Framing purpose as a mood

Small doses of existential dread can be valuable: occasionally questioning the value of your deeds and goals is certainly essential in coming up with things that are endorseable and good, and wondering about your place in the universe is apparently an endless source of mediocre newbie poetry and other precious aesthetic endeavours of humanity.
Excessive amounts of this type of self-doubt and focus on one’s global & cosmic insignificance etc etc etc seem, however, to be both common among and absolutely destructive to a certain set of people. This is frequently a symptom of depression; from the inside, though, it instead looks like the genuine cause of said depression, which easily makes one worry about the wrong issue (incidentally also one it’s impossible to solve): here I am, having a reasonable and inevitable emotional response to metaphysical truths I should but can’t ever change, and this response is destroying my ability to find motivation or joy in anything and there is nothing I can do about it.

But the emotional response is neither reasonable or inevitable. Most non-depressed people probably hold the same set of beliefs about the world and their own purposelessness. In a world where no deity has, apparently, devised a great cosmic plan where everyone is crucially important and no one is replaceable, it’s common sense and common knowledge that there exists a large, cosmic scale on which none of us means a thing.
This means that unlike the feeling of fear upon encountering a snake, the feeling that everything you do is pretty insignificant actually holds no profound revelations for your executive functions to act upon. You already know it on all of the useful levels: it’s possible and sufficient to just know it, accept it, and move on without viscerally sensing any of it, like most non-depressed people automatically do. The only way the meaninglessness of everything can hurt anyone or do any damage at all is by making people feel bad about it.
I’m absolutely not saying it’s trivial to stop feeling the existential blues (“have you considered cheering up and not being depressed?”) – I’m trying to say that when paralyzed and profoundly unhappified by a sense of all-consuming lack of purpose, it’s wrong (but, unfortunately, extremely tempting) to conclude that the only solution to the problem would be, indeed impossibly, fixing the lack of purpose itself by becoming practically God. Fixing your mood may not be easy or simple either, but unlike the alternative, it’s worth focusing on because it’s possible – and also totally enough.

At some points in my life, I have felt pretty bad about this stuff: whether I can achieve anything actually important, whether I’m wasting potential or just lacking it in the first place, why strive to find things that matter when everything I end up doing could probably be done equally well by someone else, why even bother with anything at all when I’m like half the age of Elon Musk already and apparently not about to launch a single Mars-conquering startup in the foreseeable future.

At other points in my life, like now, I have felt totally OK with all that or generally just not given it a lot of thought because all of it is both trivial and pretty irrelevant, and simply been satisfied with and motivated to do my best to improve myself and subsequently the world in whatever ways I can.

As far as I know, this shift in my mood has never been caused by external factors, such as me occasionally becoming an all-powerful entity capable of creating and ruling heaps of Guaranteed Actually Important Meaningtronium all around the universe. My beliefs about factual matters – how meaningless everything I can hope to accomplish will be on the timescale of human history, for example – have never dramatically changed. It’s just that sometimes I feel really really bad about it, and sometimes it doesn’t bother me at all, on the emotional level.
The feeling of meaninglessness doesn’t really correspond to or inform me about anything relevant in the world: it is a response arbitrarily created by my occasionally depression-prone human brain, which then again is often also influenced by arbitrary things that tend to produce the sense of meaningfulness in human brains, such as social belonging & status and various fundamentally silly accomplishments that lead to positive feedback. You could have entire quasars full of Guaranteed Actually Important Meaningtronium to personally protect and push around the universe with a cosmic bulldozer and still feel like crap as long as you didn’t have a rewarding social environment, sufficient amounts of sunlight and nutrients, maybe a crush who likes your super cute cosmic bulldozer selfie on Facebook, or just generally the right combination of genetics and magic to support functional neurophysiological conditions. Meaning in the sense of one’s objective impact in the surrounding world can be measured and investigated in far mode, but the feeling of meaningfulness and purpose is definitely a near-mode thing.

It’s important to note that seeking to abandon the feeling of meaninglessness, even though it basically matches an important aspect of reality, isn’t an error in rational reasoning or in forming appropriate mental states. It’s true that your beliefs need to match reality as close as possible, if you want to make a lot of sense of anything. But even though beliefs (or aliefs, their intuitive & implicit counterpart) certainly form a significant component of any given mood or emotion, moods and emotions are not just compressed beliefs, with unambiguous truth values: they are a weird mix of beliefs and motivations compressed into subjective experience chunks to be acted upon by your wildly inaccurate, overall handwavey cognitive system 1 – which rarely is a reliable source of information about what you should fundamentally care about, seeing as it mostly wants to invest everything in avoiding threaths that no longer exist while impressing a lot of cute people, and apparently gets frustrated and dysfunctional when it can’t.
This means that the intensity of your moods and emotions can, without sacrificing intellectual honesty, be tuned to match only those aspects of your beliefs that can actually help with the things you need to do, (even if it’s currently just surviving as a functional human being). The appropriate amount of sadness about believing that everything you do is meaningless on a large enough scale, and that there are always going to be people more accomplished than you, is usually pretty close to 0.

In conclusion, the correct response to existential depression is not helplessly trying to find a way around fundamental features of existence: the correct response is alleviating the underlying depression in ways that probably have nothing to do with finding a deep and well-grounded purpose on the cosmic or even global scale. It may feel like a different, overwhelming and hopeless kind of depression because it seems to have such convincing reasons, and the reasons are sort of based on a true story even when assessed rationally, but it will almost certainly respond to the same things all other forms of depression respond to. No part of solving this problem requires anyone to do anything impossible, such as changing the underlying philosophical realities of everything. Changing one’s mood is a complete solution, because the sense of meaning will follow.


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