There has to be more than this
June 9, 2014 6:31 PM   Subscribe

I periodically get overcome by a feeling of what I can only describe as existential angst. Almost as if I can see life stretching in front of me and it's just more of the same: the daily grind of work, housework, weekends that are never long enough. Never feeling like I've achieved enough or done all the things I should, but also feeling like there's never enough time for it all. And what's the point anyway? Not in a "life is so meaningless I wish I was dead" kind of way, but just this nagging feeling that there's supposed to be something more than this.

Yes, I am depressed. I take medication and see a psychologist and generally maintain a more-or-less even keel. I am an introvert and my job involves a lot of working with people, which taps out my energy, so volunteering in a way that involves more working with people isn't likely to help. And yet solitary activities that please only myself seem so pointless, and despite my introversion I'm a reasonably sociable person so finding a cave and being a hermit isn't a good idea either.

What am I missing? No kids but don't want them. No partner and I think I might like one, but it's unlikely to happen. Besides, I've had this feeling whether partnered or not so I don't think another person is going to fill this hole. Not particularly religious, though Buddhism is moderately appealing. I don't think it's a lasting source of consolation or meaning for me.

I guess this is one of the ultimate questions that humanity has always struggled to answer and I don't really expect MeFites to have The Answer (which is 42, anyway). But do you have any suggestions for life hacks to get through times of existential angst, or new ways of looking at the routines and patterns of life to imbue them with more meaning?
posted by Athanassiel to Grab Bag (39 answers total) 138 users marked this as a favorite
I watch a shit ton of Netflix to make it go away. While I'm doing that, I knit or sew or something. I'm trying to learn to paint and play some musical things. I try to write, because I think I could be good at it. Maybe, one day, these are the things I'll leave behind to answer all the questions.

But seriously. If you're like me, the navel-gazing waxes and wanes -- power through something like the X-Files to distract yourself through it.

Maybe you could change jobs (I know, it's not that easy) or volunteer with animals, like dog walking at the Humane Society, or have a friend join you and volunteer as a two-person team at a food bank. I used to drive around in a big truck and pick up old bread with an ex; just the two of us, so it wasn't too people intensive.

Find things you like and can obsess about, then do those things until you start to obsess about something else. This path leads to half-finished projects all around the house, but it's really better than sitting in silence and wondering, "why?"
posted by mibo at 6:36 PM on June 9, 2014 [8 favorites]

A question for you to consider:

solitary activities that please only myself seem so pointless....

Why do you consider self-pleasure to be "pointless"? Isn't pleasing yourself, restoring your pleasure, making a more relaxing mood for yourself, a good goal? Why do you not consider that to be sufficient?

If you think you need help to get to the point where you can consider self-care a good enough goal in and of itself:

Imagine that you're a well, and the interactions you have with people over the course of a day all take water out of that well - and you're dry at the end of the day. You'd agree that you'd have to put more water back into the well in order for other people to be able to draw water out again, yes?

The solitary activities that please you is how that water gets back into that well. It is how you nurture your own self and restore your own strength so you are then able to afterward have the strength to do more outward-facing activities.

Solitary activities that please you are very important. And I understand that you're seeing a therapist, but that was something that jumped out at me that you may wish to examine.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:39 PM on June 9, 2014 [7 favorites]

Best answer: You're hungering to create something not just useful, but beautiful. Figure out what expressive activity is fun for you, and then play hard at the task of creation.
posted by shivohum at 6:42 PM on June 9, 2014 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Because Buddhism is somewhat appealing, I would recommend meditation, specifically insight mediation. While Buddhism is not insight meditation, the Buddhists have been doing meditation for a long time and are a good way to learn about it.

Meditation is the ultimate "pointless" exercise. You sit and focus on your breath, which was going to happen anyway, and notice your thoughts. It can be done anywhere and solo, which is good for the introvert. It allows you the insight to, as you say "see the patterns and routines of life" with new meaning. It can also be as non-religious and non-Buddhistic as you prefer.
posted by acheekymonkey at 7:01 PM on June 9, 2014 [10 favorites]

You're hungering to create something not just useful, but beautiful. Figure out what expressive activity is fun for you, and then play hard at the task of creation.

Seconding this. For me it's drawing because it doesn't involve any words (I spend all day with words so journaling/creative writing is not at all relaxing for me), but YMMV. Also: regular exercise and having some nice houseplants.
posted by oinopaponton at 7:02 PM on June 9, 2014

Do you like animals? I think for a lot of people it helps to take care of another living thing, and pets can have a calming and cheering influence. Could you take care of a cat?
posted by CheeseLouise at 7:05 PM on June 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Another perspective on this, too -

Consider that every single person you meet is having this exact same struggle, that exact same feeling of "is this all their is," consciously or subconsciously - all around you, and are all still getting up and going to work and going home and taking care of kids and what not.

I don't mean to have you think about that as any kind of "oh great, they're all doing okay and fine with this, how come I'm not" kind of thing. Because I guarantee they're actually not fine with that. They, just like you, are going through all of the same thing in their own ways - and you, just like them, are finding your own way through this all, and you, just like them, are actually strong in your ability to get up and go to work and go home and do things at all in the face of that.

And that's not depressing - that is noble. Every single person you see, all around you, every day, is struggling with just as much stuff - different stuff, but they're struggling. And they're still able to get up and do it in the morning as opposed to curling up and saying "I give up on all of this." Just like you are too. And that is strong.

There's a great song by INXS that sums that up. Have a listen.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:09 PM on June 9, 2014 [12 favorites]

Response by poster: Extra info: no pets at the moment as my cat died earlier this year and I'm not quite ready to have another just yet. Have been taking care of a friend's bunny temporarily and it's been good, so I think another pet will definitely come in time.
posted by Athanassiel at 7:15 PM on June 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

I often think (but in a matter-of-fact, not sad kind of way) that life is basically routine boringness punctuated by brief periods of happiness. But those bits of happiness are worth putting up with the grind to get to.

So try to always have something to look forward to. This can be as simple as deciding to give yourself a night off to just curl up in front of the tv and eat popcorn and ice cream. Or plan a nice dinner with friends. Or a walk around a nice park. Or a big holiday! Whatever works for you. And then just enjoy it in the moment. That part might be easier said than done, but try to anyway. Be mindful.

You mention that you haven't done everything you want to in life. Is there anything that is still attainable, that you could make concrete goals towards?

Also nthing the advice to create. I don't know what your creativity level is like - if it's low like mine then knit or crochet something following a pattern.
posted by pianissimo at 7:16 PM on June 9, 2014 [7 favorites]

You can try travelling if that's an option for you. Seeing how different people around the world live, and so on.
posted by empath at 7:18 PM on June 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

I periodically get overcome by a feeling of what I can only describe as existential angst.

I advise accepting those feelings as the price of life. We all have them.

My specific advice is this: when you have this feeling, really, really feel it. Allow the toughest parts of it, the despair and fear to wash over you. You have to feel these feelings because that's what it means to be human. So feel them and let them pass.

Then get on with your life.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:27 PM on June 9, 2014 [18 favorites]

Recently my brother and I were having a conversation about Life and Things and I interrupted myself to say, "wait, just so I'm sure we're on the same page - life is basically making up shit to do until you die, right?" And he agreed. We're both mostly normal people, and that knowledge just sort of dances in the back of our heads all day. I think it does for a lot of people.

So when that knowledge becomes too loud, I go for a walk. A slow walk, alone, without a podcast or song on, so that I can actually look around and *see* things. Or I take a bath, with a glass of wine and some candles and nice things. Or I invite some friends (or one friend! Or no one!) over to cook a meal together. Basically something to pivot away from those edge-of-the-abyss feelings.

A more long term project might be helpful too. I started running and playing the violin just to get away from that feeling, just to have an overarching goal. My work life might be a hamster wheel, but slowly I'm getting better and faster.

Growing plants is nice, too. It doesn't change anything but it's nice to have the green things around.
posted by punchtothehead at 7:31 PM on June 9, 2014 [13 favorites]

Have you investigated existentialism? I think Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus has some "answers"--after all, this sort of "existential angst" (Camus calls it the absurd, Sartre calls it nausea) is exactly what their flavor of philosophy is aiming to deal with.

Maybe even better, read Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. Also existentialism, but ends with a foray into individual psychology and is very intentionally an attempt to deal with just these feelings.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:34 PM on June 9, 2014 [8 favorites]

A type of volunteering that might work for you in the quest for meaning in life is board service. I also lean introvert, and when I volunteered for organizations where my work was to interface with large groups or the public, I burned out quickly. Board service is different, though. You work with a smaller group, and in my experience, the majority of the work is discussion in the group setting, which leads to work that you do on your own or in committee between board meetings. The fundraising expectation of board members might be something you want to check out, though, because that can vary from organization to organization.

I joined the boards of two organizations whose missions were things I really wanted to see in the world, and thus the work I did (and still do) meant a great deal to me - in my case, advocating for cooperatives. So far, by working with my fellow board members, I've started the local food coop, gotten some state legislation passed that makes it easier to develop coops of all kinds, and helped about 13 groups incubate their own new cooperative projects. This is real stuff that is a benefit to real people, and I'm honored to have been a part of helping these things come to fruition because I believe in this model so much. Taking action to make the world the kind of place I think it should be was the meaning I was looking for.
posted by deliciae at 7:51 PM on June 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

You need to find some way out of the grind, and try to make progress every day towards that goal. For me it is becoming independently wealthy, for others it might be quitting their job and living on a farm or becoming an artist. Whatever it is, you must construct some path to getting there that has some small probability of success, even if it takes many years. That is the only thing that gets me out of bed every day - knowing that I might someday "make it" and not have to do a 9-5 job for the rest of my life, and being one inch closer with every passing day.
posted by pravit at 7:56 PM on June 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

I will add to the chorus that this is how many people feel, though probably not all. I know people who do not seem to have much introspection or okay with the routiness of life. It is good that you realize a partner might add to your life, but will not make this feeling go away, I think this is something you have to deal with within yourself. Different people will have different ideas of how to manage the feeling or impart meaning in your life - think of yourself as an experiment, try different approaches, find out what works for you.
posted by dawg-proud at 8:02 PM on June 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

just this nagging feeling that there's supposed to be something more than this

Side-effect of all-pervasive marketing. Insulate yourself from advertising to the greatest extent you possibly can and I'm tipping that this particular nagging feeling will come down well below tolerable levels.

Also, go hike up a mountain.
posted by flabdablet at 9:01 PM on June 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

The answer is a good cup of coffee. Or how the light falls across a plant's leaves in the afternoon. Or the best liverwurst sandwich. Or your favorite song on the radio. For every shitty empty dreary blah moment of every shitty empty dreary blah day, stack a little happy. Steal a moment right the fuck out of it to enjoy JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN. Assert your ABSOLUTE RIGHT TO BE PRETTY MUCH OK AT THIS PARTICULAR MOMENT, THANKS.

And console yourself with the thought that all those happy people are gonna be dead right along with you one day. ;)
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:28 PM on June 9, 2014 [13 favorites]

What kind of work do you do? The nature of your work could be a big factor, and you might be able to make changes.
posted by Dansaman at 9:42 PM on June 9, 2014

Best answer: In this brilliant monologue, Louis CK offers his own label for this feeling, "forever empty," and I can't resist linking to it on the off chance that you haven't seen it already: "That knowledge that it's all for nothing and you're alone"--yes.

What's so perfect about that monologue is how deeply it embodies one of the most beautiful, remarkable tenets of Buddhist thought--particularly for us westerners--which I've written about on askme before: the monologue is about reversing our fundamental habit of trying to pretty things up, to smooth them over, and most especially to prove that pain is a mistake--to check out when we start to encounter painful things within ourselves (I'm again following this Pema Chodron essay closely here--read it.).

I love the notion from acheekymonkey that meditation is the ultimate pointless activity, but I'd like to add to that: meditation is about reclaiming our connection with basic goodness. At first this idea sounds quaint, touchy feely, too simple to be meaningful, but it's actually one of the most powerful notions I've ever encountered.

We become so thoroughly entrenched in flexing the muscles of critical thought, of discursive analysis. And what is the most frequent object of that criticism? It is ourselves, naturally. We look at every little thing that we think and feel and we construct a critical narrative around it. Indeed, in a perfect encapsulation of the groundlessness of what it is to be human, the very thoughts I am offering here are one such critical narrative.

In meditation, though, we begin to cultivate the space to drop all of that in a wonderful, non-critical, Hofstadterian strange loop: we flex the muscles of non-judgment by literally practicing looking at everything we are thinking and feeling without labeling it critically. This is Chodron's first method, no more struggle, and I really encourage you to get acquainted with it, both by thinking about it, and by practicing it.

Where does compassion begin? Again, naturally, it begins with ourselves. When we strike out at ourselves the second we start to feel off guard, we are looking for solid ground, trying to discharge our pain with blame. Isn't it funny that we would try to discharge the pain that we are feeling right back into ourselves by getting solid about everything that's wrong with us? If this is our habit with ourselves, imagine where that leaves us with the rest of the world's goings on.

Meditation, then, is watering the seeds of internal compassion. It might feel deeply disquieting, but no more struggle asks, "What if your depression is not wrong?" What if your pain is not a problem to be solved? Of course, no more struggle is also silent on the matter in just the sense that acheekymonkey's answer captures: those are wonderful questions, and they are rabbit holes, sandcastles, that we spend building up and invest ourselves in the solidity of, only to resist as the tides rise again just as we have seen them do every other time to wash them away.

That is just nuts, right? Chodron asks: what if that chaos is both the source of our wisdom and our confusion? I think notions like that have to be taken in bit by bit, day by day, year by year, because they are so vast, and so contrary to our current cultural moment.

Could we begin to get comfortable with the notion that, far from existing to be extinguished, our "forever empty" could teach us the most important things about our life, could be the very manifestation of wisdom? That is a wicked concept.

The next time you feel angst, I encourage you to experiment with tonglen: instead of labeling yourself as broken for being unable to discharge your angst, I encourage you to breathe it in, and as you breathe it in, breathe in not only your own angst, but the suffering of those around you. We take in the suffering and pain that all sorts of people all over the world are feeling, right now, of all kinds--emotional, physical, psychological--and we stick right with it, we literally walk right up to it and touch it, because it is the human condition.

Somewhere Chodron quotes Chogyam Trungpa as having said, "Everyone loves something, even if it's just tortillas." I love that quote. It is a meditation on the universality of basic goodness--but, in a ninja like maneuver, it also manages to capture something essential about the capriciousness of our moods. We know how to get very solid about all sorts of things, especially our feelings and moods--I think of words like "depression" and "anxiety" and all of the baggage that we load up onto them--and we can look at those things positively, negatively, non-judgmentally. But what if we looked into softening up about our moods, our emotions, our feelings? What if we took the enjoyment that we felt about some dumb shit like tortillas and just let it breathe for a second, gave it some space?

Where might some space for that compassion to grow lead us?

Where might it lead the world?
posted by holympus at 12:46 AM on June 10, 2014 [53 favorites]

Best answer: This is something that I've struggled with a lot myself. Lots of people who don't quite get this feeling suggest all of that lovely stuff about enjoying the moment and doing things that are pleasurable for their own sake, but it sounds like you're like me, and that's not enough, because it is "as if I can see life stretching in front of me and it's just more of the same", and living in the moment is the exact opposite of seeing something (meaning, value, purpose) in your future.

There are a couple of things that work for me. Firstly, I find that engaging with narrative works well, because stories have meaning, and having faith that there will occasionally be a little story logic in your day to day life helps provide a sense that things matter and things are going to go somewhere. Practically speaking I love watching a film in the cinema (in the daytime when it's quieter) - not a blockbuster action pic with a lot of flashy images, but some sort of drama or thriller with a big story. Now, obviously real life isn't a film, but stories resonate and the potential for story in my everyday existence feels a lot stronger after immersing myself in a good film. If films aren't your thing, you could try the same thing with theatre, radio plays, novels, graphic novels, etc. (not TV shows though because I think you need to experience a whole story arc from start to finish). If you feel the creative urge, then writing short stories, plays, etc. is another way to reflect on this.

Secondly, in order to combat the sense that life doesn't go anywhere, you need to build in some future milestones, so you can visualise a path ahead, and feel life in motion rather than stasis and drudgery. Ambitions at work and starting a family are what traditionally help people in this regard, but if those aren't priorities for you, then you need to start a medium to long term project of some sort. Again, this is something different from an activity that just provides pleasure in the moment (call that a hobby), but is meant to be something that offers a sense of personal achievement and the creation of value and meaning. I can't say what you will find value in, but it might be building something (building a boat?), creating something (writing a play?), some sort of physical activity (with targets to achieve - running a marathon?) – basically something that enables you to see that in a year's time, you'll be in a different place to where you are now. Aim high, explore different things, and don't be afraid to fail – setbacks are OK, because after all, this is about keeping moving rather than reaching a final destination.
posted by iivix at 3:06 AM on June 10, 2014 [12 favorites]

Apologies if you find this controversial, but it's just my experience.

I felt very much the same. I was not particularly dead set on having a partner, kids, etc. However, I eventually did settle down with a girlfriend (now my wife). She was very, very, very keen to have kids. I was kinda "eh" about it. I went along with it anyway. And.. while they have their very significant costs and impact on areas of my life I used to enjoy, I can easily say having kids has turned my outlook on life around. I'm no longer depressed (but frequently exhausted!) and nearly all of my existential angst has instead been replaced by the somewhat easier to resolve "how am I going to keep this lot fed!?"

Of course, I wouldn't suggest getting hitched and having kids as some sort of solution if you don't want to do it, even if it would help. But there are baby steps (pun intended) you could take to see if having more responsibilities would change your viewpoint.. many such things have been listed by other posters above.
posted by wackybrit at 5:21 AM on June 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

There is nothing more to life than setting personal goals and meeting them. Deciding what you want to do and then doing it.

You probably want to be happy. Keep lists of what makes you happy. Think of all the little things that make you happy. All the big things. All the in-between things. Track all the stuff that makes you happy. Also, make similar lists of all the things that make you unhappy. Also, all the things you think might make you happy and all the things you think might make you unhappy (death, for example). Draw up maps and charts if it helps to put things pictorially. Draw maps and procedures for getting to these goals.

Pin all your lists and charts and reminders up on a wall you look at every day. If it's embarrassing to you for others to see these things, pin them up electronically and privately, but somewhere that you can and will see them every day.

The main point is to figure out which way you want to go every morning, every evening, every week, every month, every year, and for the rest of your life, and to keep the reminders in front of you. You want to steer a course that keeps you moving towards happiness and away from unhappiness every day and that gets you to a big happiness over the long run.

This doesn't have to be some sort of hedonistic pursuit. What makes you happy could be feeding the poor of your city regardless of personal inconvenience and discomfort, or it could be simply getting married and raising a couple of happy kids. What makes you unhappy could be eating and drinking and fucking and sleeping for the simple and immediate pleasure of it all.

Every time you feel bad, go back to your goals and see what you're missing.
posted by pracowity at 6:40 AM on June 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest— whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind
has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.


Hitherto, and it has not been wasted effort, people have played on words and pretended to believe that refusing to grant a meaning to life necessarily leads to declaring that it is not worth living. In truth, there is no necessary common measure between these two judgments. One merely has to refuse to he misled by the confusions, divorces, and inconsistencies previously pointed out.


One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 1942
posted by flabdablet at 7:21 AM on June 10, 2014

Exercise helps jolt me out of some similar malaise. The more strenuous the exercise, the better. I enjoy running, because I can do it alone or with a friend--but mostly, I run alone. But I'm out in the world when I do it, so I feel engaged with my surroundings, getting to know my neighborhood, waving at a neighbor whose dog comes over to say hi...etc. Obviously, the friendly-neighbor montage doesn't happen every time, but I almost always feel like more of a human after I run.

And then to feel like a real human animal, to run in an organized race is a trip. It feels like you're in a herd. It's awesome.
posted by magdalemon at 7:53 AM on June 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

It sounds to me like you are in a rut. As I'm sure you know, one of the tricks depression plays on you is the feeling that however you feel right now is never going to change. But it does. And change makes time seem to pass faster.

But if this is a continual state of mind for you, not just a rut, in a way you are kind of blessed. There was an AskMe awhile back about depression, nihilism, etc. that really helped me deal with intrusive thoughts about perceived injustices. For example, boss showing favoritism at work? Yeah, life is not fair but you know what? It just doesn't matter. And it frees you from living a life of too much self-denial.

Personally though, I think the meaning of life is simply helping each other get through it. Bad things don't matter, but the good things do.
posted by auntie maim at 8:26 AM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Read Man's Search for Meaning. Create a stronger sense of what's meaningful to you, and add that to your life. Think about ways you can and do live your life with purpose. Even though you don't have a sense of belief, a spritual community, like the Friends(Quakers), Unitarians, or a Buddhist community, if one is near you, might help you channel your questions.
posted by theora55 at 9:26 AM on June 10, 2014

Not sure if this is relevant or useful, but I had a professor with whom I used to discuss this (he was teaching modern and postmodern lit, so it was a natural progression) and the joke between us was "paint your cabinets."

During one conversation in office hours, he mentioned offhand that he had been planning to refinish his kitchen cabinets, and had all the supplies, but kept putting it off and off. I told him to go ahead and do it, that it would be therapeutic. He raised an eyebrow and I explained that for me, working with my hands and sanding and painting and making something more beautiful was one of the few things that got me out of my head and into the moment. So "paint your cabinets" became code for "put down the Foucault and do something in the moment to make life prettier."

For what it's worth, having children made this issue worse for me, not better.
posted by celtalitha at 11:28 AM on June 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I know you are not religious, but in the Christian and Buddhist monastic traditions there is this concept of "acedia," also called "Mara" by Buddhists, which has plagued monastic life for centuries. It plagues regular folks too. It's plaguing me right now, actually, in my work.

Acedia is not something that just affects monks, but the monastic life is particularly disposed to this very common spiritual malady. As a result there is a lot written about how to battle it. I have a very dog-eared and underlined copy of The Quotidian Mysteries by Kathleen Norris that I recommend and have loaned out as much as I have read it myself. That might be a bit too straightforwardly religious for you, but there is a very good Zen Buddhist resource on Acedia that you might benefit from reading.

There seems to be three common antidotes to Acedia that, I believe, work no matter what tradition you come from.
1) Throw yourself into the details of your daily life. Staying connected to the quotidian details of living keeps you connected to life itself. The idea that there is some vague "better" life out there that does not involve a "grind" is the lie of demon Mara/Acedia whispering in your ear. Don't listen! Chop wood, carry water.
2) Encourage and help others. Common to Buddhism and Christianity is the paradoxical idea that we help ourselves by helping others, that the best way to be happy is to care about others' happiness. I'm not saying that you should run out and find some grand new volunteer initiative. It's more about taking an outward, other-centered focus into your daily routine. Connecting to the heart of kindness and charity will connect you to meaning.
3) Find a good friend. And be a good friend. You don't have to become a bouncy extrovert all of a sudden. But just find a companion to walk with you. Someone you can do stuff, or not do stuff and just be, with.

Individual sources vary, but this seems to be the common advice from hundreds of years of struggling with this problem.

Lacking that, I wholeheartedly agree with the suggestions of meditation and exercise too.
posted by cross_impact at 2:52 PM on June 10, 2014 [12 favorites]

I feel this way alllllllll the time. I don't think I'm depressed, I am just acutely aware of how life is so long but so short, and since I'm not religious I don't believe anything happens after this, and I don't even feel particularly obligated to do much of anything while I'm here. I am married, and that's nice, but it's certainly not a life purpose or anything.

For a while, my job was making me sad, so I got a new job. I'm still new, but the job isn't really making me happier. I added more time onto my commute, and I started listening to an audiobook, and I'll be damned if it hasn't actually made my life a smidge more enjoyable. There's not a ton of traffic the way I go, and it's about a 1/2 hour drive. Even when it's a little bit crowded on the road, I tend not to mind because I'm interested in the story. And I know that sounds crazy, because I am a HUUUGE fan of driving around and belting out tunes, but the book is just really soothing. I find myself admiring the clouds and buildings and trees a lot more than I usually do when I'm listening to music.

I hate exercise with a fiery passion, but people swear it makes them feel better. It has literally never made me feel anything but hot and disgusting, but ymmv and it may be worth a shot, especially if you're not doing anything else.

Also I think, sadly/refreshingly, you just have to kind of embrace the insanity. It's easy to spend time online learning about how so much shitty stuff happens in the world, and I get stuck scrolling through too many comments on blogs that I KNOW I'll disagree with and I keep reading and getting pissed off anyway. Don't do that! It's a waste of time. You should be looking at a sunset or something. And I don't even mean you have to stand outside where it's hot and gross. Go get a drink at a bar on the 30th floor of a hotel downtown, and admire the view. Or just drive somewhere and go a way you don't normally go, and admire the houses. Oh OR get an Instagram account! I kind of hate where I live, but taking a lot of pictures has made me more appreciative of all the cute/creepy/funny things I see on a daily basis, and has made me slow down and admire the small stuff.

In regards to some other suggestions, I tend to think the children-changed-my-life thing depends on which parental role you'd be playing. I'm a woman and I often say, "if I could be a dad, I would TOTALLY have kids!" So I guess take that into consideration!
posted by masquesoporfavor at 4:51 PM on June 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

One other way of looking at this: it's a spiritual call. "Is that all there is?" is arguably a call to find out!

We do after all live in a universe whose very existence is the greatest enigma, and while some people take it as a given that we can know nothing more than that...perhaps that's not true. Is there a God? Do we have a purpose? Is this all a dream? What is death?

Every great spiritual leader has felt this kind of angst, and has responded by conducting their own investigation, enlisting as detectives on the greatest case there is, and coming up finally with their own answers after much struggle. Perhaps you need to do the same.
posted by shivohum at 5:18 PM on June 10, 2014

Have you ever sat down and thought about what it means to die? What is the meaning of life when we will die and our children will die and eventually our bloodline will die and eventually the human species will die? It is a very important question to ask yourself. I feel like it is one of the root questions behind your vague feeling of pointlessness. I would highly recommend reading the way peaceful warrior. Every one has a different answer to the question. For me, it means I need to maximize my joy and happiness, and to interact with others with kindness. If I can bring joy to another for just one moment, I have created something that matters. I pursue a career that will support both my daily joys and my long term health and happiness. I have done the travel "find yourself" thing and I have also done the successful ambitious career thing. I am honestly extremely happy in my mediocre job (though not always happy, and I do sometimes feel like I could be doing more with myself). If your job is grinding you down then think about the parts of your job that achieve the state of flow and figure out how to do more of that in your career.
posted by puertosurf at 11:50 PM on June 10, 2014

i asked a similar question not long ago. you might enjoy reading some of the answers here. i think it's interesting to see questions like ours get so many "favorites". i think it's a common pondering topic by many folks.
posted by monologish at 2:18 PM on June 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nothing helps me escape this feeling more than playing music, and playing music is even better with more people. Somehow, this "escape", for me, feels like something more than a distraction---more like a portal into reality. It's an absolutely in-the-moment-experience like a tennis match. Even if you can't carry a tune, there are ways to learn how to play an instrument and eventually get involved with bands. You start with lessons, and you move to a music school that supports ensembles.

On the other hand, you sound like a dog person without a dog.

So go get a dog already.
posted by agog at 10:46 PM on June 11, 2014

Response by poster: A non-MeFite friend has sent me this article, which I think captures some of what I was trying to express. I am searching for a meaningful life rather than merely a happy one (or eudaimonic happiness rather than hedonic happiness). For some, this may be the same, but for me it clearly isn't. Coincidentally, most of the answers I have marked as "best" (a subjective judgement) are things that go along with meaningfulness. Many of the other answers are very good suggestions, but not quite what I was after for this particular problem.

Except for the getting a dog one. Sorry, agog, I am pretty much the polar opposite of a dog person. Will not be getting one. Music is good though!

I am adding an answer to my own question (how gauche) because so many people have favourited this question. I figure if this article resonates for me and helps me in thinking about the problem, it might help some of you too. Thanks so much for all answers so far, very thought-provoking!
posted by Athanassiel at 3:00 AM on June 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Remember that we just got out of an industrial revolution. 150 years ago we were still struggling to feed ourselves, to give ourselves medicine and to have some basic 'stuff.'

We've solved the problems of food medicine and stuff (still haven't solved the problem of distributing said goods alas) but now that we no longer just struggle to survive, we're left with a lot of time on our hands that, quite frankly, the child-rearing practices of the day and the societal organizations (school, work, community) haven't quite caught up with. As a society we need to look at the next level up of problems: how do we organize ourselves now to make the best use of each other's talent, without wasting each other's time? What can each of us contribute to the world to take humanity forward? Right now it's still pretty capitalist / nepotist / competitive; some with exceptionally outstanding skills & good fortune rise to the top but many just aren't tapped early enough and put into the right routes to optimize their potential, and so they lose that optimism and drive and just toil in between Maslow's hierarchy of needs #2 and #3. They kind of lose that gusto because the feedback has been 'eh why bother, it won't work out.'

I'm not saying this to be intellectual, I just want to show that how you're feeling isn't wrong or bad nor necessarily something to change per se, but that your experience is the expected outcome given our situation in history. Almost 100 people have favorited your question; you are not alone by a long shot in feeling this way.

You can focus, if you wish, on 'spiritual growth' aka climbing up the ladder of Maslow and that Hurclean task certainly has the side-effect of some fulfillment, as well as making life more spontaneous and freeing.

You can find your passion or isolate your exceptional natural skills, and then put them in service of others, at work or otherwise.

Personally I deal with this feeling two ways

- when the feeling shows up in the moment: I just acknowledge it, and don't try to fight it or jump to changing it. That's how I'm feeling today. Kind of listless and unfulfilled. This too shall pass.

(Often easier said then done - emotions come from the latin word "emovere" which means to set in motion or stir up; emotions tell us MOVE!! and DO SOMETHING!! but honestly in many cases we are better off just sitting with it FIRST and then doing something, rather than jumping just because it said so, or assuming that the feeling means something more than what it simply is. It's weird how they inherently convey such urgency but there you have it.)

- in my life I've decided that reducing my ego as much as possible and connecting with others in simple but deep ways is my highest purpose; I want to live as authentically and open-heartedly as I am capable of, and I've arranged my life with that goal in mind. I go to Buddhist temple at least once a week and work with a monk to help me tear down my walls, I try to 'grow up' my emotions as much as possible so that I can clearly see what others need (not be obscured by my own needs) and then give them what they need, and I try to reduce my judgments of myself and others. Even my relatively superficial relationships become rather profound when I put on this mindset. People need such different things and different times, and they rarely tell you what they need, so it takes a clear mind to be able to seize the moment and give it to them when the opportunity presents itself. And truthfully those moments don't show up so often. And needing some kleenex or an apple at the right time can be just as profound as a hug, depending on the person. I've also accepted that this path comes with other trade-offs: I am not playing corporate games or other things people to do in order to feel important or get ahead, so my career likely won't be anything grand. Furthermore my way of contributing to the world is on an every-day scale, and not a "run a not-for-profit" scale, at least not at this point. So I won't 'change the world,' at least not in ways that could be obviously and directly linked back to me. I'm just trying to polish my light and share that light with others.

As I read what I've written, it sounds like I've figured something out but I really haven't.
I'm just a person, trying to cope with life, like everyone else.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:09 AM on June 12, 2014 [9 favorites]

Athanassiel, I think of two great quotes on meaning; one is Carl Sandburg; the other is Toni Morrison. Morrison says the following in her Nobel lecture:

The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers, writers. Although its poise is sometimes in displacing experience it is not a substitute for it. It arcs toward the place where meaning may lie. When a President of the United States thought about the graveyard his country had become, and said, "The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. But it will never forget what they did here," his simple words are exhilarating in their life-sustaining properties because they refused to encapsulate the reality of 600, 000 dead men in a cataclysmic race war. Refusing to monumentalize, disdaining the "final word", the precise "summing up", acknowledging their "poor power to add or detract", his words signal deference to the uncapturability of the life it mourns. It is the deference that moves her, that recognition that language can never live up to life once and for all. Nor should it. Language can never "pin down" slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.

An old teacher of mine introduced me to the Sandburg quote in a draft of his book; here is what my teacher has to say in the introduction to his book:

In “Good morning, America” Sandburg wrote: “History is a living horse laughing at a wooden horse.” What a delightful image. A wooden horse is such a feeble imitation. How natural to laugh at it. Just so, the actual past laughs at the feeble imitation of the past fashioned in our efforts to understand. It will laugh at our tale, too.

Morrison and Sandburg are saying the same thing, so beautifully--I shudder at the line about language arcing towards the place where meaning may lie. They both capture the way in which life will eternally resist our efforts to understand what it's about; and yet, they do not suggest that life is meaningless or that the search is fruitless. The way that Morrison points out that language never actually reaches the place of meaning but is significant precisely because of its reach towards it--that is just such a wise observation, such slow, careful leaves me in awe.

Over and over again, life will show our understanding of its events to be a wooden horse with a good laugh...and we will move on to fashioning the next wooden horse.
posted by holympus at 10:16 PM on June 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Hoo boy do I feel this question. It's been much on mind in general, always, but a recent shift in perspective has me, ummm, seeing it from different angles (use a tautology or mix my metaphors?).

I recently (January) started an SSRI for anxiety. I felt I had a high baseline anxiety which was exacerbated by a blow-out with my father in December; I don't think I had any depressive tendencies. I am the poster child for successful treatment.

And what's been most interesting to me about this is the way it's changed my relationship to those existential concerns. This is something I'm still sorting out - an ongoing process. But what's fascinating is how that angst melted away with my anxiety.

Speaking of tautologies, in hindsight that relationship seems obvious. Of course there might be some connection between baseline anxiety and existential concerns. It seems to make perfect sense: my anxiety is high for chemical reasons and my brain doesn't know what to attach this anxiety to so it settles on vague, broad questions. But as obvious as it is, it's something else to experience it first-hand. The questions that preoccupied me previously now appear much less important.

So I think maybe that points to my first suggestion: consider that maybe existential questions are less important than they seem to be. Maybe they are important; I haven't quite figured that out yet - but the very idea that maybe I don't have to be preoccupied with them has been very liberating.

I was talking to my psychiatrist about this last session - how previously my solution to existential issues was to prioritize artistic expression above all other things, and how I was toying around with the idea that this was maybe less important than I thought it was*. And he asked me what had replaced it then, and the answer came to me quickly, although I hadn't considered that question before the moment.

The answer (and I apologized for sounding cheesy when I gave it to him, too) is striving to live in harmony with the world around me. Like all introverts, I'm prone to introspection, and I try to be truthful to myself about the aspects of my behaviour that I don't like. I can anger much faster than I would like (to be fair, what I would like is "nearly never"), and I'm trying to smooth that out. To recognize when I'm behaving in a way I'll later regret faster and faster, until I'm recognizing it when I'm thinking about doing something, instead of after I've done it. And to meet all the people we interact with on a daily basis who are similarly falling short of ideal behaviour with compassion, understanding, and gentleness. Approaching problems with an eye to everyone's interests instead of the reflexive prioritization of my own.

And I'm finding this is - maybe - rewarding enough. That the world is full of fascinating and beautiful things, and that the chances of my being alive and conscious and as free as I am are so extraordinarily small as to be perpetually awe-inspiring.

And as I think about how I want to conclude this, I think maybe my first suggestion up there is really the only suggestion: try imagining a life where existential questions aren't so important. See if you can conceive of one, and then see how it fits.

(Tangent: another aspect of my new life is engaging in a mindfulness practice. My book on it says "don't talk about your mindfulness practice", which I'm now violating, but it's for a good cause. My doctor sent me an academic paper on its effectiveness, and I picked up a mostly non-hokey book called "Wherever you go, there you are." By mostly I mean there's been like one or two sentences that made me roll my eyes. I'm not sure yet if I'm experiencing much value from it, but I think maybe it's serving the same function that it struck me that yoga was - all the dressing aside I think maybe these practices are largely about something simpler: this idea that for a certain portion of each day you're doing exactly what you should be doing. That's a state of mind I didn't allow myself very much: with every activity I was thinking about what else I could or should be doing. I think there's some value towards cordoning off some time and saying, "the outside world doesn't poke in here".)

*On artistic expression, quickly: I saw two primary motivations for my own artistic endeavours. I wanted to prove to people that I was valuable and interesting (an ego-based thing) and I wanted to contribute something back to the dialogue I felt the works that inspired me were engaged in (a less self-serving thing). I do still think the latter is a good thing; the former seems to be mostly dispelled as I'm not feeling I really need external validation any more. Early efforts involved a (horrible) attempt at a novel, and I used to think about these questions when I was trying to make myself stay in and write - e.g. if my friends were doing something interesting or it was nice out. I would ask myself, "What would you do right now if you had a successful novel behind you?". And I'd think, well, I'd go out to beach. The obvious question was then why I shouldn't just go out to the beach right then and there. And that's where I'm at right now (not literally) - the artistic impulse still feels like a noble and good thing to me, but if I don't have anything to prove, enjoying the world is feeling like maybe not such a bad idea either.

I am too lazy to proof this and should have been working an hour ago so apologies. I hope this helps; perhaps my experiences are of no interest to anyone but me.
posted by neuromodulator at 9:54 AM on June 17, 2014

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