.
We've made some significant progress in this area, and we expect to add more soon. Much more. And hopefully soon.
We're still digging into this topic, exploring more, uncovering more, and working to bring it back here to present it to you.
Seriously. We aren't just saying this. Especially on this crucial topic, we're doing a lot of digging, and we're making, we believe, some real progress. We are planning on laying this all out as clearly as we can.
Until then, we have an entire series on the "meaning" question:
Join our email list, and we can let you know when the progress we've made on this problem - and we have made progress on it - gets published.
In the meantime, below is some more stuff that might not suck.
"Human beings, whoever they may be,
consciously or unconsciously look for a meaning to their lives.
They need a reason to live and, each day, try to find it
through all that their domestic, social and professional life give them.
But in reality no success, no material possession can give them the meaning of life,
precisely because it is a matter of 'meaning',
and meaning is not a material reality;
it can only be found up above on the subtle planes.
In the lower regions, we can find only forms.
Of course we can fill up the form with content,
which is in the feeling, the sensation we experience
when we truly love an object, a person or an activity.
But feeling is often temporary,
and when we lose it, we are left with a sense of emptiness and pain.
So we must look beyond the content for the meaning.
When we reach the meaning, we are fulfilled."
- Mikhaël Omraam Aïvanhov
Recommended Stuff for Further Digging:
Confession by Leo Tolstoy
Man's Search for Himself by Rollo May
The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker
Existential Psychotherapy, Chapter 6, by Irvin Yalom
The Power of Meaning by Emily Esfahani Smith