Nihilism is the coping mechanism of the modern generation

Jean-Paul Sartre, considered by many to be the father of modern existentialism


Jean-Paul Sartre, considered by many to be the father of modern existentialism

Owen Phillips

Webster defines nihilism as “a viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless”. At the core of nihilism is a sense of existential dread or angst that is felt when one experiences a sense of being untethered from reality and unable to find meaning or purpose.


The classical example of existential dread used by existentialist philosophers is the experience one has when standing on a cliff where one not only fears falling off it but also dreads the possibility of throwing oneself off. In this experience that “nothing is holding me back,” one senses the lack of anything that predetermines one to either throw oneself off or to stand still, and one experiences one’s own freedom.


Nihilism differs, however, from existentialism in the way that, existentialism holds that a person can create their own subjective meaning, while nihilism rejects any meaning that can not be objectively found.


As Sartre said, “What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterward. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because, to begin with, he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Here it is made clear what is meant by Existentialists when they say meaning is a consequence of engagement and commitment.”


The entire philosophy behind nihilism is that while humanity and existence are futile and meaningless, by accepting the absurdity of existence, that one will eventually die, and that both religion and metaphysics are simply the results of the fear of death, that it is because we exist and we live, we must.


Following this model, existential dread is solved. Sartre was a proponent of the theory of “bad faith” or the idea that under the pressure of social acceptability and fear, humans adopt false behaviors and beliefs, and thereby limit their available choices. And under nihilism, we accept that by rejecting the idea of meaning, life becomes more honest, and therefore, more tolerable.


Sartre holds that by realizing the absurdity of existence, it is then possible to let go of existential dread, and by extension, the fear and anxiety attributed to everyday life.


So, how does this relate to modern everyday life? The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) says that in 2019, nearly one-fifth of the population of America suffers from an anxiety disorder. More and more, the stress and pressure of normal adult life worsens for average Americans, and in larger numbers than ever, teens. 


The modern teen feels the anxiety of global concerns such as climate change and nuclear holocaust but at the same time existential dread that is felt about their own futures. By advocating nihilism for the modern generations from the beginning, you reduce the pressure they feel to live life perfectly and encourage true inner bliss.