Existential Angst Factory

Fol­lowup to: The Mo­ral Void

A wide­spread ex­cuse for avoid­ing ra­tio­nal­ity is the wide­spread be­lief that it is “ra­tio­nal” to be­lieve life is mean­ingless, and thus suffer ex­is­ten­tial angst. This is one of the sec­ondary rea­sons why it is worth dis­cussing the na­ture of moral­ity. But it’s also worth at­tack­ing ex­is­ten­tial angst di­rectly.

I sus­pect that most ex­is­ten­tial angst is not re­ally ex­is­ten­tial. I think that most of what is la­beled “ex­is­ten­tial angst” comes from try­ing to solve the wrong prob­lem.

Let’s say you’re trapped in an un­satis­fy­ing re­la­tion­ship, so you’re un­happy. You con­sider go­ing on a skiing trip, or you ac­tu­ally go on a skiing trip, and you’re still un­happy. You eat some choco­late, but you’re still un­happy. You do some vol­un­teer work at a char­ity (or bet­ter yet, work the same hours pro­fes­sion­ally and donate the money, thus ap­ply­ing the Law of Com­par­a­tive Ad­van­tage) and you’re still un­happy be­cause you’re in an un­satis­fy­ing re­la­tion­ship.

So you say some­thing like: “Sk­iing is mean­ingless, choco­late is mean­ingless, char­ity is mean­ingless, life is doomed to be an end­less stream of woe.” And you blame this on the uni­verse be­ing a mere dance of atoms, empty of mean­ing. Not nec­es­sar­ily be­cause of some kind of sub­con­sciously de­liber­ate Freudian sub­sti­tu­tion to avoid ac­knowl­edg­ing your real prob­lem, but be­cause you’ve stopped hop­ing that your real prob­lem is solv­able. And so, as a sheer un­ex­plained back­ground fact, you ob­serve that you’re always un­happy.

Maybe you’re poor, and so always un­happy. Noth­ing you do solves your poverty, so it starts to seem like a uni­ver­sal back­ground fact, along with your un­hap­piness. So when you ob­serve that you’re always un­happy, you blame this on the uni­verse be­ing a mere dance of atoms. Not as some kind of Freudian sub­sti­tu­tion, but be­cause it has ceased to oc­cur to you that there does ex­ist some pos­si­ble state of af­fairs in which life is not painful.

What about rich heiresses with ev­ery­thing in the world available to buy, who still feel un­happy? Per­haps they can’t get them­selves into satis­fy­ing ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ships. One way or an­other, they don’t know how to use their money to cre­ate hap­piness—they lack the ex­per­tise in he­do­nic psy­chol­ogy and/​or self-aware­ness and/​or sim­ple com­pe­tence.

So they’re con­stantly un­happy—and they blame it on ex­is­ten­tial angst, be­cause they’ve already solved the only prob­lem they know how to solve. They already have enough money and they’ve already bought all the toys. Clearly, if there’s still a prob­lem, it’s be­cause life is mean­ingless.

If some­one who weighs 560 pounds suffers from “ex­is­ten­tial angst”, allegedly be­cause the uni­verse is a mere dance of par­ti­cles, then stom­ach re­duc­tion surgery might dras­ti­cally change their views of the meta­physics of moral­ity.

I’m not a fan of Ti­mothy Fer­ris, but The Four-Hour Work­week does make an in­ter­est­ing fun-the­o­retic ob­ser­va­tion:

Let’s as­sume we have 10 goals and we achieve them—what is the de­sired out­come that makes all the effort worth­while? The most com­mon re­sponse is what I also would have sug­gested five years ago: hap­piness. I no longer be­lieve this is a good an­swer. Hap­piness can be bought with a bot­tle of wine and has be­come am­bigu­ous through overuse. There is a more pre­cise al­ter­na­tive that re­flects what I be­lieve the ac­tual ob­jec­tive is.

Bear with me. What is the op­po­site of hap­piness? Sad­ness? No. Just as love and hate are two sides of the same coin, so are hap­piness and sad­ness. Cry­ing out of hap­piness is a perfect illus­tra­tion of this. The op­po­site of love is in­differ­ence, and the op­po­site of hap­piness is—here’s the clincher—bore­dom.

Ex­cite­ment is the more prac­ti­cal syn­onym for hap­piness, and it is pre­cisely what you should strive to chase. It is the cure-all. When peo­ple sug­gest you fol­low your “pas­sion” or your “bliss,” I pro­pose that they are, in fact, refer­ring to the same sin­gu­lar con­cept: ex­cite­ment.

This brings us full cir­cle. The ques­tion you should be ask­ing isn’t “What do I want?” or “What are my goals?” but “What would ex­cite me?”

Re­mem­ber—bore­dom is the en­emy, not some ab­stract “failure.”

Liv­ing like a mil­lion­aire re­quires do­ing in­ter­est­ing things and not just own­ing en­vi­able things.

I don’t en­dorse all of the above, of course. But note the Solv­ingTheWrongProb­lem anti-pat­tern Fer­ris de­scribes. It was on read­ing the above that I first gen­er­al­ized Ex­is­ten­tialAngstFac­tory.

Now, if some­one is in a un­prob­le­matic, lov­ing re­la­tion­ship; and they have enough money; and no ma­jor health prob­lems; and they’re signed up for cry­on­ics so death is not ap­proach­ing in­ex­orably; and they’re do­ing ex­cit­ing work that they en­joy; and they be­lieve they’re hav­ing a pos­i­tive effect on the world...

...and they’re still un­happy be­cause it seems to them that the uni­verse is a mere dance of atoms empty of mean­ing, then we may have a le­gi­t­i­mate prob­lem here. One that, per­haps, can only be re­solved by a very long dis­cus­sion of the na­ture of moral­ity and how it fits into a re­duc­tion­ist uni­verse.

But, mostly, I sus­pect that when peo­ple com­plain about the empty mean­ingless void, it is be­cause they have at least one prob­lem that they aren’t think­ing about solv­ing—per­haps be­cause they never iden­ti­fied it. Be­ing able to iden­tify your own prob­lems is a feat of ra­tio­nal­ity that schools don’t ex­plic­itly train you to perform. And they haven’t even been told that an un-fo­cused-on prob­lem might be the source of their “ex­is­ten­tial angst”—they’ve just been told to blame it on ex­is­ten­tial angst.

That’s the other rea­son it might be helpful to un­der­stand the na­ture of moral­ity—even if it just adds up to moral nor­mal­ity—be­cause it tells you that if you’re con­stantly un­happy, it’s not be­cause the uni­verse is empty of mean­ing.

Or maybe be­liev­ing the uni­verse is a “mere dance of par­ti­cles” is one more fac­tor con­tribut­ing to hu­man un­hap­piness; in which case, again, peo­ple can benefit from elimi­nat­ing that fac­tor.

If it seems to you like noth­ing you do makes you happy, and you can’t even imag­ine what would make you happy, it’s not be­cause the uni­verse is made of par­ti­cle fields. It’s be­cause you’re still solv­ing the wrong prob­lem. Keep search­ing, un­til you find the vi­su­al­iz­able state of af­fairs in which the ex­is­ten­tial angst seems like it should go away—that might (or might not) tell you the real prob­lem; but at least, don’t blame it on re­duc­tion­ism.

Added: Sev­eral com­menters pointed out that ran­dom acts of brain chem­istry may also be re­spon­si­ble for de­pres­sion, even if your life is oth­er­wise fine. As far as I know, this is true. But, once again, it won’t help to mis­take that ran­dom act of brain chem­istry as be­ing about ex­is­ten­tial is­sues; that might pre­vent you from try­ing neu­rophar­ma­ceu­ti­cal in­ter­ven­tions.

Part of The Me­taethics Sequence

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