On optimistic nihilism

I grew up in a deeply religious family in India. For most of my early life, I didn’t really question any of the traditions I participated in or the dogmas I took for granted. With exposure to new ideas and a desire to think more independently in my late teens and early twenties, I became disillusioned with religious ideas.

Although I lost my interest in organized religion, I retained an interest in secular solutions to some of life’s biggest questions, including “what is the meaning of life?”

I’m not alone in this quest to figure out the meaning of life, of course. For better or worse, human beings are creatures that seek meaning. There have been many proposed solutions to this and other related questions over thousands of years, each incomplete in some way. They include everything from the amusing take in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to the solemn experiences described in Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.

With my rather limited perspective, there’s one idea I like in particular, optimistic nihilism. I first heard about it in this Kurzgesagt video:

This philosophy states that the universe has no ultimate meaning or purpose (the nihilism part), but that we as individuals get to dictate what meaning is for each of us (the optimistic part). We can explore ourselves and the world. We get to experience things. Thinking about the meaning of life from this perspective can be liberating. We get to find our own answers, create our own paths, and figure out what matters to us in a self-actualizing way.

Some have taken this to suggest that the philosophy of optimistic nihilism advocates for the mindless pursuit of hedonism without considering the needs of others, which seems like a rather unfavorable misrepresentation. My view is that optimistic nihilism simply frees us from the search for cosmic meaning so we can focus on ourselves, the people we care about, and humanity at large.

It’s certainly not the ultimate answer to some ultimate question, but for me, it’s a useful reminder to take life a little less seriously every time I’m faced with existential dread. And that perhaps “what is the meaning of life?” is the wrong question.