Modern people have been gripped by a profound problem. That is the problem of how to combat the (seemingly) meaninglessness of life. Modern people experience feelings of existential dread. These usually make themselves apparent during a midlife crisis, graduating university, or just idling.
Where does Existential Dread originate?
In the late 1800s, Frederique Nietzsche announced, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, that “God is Dead”. This statement is often misinterpreted by modern readers of philosophy. The death of God is not a triumph. It is usually thought of as the rising of rationality over mere superstition. However, Nietzsche knew that the collapse of religion by the claims of science would lead to nihilism (the rejection of all value and purpose).
Before the Modern Age
It is fair to assume that people of the Middle Ages did not experience existential dread. After all, people were made by God, Earth was the center of the cosmos, each person’s existence was part of a grand plan designed by a benevolent creator, and one’s actions would determine his or her destiny in the eternal afterlife.
When science de-animated the cosmos and made the world a place of objects, people began to question the intrinsic significance of human existence. If you can’t scientifically prove that any object has any meaning, maybe nothing has any meaning and therefore, there is no reason to do anything.
This turns out to be a disaster because people have become skeptical about the positive meanings of life because of the tendency to divide the world up into subjective and objective. However, people are far from being skeptical of the negative meanings of life.
Being burned badly in a relationship, being viciously bullied in school, or having a deeply cherished dream fall apart are still events that no one treats as being void of significance existential dread.
Midlife Crisis and Peter Pan
A Midlife Crisis can be associated with the story of Peter Pan. Peter Pan is magical boy who never wants to grow up. As a consequence of his refusal to mature, he becomes king of Neverland. Neverland does not exist, so being king of nothing is not all that helpful.
Why is Peter Pan magical? It is because children are full of potential. They can become anything. A lawyer, doctor, screenwriter, entrepreneur, or any other endeavor. However, the child is not anything but could be anything. As one matures, he or she sacrifices the potential of childhood to become an actual adult with a fixed identity.
The realization that one’s own potential is starting to run out-produces the sensation of great intrapsychic torment. When a person matures and adopts a fixed identity, there is a sense of constraint in a person’s middle age. Oh no! I have to be only a lawyer! What if my true calling is something else? I might be wasting my whole life and not even know it!
There is also anxiety as to whether a person is spending the limited time he or she has in the best possible way. There is also ambiguity as to whether a given individual is making the best of his or her fading potential. These concerns are associated with the Midlife Crisis that many people experience.
The reality of Sisyphus
The fundamental question is why to do anything. Doing nothing is easy. All one has to do is to stay idle. However, this strategy is not all that helpful (as no doubt many of you know) to overcome existential dread. There is a sense of guilt that comes with vegetating around the house doing nothing in particular.
What is surprising is that unpleasant emotions even arrive after the attainment of a valued goal. Everyone knows what that’s like. The day you graduate from university you are the king of the world. The next day, you are unemployed living with your parents. Dread creeps in. This emotional pattern occurs because the dopamine circuit associated with happiness only turns on when certain activities are directly related to progress towards a valued goal (Gray 2003).
This means that no forward progress, no positive emotion. There never comes a time when a person can just sit down and stay in permanent satiation. People are eternally dissatisfied in some way. There is also a great concern as to what things are intrinsically worth doing if mortality is inescapable and nothing accumulated can be taken past the grave.
Terrors of individualism and justifying your privilege to overcome existential dread
Despite the difficulties of life, people seem to feel this debt that they need to pay off for their existence. When you encounter someone less fortunate than you, you are forced to contemplate to what degree your fate is controlled by things outside of your control. Is my life going well because I deserve it or is it because I am fortunate? The recognition that one’s own good fortune can’t be fully attributed to oneself creates this need to justify one’s own privilege.
There is also the recognition of being a unique wonder. The probability that there will ever be another person that has exactly your experiences and attributes is zero. People feel this responsibility incumbent on them to make the most out of their unique presence because a creature such as them only pops up once. There is also the terror of knowing that no one will see the world exactly as you do or experience reality exactly as you do.
Understanding Meaning: An inoculation against nihilism
How might a modern person come to understand the meaning to overcome existential dread? The question about the meaning of life is a strange question. First, it is not a philosophical answer to a philosophical question. The question of the meaning of life has to do with how one should perceive and act in the world so the fact of suffering is justified. Suffering is not a philosophical construct. It is instead the sensation that is experienced. That is also the case for meaning.
Meaning is the experience that what one is doing is worthwhile. You no doubt have experienced this. Time seems to disappear. Mortality and finitude are completely irrelevant. Nothing is of contemplation except the current moment. To find meaning, it is worth doing the following activities:
1. Watch yourself the way you would watch a stranger. Don’t have any preconceptions about who you are or what you are like. Instead, watch yourself objectify for two weeks.
2. Notice those times when you are deeply engaged, and time seems to stop. The sensation normally disappears when it is noticed. Jot down (in a notebook or word doc) the times of day when the sensation of engagement was experienced. Also jot down what activities you were participating in. Be as accurate and precise as possible when describing the activity.
3. Practice staying in that state of engagement more and more often.
I hope this article will help you diagnose and overcome existential dread.
Gray, J. A. (2003). The neuropsychology of anxiety : an enquiry into the functions of the septo-hippocampal system. Oxford University Press.