As a child, I assumed I would be a much more interesting college student than I really am. I thought life would be full of swashbuckling adventures and huge declarations of love — with a few musical numbers thrown in, of course. Now, I view existence differently: I’ve fallen in love with the mundanity and meaninglessness of the world around me.
I don’t dislike having a “boring” life — I value tranquility. The moments I remember are the quiet ones: watching the clouds drift by, trading hesitant laughs with soon-to-be-not-strangers and gazing out the window on long drives with my mother. I expect my “future” to become more boring: I’ll work a mediocre nine-to-five job to support myself, take my dog for walks and read. Genuinely, I can’t wait.
As I grow older and days slip by at startling speeds, I can’t help but notice how my life is, for lack of a better word, unremarkable. This seems especially true when I speak to my friends, who all effortlessly bag internships, maintain their 4.0 grade point averages and travel voraciously around the world — all of which is faithfully documented on social media. I suppose it makes sense; the communities many of us come from are filled with expectations of medical school, McMansions and the (false) meritocracy. It prides the fruits of “productivity” above all else. I would be considered a failure by any of these standards — I haven’t given my parents much to brag about.
However, I don’t think of myself as a failure, and I don’t think of anyone as a failure. Recently, I’ve begun reading basic philosophy. I know, another classic college kid trying to philosophize their way out of existential dilemmas while having fake-deep conversations in their residence hall room. But hear me out: I refuse to ascribe meaning and purpose to existence.
Nihilism, absurdism and existentialism are three similar schools of thought you might be familiar with. They all operate under the same basic principle — that life has no meaning — but have notable differences. As someone who has anxiety, embracing the meaningless and the mundane was the kindest thing I could do for myself. I used to spend nights awake agonizing about the past, being anxious about the future I felt locked into and figuring out how to finish the puzzle of what I was supposed to be. Especially during the pandemic, when my world became confined to my residence hall room, I felt so overwhelmed by anxiety that my hands often shook with fear. Put simply, I needed to “touch grass” to be reminded of my insignificance. Thus, after a breaking point, I decided to reevaluate my worldview.
After researching different schools of thought, nihilism, which says that existence is completely meaningless and therefore futile, seemed like the obvious choice for further research. However, upon discovering that all three philosophies are also known for their lack of societally accepted “morality,” I felt lost again. As much as I wanted to abandon all concern for the conventions of societal existence, I was hesitant to fully accept these philosophies. I believe in the importance of treating others with kindness and a general concept of socially accepted “morality” — whatever that could mean. Losing almost all hope in my new discovery, I slowly continued my research, dragging my feet. Eventually, I came upon a well-loved, and slightly controversial, video created by YouTube channel Kurzgesagt, and my philosophy changed.
And this is where I introduce the idea of “optimistic nihilism.” Full of contradictions, optimistic nihilism is “the belief that there is no underlying meaning to life from a perspective of hope. It’s not that we’re doomed to live in a meaningless universe – it’s that we get the chance to experience ourselves and the universe we share.” Simply put: Nothing matters, and that’s ok. Glorious, isn’t it?
Not everyone thinks so. After reading enough discourse on philosophy forums to make my eyes burn, I’ve learned that many philosophers look down on the specific term “optimistic nihilism.” Many see the newer philosophy as simply a mixture of the three aforementioned philosophies — nihilism, absurdism and existentialism — with a badly tacked-on addition of “morality” (even though many can’t seem to agree on which elements were received from which parent philosophy).
However, optimistic nihilism — or repackaged existentialism — has deeply touched many people’s lives, including mine, in our post-industrial society. While the three parent philosophies describe high-brow literature and artistic movements, optimistic nihilism is a beloved way through which many people find relief in their everyday lives. If optimistic nihilism has made such a personal impact on society and allows people to find comfort in being alive, isn’t that valuable in and of itself?
Everything is pointless, whether it is repeatedly throwing a ball through a hoop, moving strings to create vibrations or typing letters and numbers into an Excel spreadsheet. As long as something lets you survive or brings you joy and doesn’t harm anyone, you shouldn’t have to reason with it. Optimistic nihilism frees people from fear of institutions, allowing people to care for their communities and enjoy their lives more.
Ultimately, many seemingly different philosophies and religions remind humans of their insignificance within a large, unpredictable world and give people a way to cope. Optimistic nihilism is my personal philosophy, and it counters my dread for the future. Instead of placing my value in my work or gender roles, I set my value in absolutely nothing. Our purpose is undefinable. The way I see it, our existence doesn’t matter at all — it is futile. We can value the prosaic and stop making our lives about the huge events we fear, and instead make them about the long stretches of beautiful nothings in between.
Uncoupling interest in life with a desire for success and belonging is one of the most radical things one can do in the face of hustle culture. Currently, the way we live our lives is centered entirely around the benefit of those who profit off of our insecurities and our need to feel valued. Instead of waiting for our so-called “best lives” to begin, marked by societal metrics of success — such as a dream job or a McMansion — we can begin our actual best lives now by eschewing one-size-fits-all conventions and embracing that beyond survival, nothing really matters.
Meera Kumar is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.