Optimistic nihilism - the new self-help philosophy of young people
Happy nihil
Optimistic nihilism - the new self-help philosophy of young people

Forrás: Shutterstock/PuzzlePix

2023. 01. 31.
Informational YouTube videos, cartoons and feature films proclaim that life has no meaning anyway, at least let's spend it having fun. Generation Z is especially receptive to the way of seeing that has appeared as a new color spot on the palette of the secularization movement of our time. But can someone be a nihilist and an optimist at the same time?

There is a large fan base of for example Gudetama, even though he is a real anti-hero, or maybe not even that: an egg. Sanrio, the mega- company that also responsible for Hello Kitty, created an animated series on Netflix in 2013, makes the neo-nihilistic approach popular. And the idea seems to work showing the meaninglessness of life to a yellow mass doomed to "certain death" whose sluggish but cute character with lack of ambition and purpose tempts us to accept the essential futility of it all.

In the playground of the Universe

And then there's the "manifesto" of optimistic nihilism: the tens- of- millions- viewed video created by a Munich based design studio. The staff of the pop science channel Kurzgesagt (in German: "in a nutshell") intended Optimistic Nihilism as a response to comments that their work  caused existential anxiety in people.

“[We humans] have learned that we are not at the center of what we now call the Universe… we are just another transitional stage in a history that goes back billions of years…” - the video says to the relief of the anxious. -

"If the universe has no purpose, then we have to determine what its purpose is... Do what makes you feel good. We are free in a Universe sized playground, so why not strive to be happy?”

Kurzgesagt's video probably contributed a lot to the fact that more and more people are adopting this new approach, which seems to have come from the fusion of the American culture of positive thinking and the nihilistic philosophical tradition.

The consolation of nihilism

The reactions to Kurzgesagt's video (as can be read with other similar content) reveal that the new nihilism is attractive largely because it seems to offer a solution to the feeling of insignificance that excruciating many.

“If you never set goals, you'll never be disappointed when you don't succeed in what you're trying to achieve. Life has no meaning."- sums up a post. Personal failures no longer matter because eventually everything- even the universe itself- will perish anyway. From this cosmic perspective, failing an exam, losing a job opportunity or ruining a relationship becomes small. When the feeling of mediocrity hits us, it can be comforting to think that everyone else is that  too.

Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman traces the spread of this feeling of life to the fact that consumer capitalism created a culture of global uniformity. According to him, the unified systems of mass production, consumption and communication have crushed traditional, local and transcendent meanings. In the meantime, we have all become average, just like the mass products we buy.

"Mass society produces mass people in mass sizes"

- notes Bauman. consumerism results in rootlessness; one feels like a nobody who doesn't really belong anywhere and who hasn't managed to become unique or find meaning in his life.

Optimistic nihilists wrestle with dilemmas such as "Should I keep playing the computer game, hang out with my friends, go to the gym or try skydiving?". Creating one's own value degrades into experiencing everyday consumerism, with activities such as posting Instagram photos that are documenting engagement with cool stuff. They divert their attention from it, but this does not make the inner emptiness disappear.

People usually feel that a partying life is wasted. The optimistic nihilist, on the other hand, says that since nothing matters, it is equivalent to decades of hard work in some profession with positive social impact. However attractive this concept may be, sooner or later one has to face the fact that a life lived without goals lacks any kind of achievement or value. After all, the premise of nihilism is proven: man has indeed made his life meaningless. All previous human experience supports this. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl for example believed that the search for meaning is essential to well- being, and psychologist Jerome Bruner argued that a life without goals, values and meaning causes significant psychological distress.

And indeed, many of the members of Generation Z accept optimistic nihilism as a belief system, while the highest rate of mental problems is observed in this age group. A study published in 2019 for example showed that depression has increased dramatically among them: between 2008 and 2017, the number of young adults who experienced severe psychological distress in the 30 days prior to the survey rose by 71 percent. (The research was led by Dr. Jean Twenge, an American psychologist dealing with generational differences, author of the well-known book iGen.)

Fotó: Shutterstock / PuzzlePix
(Photo: Shutterstock / PuzzlePix)


The crisis of Western societies deepened; there is an inexorable rebellion against reality that imagines itself as the engine of moral progress. What we've traditionally found meaning in- work, raising a family, building a home, planning for the future, believing in the supernatural- has never seemed so unattractive to so many people. However, sooner or later cosmic nihilism usually gives way to moral nihilism. If morality is just a fragile fiction created to cover up the infinite indifference of the universe and there is no God to judge us, why shouldn't people lie, cheat and steal?

Attitudes of illegitimacy and breaking taboos contribute greatly to the development of depression. And from here it is very difficult to climb out, because above the swamp of meaninglessness there is nothing to reach up, to hold on to. That is why we see so often that political movements that simply seek to destroy the existing order, without any real perspective beyond self- serving destruction, are popular among young people. (This is true even if they claim to be fighting for good causes- equality, justice, etc.)

Moral nihilism eventually gives way to existential nihilism and the nihilist realizes that even the self reflecting on its own situation is meaningless.

Not the happiness of Sisyphus

Here we come to the question of suicide- which, according to the philosopher of the absurd, Albert Camus, is the only serious philosophical problem. (The absurd refers to the dissonance between the search for meaning and the apparent meaninglessness of the universe: it is absurd that we are pushed into existence against our will, imprisoned in a physical body, in a given time, space and meanwhile we have a consciousness that comprehends all of this.) From the point of view of nihilism, if there is no is a determinable value of our existence, and our actions have no discernible cosmic consequences, then suicide is a banal act (not a moral category, a sin, as in some religions)- as Camus expresses it:

"Should I kill myself or drink a coffee?"

Camus rejected this “escape from existence”- the first of the individual's three choices in combating the disharmony between the search for meaning and its lack.

The second possibility is a belief in a reality that is above the absurd reality in which we live. Camus also rejected this because he wanted to find meaning in life by sticking to what he knows for sure and not taking a "leap of faith". This leaves only the acceptance of the absurd: "We must imagine Sisyphus as happy.”- was his answer.

However, this is not the kind of happiness that optimistic nihilism claims.  Today people in their twenties often jump to the nihilistic answer which results in them not experiencing the richness of a life spent searching for meaning and not finding value in cultures that have spent millennia searching for higher meaning.

As Jordan Peterson said: “The argument for nihilism is the tragedy of life, the existence of suffering, the existence of evil, the sense of finitude, the unjust and arbitrary functioning of the world but the more I thought about it, the more I felt that neither explanation was acceptable. There is no acceptable reason for nihilism. This is not, for example, people suffering from clinical depression- there can be many reasons why someone becomes in this state. This is the cynical, arrogant, rational, hyper-intelligent nihilism that dismisses the world as worthless before it has properly examined it. The correct behavior is to investigate and if we do not find an answer, we ask the question whether it is because we did not search well or because we formulated our need incorrectly. Why can't we be open to at least to/ for this  possibility?"

A meaningless life cannot provide any basis for someone to be optimistic. In Western societies where this type of thinking prevails, the result speaks for itself: mass depression, the increasing number of suicides; lack of creativity and drive; stagnant economy, declining culture.

The antidote to nihilism

It is essential to understand that what a person does affects not only himself/herself but also those around him/her. Its failures and achievements are not meaningless but cause changes in the social environment, even if these are not always perceptible. (The complexity theory's butterfly leading to a tornado may be an exaggeration, but it gives a good sense of the phenomenon). The actions and interactions of each individual are important and have weight, they ensure movement and change in the world. The mere fact that actions produce reactions proves that things are inherently meaningful, since there must be an underlying lawfulness upon which the reaction occurs.

By rejecting the value above us and blindly accepting the hedonistic pleasure- seeking, nihilists essentially cement themselves into a destiny marked by a constant pursuit of impulses, where all hope of moving forward dies.

If we want to arm ourselves against modern nihilism, gratitude is one of the most effective weapons. It does not preclude critical thinking or efforts to reform society but all of these can lead to the realization:

“It's good that you exist. It has a meaning."

(Translated by Anett Harmath)

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