Existentialism, believing the world is absurd and no meaning can be found in it, usually carries a negative connotation. People when faced with challenges in their life which rock their beliefs in life have a tendency to think life is meaningless, that every thing is vanity and striving after the wind, as phrased in Ecclesiastes. They go around sharing their existential thoughts while in a depressed state of mind. This causes others to associate existential ideas with a negative frame of mind. I do think existentialism has a more positive interpretation, often over looked, that I will try to share with you to help ease any existential angst you may be feeling.
I think a main cause of the negative interpretation of existential thought is from its clash with religious teachings. Religions preach judgement and an afterlife give significance to our actions which clashes with existentialists. Generally it is believed that service in the name of god gives life meaning and value. However this is just moving the problem by a step though. Suppose there is an all powerful god who created the world as he pleased. That reduces everything we know akin to a fantasy of this god. This god we would rely on for meaning can not find much meaning for himself outside that of which he constructed, an all powerful god still faces the same existential problem as we do. Religion might let us ignore existential questions, but it does not eliminate them. There is a school of thought termed Christian existentialism, but I won’t be delving into that.
A common feature of existential thought is that when you die that is it. No afterlife, no reincarnation, just nothingness. If you naively imagine being stuck in a silent dark room forever this is a scary prospect, however this probably won’t be the case. There is no you after you die so there is no one to observe this nothingness, it is a non-experience. Fear of this suggests a self-centered world view. When someone dies the world at large continues to turn and the vast majority of people carry on with their lives like nothing happened. We can not be conscious of the fact we are dead and the world will continue to exist like it always has. Just because we might not live forever is no cause for despair. When you die nothing will happen in the world, your friends and family will be sad for a bit, but even their routine will (hopefully) go on being more or less the same. The world at large will remain essentially the same after your death. Indeed, people have died all the time throughout history, we have no reason to believe the world will somehow vanish if we are not here to observe it. We can expect there to be nothingness, from our perspective, after we die, but we can not expect that to imply there will be nothing after our death. A death does not affect the constantly changing nature of this world. Existentialists do not hope for an after life.
Meaning is an abstract concept. It is absurd to think we will find it outside the human mind. Meaning is an agreement between two or more people to interpret a signal in an agreed upon convention, often in an implicit way. For example, if you do not know the conventions used to interpret English symbols, these words would be devoid of meaning for you. Likewise, since our intelligence can not come to an agreement of terms with inanimate objects, why would you expect to find “meaning” in the universe at large?
Meaning is a practical consideration of language, not something to make our hopes and dreams depend upon. The desire for our actions to mean something is a symptom of overthinking. “Everything is meaningless” might be an effective phrase to convey emotion, but should not make us view existentialism in a negative light. The connotation is from the emotional state the speaker makes us feel when they say it, not the idea itself.
Being unable to find greater meaning in our lives can be a chance to rejoice as much as it leads to despair. We should not feel the responsibility to uncover a particular truth and live by that. The lack of external meaning to be had gives us permission to enjoy the silly, nonsensical moments in life freely. If there is no external meaning that means we are free to apply our own sense of meaning to our lives. Often we will find this to be an irrational feeling of joy that can not be pinned down by words. Meaning can not be found by intellectualizing, it is found in our body as ephemeral feelings.
If you want to read an evolutionary argument for this disconnect between our rational senses and emotions I refer you to my Elephant and the Rider Analogy
Existentialism is freedom. However most people are initiated into existentialism when they are at a low point in their lives. This is completely understandable though, if you are happy with your life you aren’t going to adopt a different thinking pattern. For example if you are a Christian and find meaning in your life from scripture you aren’t going to change your point of view until you become unhappy with your life. A happy person will stick with their point of view since its working for them. It is when they lose a loved one or are facing the prospect of their own death that they begin to think existentially naturally. Existential thought arises naturally in people when what they valued is ripped away from them. Thus it should come as no surprise that existentialism picks up a negative connotation.
Existential thought requires an abolishment of all intellectual value systems, which many people are heavily invested in. People have made all their life choices based on intellectual judgement. To lose that can be disorienting, leading to what is termed an existential crises. A person who is going through an existential crises will feel despair, having their world view ripped from them. They will resort to indulging their sensuality recklessly. Usually they turn to alcohol, drugs and promiscuity, which usually exacerbates the problem. This does give a clue how to deal with existential angst. They crave things that feel good, however irrational they may be. Unfortunately hangovers feel bad, comedowns and cravings suck, and multiple sexual partners bring inevitable drama and stress into our lives. The good feelings these activities bring often come with even greater negative feelings. Partaking in these self-destructive behaviors provides temporary relief from existential angst, but once they are done leave the partaker in a worse state than before, creating a tragic cycle.
I have no issue with these fun things but I would advice against them for dealing with existential issues. They are for when you are in a positive state of mind and can enjoy the experience for what it is, not as a method of coping. The lesson to learn is that when someone can no longer rationalize their lives with a value they turn to living by their emotions.
Most people are conditioned to do productive activities for the perceived benefits and not for they joy of the activity itself. Typically people do not study because they like studying, but because they want good grades that will lead to a good job. People do not go to the gym because they like working out, but because they want to look good. When they go through an existential crises they no longer have a value system to find motivation for productive activities. Having a good job or bad job is the same, being in shape or out of shape is the same, it is all vanity to them. Through their life they learned to perform productive activities based on their perceived future value. The loss of a value system for these people coincides with a loss of motivation to engage in these activities. They then turn to activities that provide no rational benefit resulting in self-destructive behavior.
The key to dealing with an existential crises involves participation in productive activities for their own sake. This can be difficult however, since making choices based on perceived benefit for years weakens the ability to feel the intrinsic benefit of productive activities. If you’ve always thought of going to the gym as a painful experience that you only did to look good it is hard to decide that going to the gym is fun all of a sudden. One must find activities they enjoy not for some future benefit, but for their own sake. These will be different for every person. The only way to find out enjoyable activities is to try out different things and meet new people.
A good way of thinking about your emotions is like an eco-system, and a key to a healthy eco-system is diversity and the absence of pollutants. Not only do we need multiple sources of positive emotions we also need to keep out negative elements. These may take the form toxic relationships, self-destructive behavior, and negative thought patterns. As much as we need to find enjoyable activities we also have to minimize harmful activities. It is almost impossible to cut out a habit if you do not replace it with something else. For every bad friend you cut out you will probably need to find a new one. For every bad habit you cut out you will need to create a good one. Eliminating negative patterns is the other side of creating positive patterns.
The beauty of existentialism lies when it is viewed with a positive emotional state. It is not so much that life is meaningless but rather we can not grasp it. We are no longer restricted by abstract notions, but are free to trust our intuition. Existentialism helps us get out of our heads and into our bodies. It allows us to be free from anxieties about the future and to be present to the moment. People are brought into existential thinking due to a loss. If they learn to recover and accept that loss they can take on a new and beautiful way to view the transient world. If they long for how things used to be however they can be consumed with self-destructive behavior and become miserable people.
I feel knowledge of these philosophical ideas can be extremely useful when faced with emotional hardships. At the very least, when you are questioning the point of existence you will know many other people have had the same questions. Perhaps life is nothing more than vanity and striving after the wind, but striving after the wind can be a lot of fun if we don’t take ourselves too seriously.