Choose a Meaning Mindset

From nihilism to meaning.

Posted Jun 27, 2020

Challenging times call for new approaches. New approaches call for new mindsets. I recommend adopting a meaning mindset.

We are witnessing a growing pandemic of hopelessness. The seeds of this pandemic have been sown for many decades: rising unemployment, rising divorce rates; rising individual and societal financial debt; rising detachment from others; rising (and new) addictions; rising inability to handle the stresses of day to day living; rising anxiety and depression levels. Some of this hopelessness is in the open, while other aspects are hidden.

I have written before that the real crisis we are facing, both individually and collectively, is the crisis of meaning. When we don’t find meaning in our lives, we are left with a sense of emptiness or inner void which, in turn, can reinforce self-destructive thoughts and behaviors. If this existential angst is not addressed and is allowed to fester, it may result in having a nihilistic mindset.

The Meaning Difference

The Meaning Difference gauge ranges from empty (nihilistic mindset) to full (meaning mindset).

A nihilistic mindset is most concerning. From the root word, nihil, meaning nothing, this mindset encompasses feelings of meaninglessness where nothing in life, work, or society holds any meaning.

A nihilistic mindset may also lead to victimhood, blaming others for things that have gone wrong, or learned helplessness, giving up and waiting for others to fix the situation.

Once a person is caught in the cycle of nihilistic thoughts, they might experience confirmation bias, the tendency to only see and embrace information that reinforces their nihilistic viewpoints. Life then is seen as too much of a challenge so they simply give up.

This is especially troubling among our demoralized youth, many of whom have shared with me that they see no point in trying to improve their own lives since “The earth is only going to last another 10 years,” or “Others have all the power over the system so why bother doing anything.”

In recent times, we are witnessing evidence of more and more nihilistic mindsets that involve a complete rejection of traditional values and beliefs and, on a broader front, the belief that all conditions and institutions in society are so meaningless that they need to be deconstructed. These nihilists don’t care about the consequences of any destructive behavior since this behavior means nothing; the people they impact mean nothing; “nothing means nothing."

The sense that nothing matters to them is a true challenge for us to address. But as we know, we can only help those who want help. Many true nihilists don’t see the point in seeking help because it would mean nothing to them! (Of course, an opening to offer help does exist as we can try to identify something in their life that matters, that still drives them forward, even if they appear to be just enduring their day. Something must matter to them or they would not choose to go on living.)

Life is a search for meaning, not a submission to nihilism

As we begin to identify why we exist (macro-level) and identify situations, events, or people that represent some meaning to us (micro-level), we begin to fill our meaning tank, and the meaning gauge begins to move from empty toward full. We can move from feeling depressed and anxious about most aspects of our lives to feeling half and half—good about some aspects of our lives while perhaps only feeling anxious about a particular situation, such as a relationship or our employment status. Importantly, these measurements are subjective and individualistic. Each person has to determine meaning for themself, even if collective views about situations are shared.

Meaning is the energy or fuel that motivates us to achieve our full potential as human beings. We must keep track of our meaning fuel gauge on a regular basis to determine where we are in terms of our level of meaning: are we feeling more drained of energy (apathetic, bored, cynical) or full of energy (engaged, interested, fulfilled)? What and/or who is contributing to the level of fuel, energy, and meaning we are feeling?

To exist is to be someone. For many years, existential philosophers and psychologists have been debating whether or not we are free to discover our own meaning and to choose the conditions of our own existence. While some attributes of ourselves may be fixed and some situations unavoidable, I believe that we are always free to choose our attitudes towards any given situation. For further reading: Jean Paul Sartre (Being and Nothingness) and Viktor Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning) offer powerful insights on this topic.  

Nihilism is a choice. Meaning is a choice.

Our mindset defines who we are today and who we will become in the future. We must recognize that our mindset (our beliefs, opinions, feelings, and thoughts) becomes habitual. What we think now, we will continue to think tomorrow unless we make a conscious effort to add new information and choose a different direction to our thinking. Meaning requires us to become more conscious of how we are reacting to each situation, and whether we are actively thinking and reflecting on the situation or simply reacting on autopilot.

A positive side of the COVID-19 crisis and the broader meaning crisis is that people are now discussing the need for more meaning in their lives and work, and hopefully, will begin the process of discovering new sources of meaning by actively choosing a meaning mindset.

This post is the first in a series based on my upcoming book, The MEANINGology Mindset.