We are all trying to make things intelligible, to make sense of our experiences, ourselves, and our world. The fact that we still disagree concerning the best or right or correct interpretation, the fact that there are so many perspectives, suggests that perhaps meaning is nothing more than a construct.
Most of us adopt values and beliefs simply because they are familiar, because they are those that dominate in our community, our country, our…The real reason we have adopted certain values, that we see the world the way we do, is convenience, happenstance. We, in short, believe what most people believe…we conform.
“Madness is rare in the individual – but with groups, parties, peoples, and ages it is the rule.”
When Nietzsche points out that when it comes to groups, peoples, parties…madness is the rule, he means that there is a tendency to conform and protect the dominant perspective even when faced with evidence to the contrary. We lose our ability to think for ourselves when we conform, but the fundamental problem of meaning is (at least in a certain sense) solved. We know what’s true because we participate in a shared construct, in a shared worldview.
Sartre famously claimed that for humans “existence precedes essence.” He meant that we must make ourselves into something, that we only define ourselves after we exist, and that in truth there is no such thing as human nature which would otherwise determine who we are (and who we could become). The only thing we know with certainty is that we will die. We are beings aware of their own existence and their own mortality—a fact that has a far greater influence on us than most of us would probably like to admit.
We face a reality that is opaque. Try as we might, the world around us gives up only small secrets, and on all important matters remains utterly silent. We exist, to be sure, and we know we will die. We want answers, we want to know why and what for. We want to know what the meaning of life is, the purpose of our existence—but, as Camus points out, the universe is indifferent to our appeals and wants.
Humans are meaning makers—we create meaning and we have a drive to do so. We organize our world; we form a picture that allows us to operate day-to-day without fear. When we believe we can explain our experience, our interactions, when we think we understand our place and role in the world, we gain confidence and feel secure. We want to make our life intelligible because by doing so we remove unknowns, irregularities, we assign a value and place to everything.
Our desire to make sense of things, to make everything intelligible, drives our attempts to leave nothing unexplained. We quickly try to find a place for the new, the abnormal, the irregular, because everything that is not accounted for by our beliefs and values is a direct threat to the integrity of our worldview, our perspective. We think we understand things when the room looks clean, when everything is in its box, in its place, and we feel secure knowing there is nothing that we might trip over.
There is some part of us, a part that is perhaps deep within, one that rarely comes to the surface, but that nonetheless exercises great power—our fear of death, of threat, of danger. We know we will die, and experience tells us that the universe, existence, is indifferent to the individual entities that enjoy life for a short time. Death is the great unknown—it is an unknown in the sense that it comes unannounced, it is unknown in the sense that there are conflicting accounts of what it is (a transition, an absolute end, a new beginning…), it is final, and death is not bound by our sense of right and wrong or good and bad.
Making the world intelligible, making sense of things, makes us feel secure and comfortable because we are not surprised by irregular, unknown, or new experiences, which in turn assuages the fear and anxiety caused by awareness that we will die. Humans are self-aware, conscious entities, who are mortal and thus aware of their own mortality, of their temporality. But we are also meaning makers, and through meaning we create a familiar, knowable, and therefore less harsh and indifferent world, one in which our fears and anxieties need not be so intense, so overwhelming.
What many fail to recognize is that all the various perspectives people have are just so many ways of constructing a meaningful experience and world, but by no means are any representative of what is true, what is objectively the case. A world without meaning, without purpose, is simply a world in which we must each make meaning and create purpose.
The fact is, we thrive when we have reasons for acting, for living, for doing. Better that these reasons are our own, are ones that we have accepted and arrived at because they work for us. We should resist merely adopting values and beliefs because others have, we should resist conforming, because when we do the meanings that define our world and through which we make our experience intelligible are not our own. All we can do is live our own life, be our own person.
We all want to be more productive. We commonly assess our own value by the extent to which we believe we are productive. When we are productive, we are able to face the world, the daily challenges of life, and we are able to achieve our goals and live the life we want.
If productivity is so important, what can we do to be more productive?
Positivity and High Spirits
We underestimate the important role positivity plays in productivity. Nietzsche points out that “Nothing gets done without a dose of high spirits.” A positive mindset, he thought, as many other philosophers agree, is a choice, is something we can choose to foster and develop.
“Nothing gets done without a dose of high spirits.”
Nietzsche reminds us that the “decision to find the world ugly and bad” is a dangerous decision because it makes “the world ugly and bad.” Negativity breeds negativity. When we are negative, we lose the strength needed to face the world and get things done. Negativity is exhausting, makes us feel worn out, and ultimately derails our productivity.
In my own experience, I’ve found the two most valuable tools for fostering a positive outlook are practicing gratitude and cultivating a greater awareness of the small delights and pleasures in life. To practice gratitude is not simply to acknowledge the good, but to celebrate it and express thanks for it. When we are grateful, we are more apt to recognize the small pleasures and small delights in life.
We must make a choice to become more aware of the small delights and pleasures in life, and once we make this choice it is important to affirm it by expressing thanks and recognizing the impact this awareness has on our attitude and our quality of life. It involves, as Nietzsche suggests, a decision: we must decide that the world is beautiful and good rather than ugly and bad.
When we cultivate positivity, we actively make a choice to start seeing the world a certain way. We choose to be aware of and take notice of the good in the world, to find it, to express thanks for it. When we do this, we experience increased energy and motivation. We are more prepared and equipped to deal with the everyday challenges in life, because we possess the psychological fortitude to deal with obstacles and difficulties, to face them and overcome.
As Nicole Mead Ph.D. discovered, small pleasures and delights are an important source of positive feelings that improve our mindset and play a crucial role in our overall attitude.
“Why are simple pleasures vital for goal progress? Modern day life is full of struggles and challenges, which erode the very psychological resources we need to make progress on our goals: Positive feelings.”
Productivity is heavily influenced by our spirits, by the extent to which we feel psychologically equipped to handle the challenges of life and possess the strength to overcome obstacles we may encounter. Through gratitude and a deeper awareness of the everyday pleasures in life, we take control of our mindset, our attitude, by choosing to live intentionally and be in control of ourselves. The more we take possession of ourselves, the more empowered we become.
To be productive is to possess the ability, the motivation, the will power to get things done and live the life we want, to make progress towards our goals. Make the choice to live intentionally, to make the most of this life, and start cultivating the mindset, the strength, to live your own life and be productive.
“The only proof of strength is an excess of strength.”
Nietzsche introduces the eternal recurrence in The Gay Science. It is introduced as a thought experiment. He asks you, the reader, to imagine What if…
“What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you.'”
What if the “eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again” (Nietzsche)? How would you respond to the demon who, on some day or night, steals into your “loneliest loneliness” only to make you aware of the eternal repetition of your life?
When Nietzsche introduces the eternal recurrence, he titles section 341 in which it is introduced The heaviest weight. Why is this hypothetical What if scenario the heaviest weight?
When Nietzsche introduces the eternal recurrence, he encourages you, the reader, to reflect on your life, on the way you have lived your life. Have you lived your own life? Have you lived a life you could stand to live again and again, over and over…innumerable times?
The idea of the eternal recurrence makes living life the crucial thing. If this life, the one you live in the present, repeats eternally, then there is no otherworld or afterlife that you transition to after this life ends…because it doesn’t end. This is all there is, this life, again and again.
“and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you.”
Perhaps Nietzsche could have produced the same reaction in the reader if the demon informed you that there is nothing after this life, that you have only this one chance to live your own life. But, then, that doesn’t seem to carry the same weight as imagining this same life, your life, repeating an infinite number of times.
After the demon makes you aware of life’s eternal repetition—that the same play is performed again and again with all the same characters, scenes, and dialogue—Nietzsche imagines two reactions to this news.
In the first case, you, the reader, are crushed when you learn that you must live this life again and again.
“Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?”
In the second case, you, the reader, rejoice, you praise the demon as a god because you could not imagine anything better than knowledge that this life, your life, repeats again and again in the exact same way.
“Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine.'”
The Takeaway – Authenticity and Affirmation
“Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to long for nothing more fervently than for this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”
With the thought experiment of the eternal recurrence, Nietzsche asks you to seriously reflect on your life. What if every choice, every thought, every action, every sigh had to be repeated again and again? Would you be able to bear such knowledge?
How many of us can honestly say that we would respond with joy upon learning of the eternal recurrence? Would we start to think about our life, ourselves, differently?
No matter how many times I read this section of The Gay Science, I am always struct by the line—“Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life…” How well indeed!
This thought experiment forces us to take seriously, if only for a moment, what it means to live our own life. It forces us to ask ourselves whether the life we live is our own, whether we are living authentically.
If you are living life for someone else, if you are unhappy, unmotivated, or if you live a life of conformity, it seems that such knowledge would be overwhelming. But perhaps with such knowledge you would start thinking differently, you would start taking your life, your agency, seriously. If that is the case, then the thought experiment has done its job.
When Nietzsche introduces the eternal recurrence, he wants you to seriously and honestly reflect on what it means to live your own life. When you realize that this life is your own, that only you can live it, you realize that the only thing that matters is whether you yourself can affirm it.
It doesn’t matter what society thinks, what your group or community thinks. No, to truly affirm the eternal recurrence is to live a life that is one’s own and no one else’s, it is to live on one’s own terms and no one else’s.
How would you respond?
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The Existential Stoic Podcast Episode 11: Money and Happiness – Can money actually buy happiness?
Danny and Randy explore the connection between money and happiness. Listen to learn why your financial health matters. Find out what you can do now to start living the life you want. Danny and Randy discuss why it is important to take control of your finances. Learn practical tips and tools to help you take action and take control. Listen now to find security, peace of mind, and start living your own life.
The Existential Stoic Podcast – Listen wherever you get your podcasts!
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Check out all episodes of The Existential Stoic Podcasthere.
“Formula for my happiness: a yes, a no, a straight line, a goal…”
We all want to live a happy, meaningful life. For existentialists, living a meaningful life is possible if we live authentically. The existentialists challenge us to become who we are.
The challenge in pursuing an authentic life is determining what life is right for you. The most important question you can ask, then, is when to say “Yes” and when to say “No.”
To live authentically you must be prepared to create meaning and live a life that is as unique as you are. When you face decisions, you need to be prepared to answer honestly. Every “Yes” and every “No” is an affirmation of choice, of your freedom, and requires taking responsibility for your thoughts and actions. (See my article on Freedom & Responsibilityhere.)
Perhaps the first step to living an authentic life is to start taking every decision seriously. Ask yourself: Is this something that is right for me, is it something I can stand behind?
Each decision we make says something about our values, about how we interpret the world. Taking each decision in life seriously is about exercising our will and requires the strength and willingness to stand on our own. At bottom, it’s about recognizing that this life, whatever it is, is our own and no one can live it for us. (Check out my related article on What is Strength of Will?here.)
When Nietzsche declares the formula for his happiness, he declares the conditions of living an authentic life. Your decisions, your “Yes” and “No,” determine the life you will live, what you value, and what project, what goal, you pursue.
Happiness is about affirming oneself and taking responsibility for one’s life, for the person one becomes. When we fail to decide, as Kierkegaard once said, we lose ourselves.
Let’s start taking our decisions seriously. We can each live a happy, meaningful life if we can figure out what that life looks like for us. To do so, we need to ask ourselves: When is it right to say “Yes,” when is it right to say “No”? Start making your decisions and stand behind them.
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