Strategies for dealing with emotional nihilism

I asked a ques­tion in the dis­cus­sion sec­tion a lit­tle bit ago and got very pro­duc­tive re­sponses. What fol­lows is mostly a para­phrase of peo­ple’s com­ments.

From time to time, like Pierre, I don’t care. I get emo­tion­ally nihilis­tic. I find my­self do­ing things that are morally awful in the con­ven­tional mean­ing of the word: pro­cras­ti­nat­ing, sneak­ing other peo­ple’s food out of the com­mu­nal fridge, be­ing ca­su­ally un­kind and un­helpful, break­ing promises. I don’t doubt that these are awful things to do. I figure any moral the­ory worth its salt will con­demn them—ex­cept the moral the­ory “I don’t care,” which some­times seems strangely com­pel­ling.

What I want to know is: what goes through peo­ple’s heads when they’re mo­ti­vated not to be awful? What could you tell some­one as a rea­son not to be awful? If you are, in fact, not awful, why aren’t you awful? What do you think, or feel, when you care about things? What would you tell some­one who claims “I just don’t care” if you wanted to get her to care? What would you tell your­self, in your nihilis­tic mo­ments?

The (more) triv­ial util­ity function

Nihilism feels like a util­ity func­tion where ev­ery­thing is set to the value zero. Land­ing that job offer or school ad­mis­sion let­ter? That’s worth noth­ing. Mak­ing some­one smile? Worth noth­ing. Be­ing in good phys­i­cal shape? Worth noth­ing. Liv­ing ac­cord­ing to moral val­ues? Worth noth­ing. Noth­ing is fun, or ap­peal­ing, or worth look­ing for­ward to.

The thing about a nihilis­tic mind­set is that you can’t re­ally ar­gue your way out of it (at least, I’ve never suc­ceeded.) It’s perfectly log­i­cally co­her­ent. A func­tion that’s con­stant at zero is still a func­tion. You can have a func­tion where all the best things in life, all the “peaks,” mat­ter much less to you.

Edit: Vladimir_Nesov com­ments that it’s not re­ally a zero util­ity func­tion be­cause even a nihilis­tic per­son doesn’t be­have to­tally at ran­dom, and can usu­ally keep up some min­i­mal de­gree of self main­te­nance. This is a fair point. It’s more ac­cu­rate to say that it feels like noth­ing mat­ters, or at least that the de­sire for goal-di­rected be­hav­ior is sig­nifi­cantly diminished. Maybe it’s not a flat func­tion, but a flat­ter func­tion, where the things you used to value the most seem empty.

Most of us aren’t in a nihilis­tic state all the time. But we can have days like that. Or weeks, or months, or years. (I had a year when I was al­most always in this state.) And un­til you snap out of it, you can do a lot of dam­age, to your ca­reer, your re­la­tion­ships, your body, and your moral val­ues. So how do you avoid all that?

Tac­tic 1: Get rid of the nihilism

Nihilism doesn’t feel good. You don’t have any pos­i­tive emo­tions. The SEEK switch is turned off in your brain. It’s re­ally in your in­ter­est to es­cape this flat util­ity func­tion.

So one thing you can do is to try to find a phys­iolog­i­cal switch. Take a nap, get some ex­er­cise, have some­thing to eat. I’ve also found that what you eat mat­ters: car­bo­hy­drates make me a bit more emo­tion­ally “down.” Some­times the phys­iolog­i­cal is enough. Some­times you need a cog­ni­tive switch: start do­ing some­thing ab­sorb­ing, like read­ing a book or watch­ing a movie or talk­ing to a per­son. Be­cause your mo­ti­va­tion is very low here, you don’t want to be am­bi­tious. Do some­thing that’s eas­ily available, or some­thing that’s already a habit. (I run enough on a reg­u­lar ba­sis that “go for a run” doesn’t take much more mo­ti­va­tion than “go to Sub­way and get a sand­wich”—but if you’re not a run­ner, then run­ning is a to­tally un­rea­son­able choice.)

Tac­tic 2: Plan for nihilism

If this has hap­pened to you be­fore, and you know it could hap­pen again, you need to an­ti­ci­pate and plan for those times when you can’t bring your­self to care about any­thing. First, you need to pre­pare by “stock­ing up” on things that tend to help you es­cape a nihilis­tic mood. Keep the right kind of food eas­ily available. Get ad­e­quate sleep over the long term. Make a habit of ex­er­cise (so that it’s available as an op­tion for you when you’re “down.”) Keep ab­sorb­ing ac­tivi­ties available: have books around you, and also have friends and so­cial com­mit­ments that you can’t eas­ily blow off.

The other way of plan­ning for nihilism is to have iron­clad rules and habits, so that you can do pretty much the right thing even when you’re not in a mood to care. Be­ing rigor­ous when you’re in a good mood should carry over some­what to when you’re feel­ing nihilis­tic. If you NEVER miss dead­lines or play hooky, force of habit will carry you through even in your bad times. If you NEVER steal or make hurt­ful re­marks, you’re less likely to start when you get in a foul mood. Think of it this way: even now, you prob­a­bly don’t do just any­thing when you feel nihilis­tic—it’s un­likely that you mur­der peo­ple, no mat­ter how bad you feel, be­cause that’s to­tally out­side your range of pos­si­bil­ities. If some­thing is to­tally out­side your range of pos­si­bil­ities, if you nor­mally never, ever do it, you’re not very likely to do it for the first time when you’re hav­ing a bad day. On the other hand, if some­thing is an oc­ca­sional vice of yours, you’re li­able to do a lot of it in bad times.

Tac­tic 3: Heuris­tics for es­cap­ing nihilis­tic thinking

Th­ese are things to re­mind your­self, or re­flect on, that seem to be short­cuts to mod­ify­ing your util­ity func­tion away from flat.

  • Em­pa­thy. “How will this ac­tion make other peo­ple feel?” When you think about this, you may find that you sud­denly care how other peo­ple feel.

  • Re­spect. “What would [per­son I re­spect] think of me for do­ing this?” You may find that you sud­denly care about earn­ing some­one’s re­spect.

  • The fu­ture. “Will I re­gret this later, af­ter I’ve snapped out of my nihilis­tic funk?” You may find that you care about pre­vent­ing harm­ful fu­ture con­se­quences.

  • Awe­some­ness. “Am I be­ing awe­some?” You may find that you want to be awe­some.

You may have your own heuris­tic—some­thing that re­li­ably makes you care more, some kind of trig­ger.

Tac­tic 4: Avoid “rock-bot­tom rit­u­als.”

This didn’t come up in dis­cus­sion, but it oc­curred to me in my own life. Some­times you have a “rock-bot­tom rit­ual,” some­thing you do when you start to feel ter­rible, that sort of ce­ments the feel­ing. It’s an offi­cial dec­la­ra­tion of nihilis­tic mis­ery. The pro­to­typ­i­cal ex­am­ple is drink­ing a lot. I don’t do that—I listen to Wag­ner and eat un­healthy food. You may have some­thing differ­ent. The prob­lem is, rock-bot­tom rit­u­als pro­long your nihilis­tic pe­ri­ods, when what you re­ally want is to shorten them. Say­ing “Ok, it’s time to break out the Jack Daniels” (or the Tannhauser and peanut but­ter) is just about the worst thing you can do for your­self.

Hope­fully this will help. I’m still try­ing to figure out how best to man­age emo­tional nihilism. It seems to be com­mon, but it also seems to be more of a prob­lem for some peo­ple than for oth­ers. I’d like to see any fur­ther con­tri­bu­tions from LessWrongers!