Do you ever lie awake at night agonising about being utterly forgotten once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil? Do you even matter? Do you feel so pressured to leave behind some semblance of a legacy that it’s making you miserable? Ever feel like your burning ambition is physically draining or making you ill?
These were all questions plaguing Melbourne-based Wendy Syfret, 31, who worked in media and couldn’t stop obsessing over what her life meant. Then she had an anxiety attack and decided to change the way she approached things.
Nihilism, the belief that life is meaningless, is not something we typically associate with millennials who have grown up in the age of the side hustle, the “be the change you want to see” #inspo and sometimes toxic #girlboss culture.
But for Syfret, the idea that life could have no point gave her the perspective she needed to become happy, and as we make our way wearily and warily into 2022, it could help you too.
She spent the next two years researching the philosophy of not caring and published a book, The Sunny Nihilist, with her findings in July 2021. It’s all about “mindful nihilism”, which is essentially a mindset that gives you the space to enjoy the simple moments in life available to you, like noticing a crisp autumn morning, rather than torturing yourself with thoughts of the dreams and goals you think you ought to be chasing.
“I was an example of all the things I say are destructive in the book,” she says. “I felt like I was going to pass out in the street as I felt so annihilated by this sense of what am I even doing? What is the point? Am I reaching my goals? And suddenly I had this moment of clarity out of nowhere: one day you’re going to be dead and no one is going to give a shit about any of this.”
Taking a wider perspective and looking at the bigger picture, say, by considering your job, income or relationship in the context of the universe, can be deeply “freeing”, she argues. “It makes you feel very small and, yes, that can be existentially terrifying but it also makes your problems feel very small.”
Society, Syfret believes, has commodified “meaningfulness” so much that our quest to live purposeful lives — think journalling each night about what we have achieved that day and manifesting each morning about what we want to achieve the next — is only leaving us all stressed out, unfulfilled and unhappy.
Once you see that it is everywhere, you can’t unsee it, she argues. “You’re listening to a podcast advert and they’re talking about family and value and it turns out to be for mortgage insurance. You’re at the pharmacy and a make-up brand tells you this mascara is a unique expression of your singular female power. In theory it seems like it’s rewarding but when everything is such a thing it makes everything exhausting”.
The consequence of having your sense of value “artificially inflated” in this way can be particularly toxic in today’s workplace, she warns. “A lot of those values traditionally offered to our parents, like having a secure job, being able to buy a house, have eroded for people like us (millennials).
“If an employer wants you to work a 50-hour week without the financial security that people in a pre-global financial crisis world would enjoy, that’s when this idea of meaning comes along. If you can’t quantify your time in an understandably valuable way, people start looking for this opaque sense of meaning in their work, otherwise you’re just confronted with the fact that you’re doing all of this and not really getting anything out of it.” This can muddy the water and skew the way you weigh up if in fact you’re actually satisfied with your job or whether you’re being fairly rewarded with what you’re owed.
Now Syfret, in a “much less stressful job in media”, believes the sunny nihilist in her is the key to her happiness. To those who find themselves lying awake at night agonising over their legacy, Syfret has sobering words: in years to come, “no one will remember you. No one will remember this day. The world will keep spinning.”
And that, she says, is a reason to be cheerful.
In her book she outlines how you too can practice being a sunny nihilist. Here are her top tips.
How to be a Sunny Nihilist by Wendy Syfret
In a relationship
Many of the stories we tell ourselves about relationships focus on the idea that true love is fated. But viewing love as preordained takes focus off the joy, luck and privilege of it. When I look at my partner, I don’t tell myself that the universe conspired to bring us together, I focus on the chaos.
It’s wild that we met at all. That we were both born within a few years of each other, ended up in the same city, in the same social circle, and happened to meet at a point in our lives when we had the emotional capacity to commit to another person. With that perspective, our ordinary, pleasant interactions don’t feel like destiny. They feel like the luckiest break of my life.
In the workplace
When evaluating jobs we tend to get lost in a haze of opaque “meaning”. Company mission statements offer purposely unclear claims that we’re “part of something” or “creating change.” But for the most part if you asked them to explain exactly what they meant, they couldn’t. They’re pressing meaning into jobs because they don’t want to address the value.
Meaning is made up. Value is real. It could be in the service a job’s doing for the wider community, skills it’s equipping you with, or simply your pay cheque.
Look at your job, ignore the meaning people are placing on it and focus on the value. Is that enough? Are you happy and satisfied with it? If yes, great! If not, don’t let any wafty conversations about meaning distract you from the fact you’re probably not actually getting what you’re owed.
In moments of high stress
When you feel overwhelmed by a situation, consider its impact in a month, a year, or (stick with me) when you’re dead and gone. In almost all cases, no one will remember it. It, like almost all things you do with your life, will have no impact on the wider world. In the larger scheme of things it’s meaningless. So, why are you worried about it?
Approached this way, nihilism makes you wonder about what you pay attention to. Is what another person thinks of you as meaningful (or meaningless) as a brush of jasmine tumbling over a neighbor’s fence? Not really. So why are you consumed by one while ignoring the other? Both are just an absurd sequence of random events, happening for no reason at all, that will exist briefly and then be gone. The only difference is one leaves you stressed, the other delivers a fleeting but pure moment of pleasure.
Enjoying the little things
Ideas of meaning and purpose exist on a huge scale, but they remove us from the value in the everyday. Instead of worrying about what it all “means” in the face of eternity ask: what if I only had today?
This wakes you up to the preciousness of pointless and forgettable moments. Next time you eat a delicious peach, stare at the face of someone you love, or laugh at a perfect joke, step back and consider the act as a sunny nihilist. Remind yourself that this instance exists for no reason, it is in many ways a cosmic mistake, a fluke. But one that you were lucky enough to come across. It will make a sweet, passing second feel like the greatest gift of your life. Which, of course, like all passing seconds that exist at random then dissolve forever, it is.
The Sunny Nihilist: How a meaningless life can make you truly happy (Profile books, £15.99)