The Crisis of Meaning: The Roots of Our Nihilistic Culture

Nothing we do matters. There is no hope for the future. These kinds of thoughts are especially common among Generation Z. Studies from the last decade show drastically increased rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidality. Concerns about the cost of living, climate change, and other issues weigh far more heavily on us than other generations, to the point of hopelessness. We are suffering a crisis of meaning.

The pessimism that reigns over Generation Z and so many others transcends the individual to become a cultural nihilism. People feel that there is no hope with regard to politics, discrimination, and other broader societal issues. Increasingly, voices in the media and our communities call us to activism and responsibility in order to face these problems, but the message is polluted with resignation and despair. Some suggest this is realism; hopelessness is the result of our increased understanding of the state of the world today. But if there is a chance that seeking justice, peace, and harmony justifies our lives and actualizes meaning, we need to reject this nihilism. 

It would be naive to hope I could shed significant light on the question of how to live a meaningful life. Instead, I hope to point out prevalent societal beliefs, ideas, and behaviors that may sabotage our conception of meaning. When we think of what gives us meaning, certain parts of our lives come to mind: our relationships, vocations, achievements, activities, our contributions to society, our battles against suffering. Engaging with behaviors and beliefs that tear at these experiences will help us discover where society may go wrong when it comes to what gives us meaning.

To recognize where the damage to our sense of meaning comes from, it is important to notice the nihilistic philosophies that underlie many of our cultural attitudes. These ways of thinking are apparent in some popular phrases and cliches. A recent TikTok trend encouraged users to lend cosmic perspective to stressful or painful aspects of their lives with the hashtag “floatingrock.” This idea is that nothing matters because we are all just “random creatures” on “a rock floating in space”. People found that viewing their problems in the context of this bigger picture allowed them to take the harder realities of life less seriously. The underlying philosophy is a subjectivist view that nothing matters unless you feel like it matters. Therefore, if you can convince yourself it doesn’t matter – it just doesn’t. 

Although this line of thinking may be useful when dismissing hateful judgments from others, it seems patently false when applied in other areas of life. If you stopped believing activism against racial discrimination matters, would that mean it no longer matters? 

This belief that nothing matters becomes even more problematic when you combine it with other nihilistic philosophies that have permeated our culture. Another popular concept is that humans only do things to fulfill biological and psychological needs, so we lack control over our actions; a person who spends their life serving others and a person who spends their life stealing are simply doing what they are wired to do. There is also an adoption of a “you-do-you” attitude that unconditionally affirms others’ beliefs and actions. Such beliefs are popular antidotes for dismissing criticisms, but don’t reflect how we view humanitarian aid, charity, anti-racism, and climate activism. These are largely considered crucial moral domains and people are quick to condemn those who do not agree. But according to our nihilistic cultural philosophy, we cannot control what they are wired to think and do. Additionally, we ought to unconditionally tolerate and encourage others’ beliefs. If we are rationally coherent, we would accept that we cannot make such moral judgments or claims about what is important; if it’s not important to others, it doesn’t matter to them and we should affirm their beliefs. The societal attitudes we perpetuate are devaluing what matters to us. Why do we allow it?

A plausible answer is that we don’t fully understand the ideas we regularly consume and adopt, and we don’t care. We let companies track our online information, knowing that they will sell us messages and products that we do not want. Algorithms feed us materialistic and superficial messaging because we are susceptible to idealized images and ideas. We even watch content we don’t enjoy because it feeds our dopamine addiction. This is how the roots of nihilistic philosophies, hidden in online trends and monetized advertisements, creep into our subconscious. The consequence is that we repeat, agree to, and supply nihilistic worldviews. When our lives get difficult and painful, it is often because we are faced with events in our lives that truly matter. It feels convenient to shy away from pain, so we pretend things don’t matter.

Imagine what life would look like if we were more intentional about how we approach hard realities. Are we just cells on a floating rock, or are we avoiding the things that matter? When we give advice to a friend making a crucial decision, is “you do you” an answer, or should we consider being more honest? Maybe some of our current cultural attitudes are causing us to forget: that much of what we do and say does matter.