Telling people you’re a nihilist isn’t exactly a conversation starter. When I bring it up, people make The Face: part grimace, part polite yet exhausted eyebrow raise. I don’t blame them. I get what that three syllable, surprisingly hard to spell word evokes. They’re thinking of ex-boyfriends with Nietzsche obsessions, Reddit rants, Tarantino characters. Nihilism has a brutal reputation, although I’d argue that it's misunderstood.
Nihilists (or at least the stereotype of them) believe that meaning, values and purpose don’t inherently exist. That they’re human constructs, which we willingly assemble to constrain and comfort ourselves. Systems around morality, decency and goodness are not somehow baked into the fabric of life and existence, as inherent as air or gravity. Rather they are simply ideas that we have chosen to etch into our collective reality.
Purpose and meaning are of course not inherently bad things. Foundational concepts of community, ethics, logic, morality, consciousness and equality were born from the investigation of them. The urge to wrestle with meaning has inspired great works of art, literature and film. A lot of the time, we’re better for it. But somewhere along the line this relationship to meaning began to mutate. That noble, deeply personal, perhaps lifelong quest began to feel more urgent and commodified. It’s not enough to try and locate purpose in love, family, work or religion (although, reader beware, those areas hold their own traps). Now we’re being asked to find meaning in everything we do. From our morning coffee to our weekend laundry load, each event or chore needs to be elevated into a clear-eyed statement about existence.
We wake up to push notifications from horoscope apps assigning us a cosmic narrative before we have a chance to turn off our alarms. Daily newsletters flood our inboxes, prescribing never-ending tasks and goals to meditate over and mark as complete. In the shower we listen to podcasts about making this day matter, then towel off and cram in a few minutes of mindful journalling about what we managed to meaningfully achieve the day before. When we exercise – a formerly (and pleasurably) mindless pursuit – we cue up playlists on slick apps designed to interrupt our solitude with a voice telling us what this exorcism of calories really means. How with every step we’re remaking ourselves and darting towards some unspecified new life that’s only another five kilometres away.
Today, our relationship to meaning is often more exhausting than rewarding. It’s become just another KPI to clock in the endless job of living life right.
For me, an acceptance of life’s meaninglessness doesn’t lead to existential angst and psychological annihilation. Instead, nihilism’s distrust of messages of purpose and systems of meaning encourages me to interrogate the forces that shape my life. It helps to dislodge my self-obsessive tendencies and presses me to ask: Why is the world like this? If I don’t matter, what does?
Nihilism reflects and feeds on our fears. But it also offers a warning about systems, the power they afford and the values they champion. It says that ideas of right and wrong, good and bad, fair and unjust are not fixed. They’re constructs we choose to accept – and therefore have the choice to reject.
That’s an interesting theory for millennials and Gen Z who grew up within a reality where the structures that were supposed to provide our lives with meaning, a sense of larger purpose and stability, and make us feel part of something, were in an open state of decay. Right now, institutions of government that once defined generational moral authority are fetid and fragile. The news is under attack and being reframed as an enemy, not a resource, of the people. Science is edged out by conspiracies and 'wellness'. Participation in organised religion is declining. And we’re realising that our conceptions of wealth and success are physically and mentally destroying us.
Add to all that the knowledge that for many of us, the preached markers of a meaningful life (a house, a steady, fair-paying job, the fantasy of retirement) are not only no longer available but may have contributed to a capitalistic institution of personalised greed and advancement that has crippled economies, bankrupted families and strangled the planet.
Dissecting all the ways millennials and Gen Z came up short in the generational lottery has become something of a blood sport. My friends and I pick over articles coolly explaining why we’re screwed with the grim satisfaction of peeling back a scab. But strangely, this undoubtedly nihilistic outlook, which is distrustful and dismissive of so many historical sources of meaning, hasn't led us to completely self-destruct. Instead it has served as fertile soil for one of the most socially engaged generations in recent memory. After all, when you accept that you’re hopeless, you’re prompted to look for something else to save.
When you accept that you’re hopeless, you’re prompted to look for something else to save.
For me, when I realise that many of the things I once wanted for myself are either now impossible or rely on my complying with a corrupt system that encourages me to exploit others, I’m pushed to look beyond myself. Personally, accepting the futility of my small life has led me to deepen my commitment to environmentalism. Understanding that the only constant (at least until it’s absorbed by the sun in a few billion years) is the Earth itself, its protection becomes more important than any singular interests of mine. I’m hardly alone in this collision of nihilism and climate activism.
It’s no surprise that the world has spent the past few years transfixed by Greta Thunberg. While most of us probably don’t relate to addressing the UN, we may see ourselves in her experience of existential dread. When she famously asked, "Why should any young person be made to study for a future when no one is doing enough to save that future?" she spoke to this aforementioned pervasive sense of nihilism. But she also has shown that it doesn’t need to be a destructive force.
In the memoir Our House Is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis – collectively authored by the Thunberg family – we witness how an existential crisis can serve as an unlikely catalyst for action. Greta’s first school strike, where she sat alone outside the Swedish parliament each Friday, didn’t come out of nowhere. It was a result of years of fraught domestic, mental and personal reckoning that saw all the members of the Thunberg family cycle through periods of intense emotional distress. After a while, Greta’s mother Malena began to question whether the problem lay with them or with the world at large. Maybe their anguish was a logical response to the climate emergency, and anyone managing to get up every day, eat a healthy breakfast and not collapse under the weight of their own fear was the one truly acting irrationally.
So often when we feel despair our instinct is to escape through the self-soothing comforts of personal purpose and meaning. We look for evidence that we matter, that it will be okay. The Thunbergs lent into their fear, using it as a motivator, and transferred the energy they had been pouring into attempts to feel better as individuals into fighting the larger planetary problem. Of course, this wasn’t a one-off event. Greta has gone on to inspire millions who not only felt disillusioned by the response to the climate crisis but had also lost grasp of the value of their lives in the face of it. They might not be able to save themselves but once they’d accepted that, they could focus on saving the planet instead.
A dissolution of individualism feels key to this current generation of activism. As systems that formerly offered meaning have eroded, people haven’t crumbled with them. And while vast numbers of us have watched our aspirations around employment, home ownership and financial security dim, we’ve taken the opportunity to challenge the status quo together, rather than attempt a last-chance grab for ourselves.
For those championing issues such as (but not limited to) racial justice, real climate solutions, the end of police violence, and investment in secure housing, priorities are firmly fixed on the populace over the individual. By challenging and dismantling existing structures that may in some cases personally serve us, we’re throwing away fantasies of our own importance to allow space for new ideas that reach further than our own front yards.
From that perspective, riding a bike, investing money in clean banks and retirement funds, voting against high-income tax breaks, attending protests over work, passing up jobs in well-paying but morally dubious industries and calling out sexism, racism and classism in private spaces are, in a way, acts of nihilism. Acts we partake in not because they make us happy but because we know our happiness alone ultimately doesn’t matter. If we are pointless, so are our selfish pursuits.
I’d encourage you to try the exercise for yourself. If you accept that you don’t matter, that your name, ego, reputation, family, friends and loves will soon be gone, how does the way you understand your own time, money and energy change? Maybe the process reframes your attention to things you hope will last for a little longer than yourself: nature, art, culture and causes you believe will benefit generations who’ve long forgotten your name. Or perhaps the question draws you back to that present moment: the small pleasures you can access today, the people you love, their right to feel safe, respected, well and heard.
A nihilist understands that things will probably not get better for us as individuals any time soon. They know the world is too broken to hope for a reasonable piece of it. But a new generation of nihilistic activists have shown the capacity this has to inspire action, not apathy. Because before you can be truly motivated to reimagine a new world, you have to totally lose faith in the old one.
Wendy Syfret is a Melbourne-based writer, editor and author of The Sunny Nihilist: How a Meaningless Life Can Make You Truly Happy and How to Think Like an Activist.