Whether or not philosophy can help with depression a tricky question to answer, but I figure if I’m going to be stuck at home for a while, I might as well analyze the philosophical concepts of existentialism and nihilism and how they pertain to depression. In the past I’ve discussed the 5 best ways to overcome depression which outlined some pretty basic, but effective tricks to beat depression. One thing that is not on that list, however, is philosophy. One reason I left that out is the obvious: philosophy is a pretty hefty topic for such a brief and to the point roundup. The second: it’s really not as a black and white an answer as the question demands.
There is a plethora of topics in philosophy, many of which, contradict the other. Existentialism and nihilism are two of these contrary theories. Most people have heard of both but may only have an anecdotal understanding of each and are not familiar enough to figure out if they help with depression or not. For many, their introduction to nihilism was probably through the incredibly quotable movie The Big Lebowski.
According to Britannica, the term nihilism comes from the Latin word nihil, which means “nothing” and is defined as being the the rejection of morals and values and asserts that life and the universe is meaningless. To put it short: nihilists believe in nothing.
In contrast, existentialism is the exploration of the human condition and what it means to be an individual. An existentialist sees that our own existence is the most important factor to take into account. We are independent and reasonable beings capable of making our own choices and not labels or stereotypes. Existentialism pushes for transcendence, which is to push forward toward something beyond one’s own existence.
How does any of this help with depression? If you’re a nihilist, you probably won’t find any help, after all, the philosophy believes in nothing. I’m reminded of the rather nihilist question when it comes to philosophy and depression, “What’s the point in living, if we all live to die?” To not believe in anything means to not believe in your own existence, and if that is the case, then how can one possibly be happy? It’s not a practical way of living your life.
Existentialism rejects nihilism. The existentialist believes that there is an intrinsic value to existence. We aren’t just another drone sitting in a cubicle, we are so much more than that. We are capable giving our life meaning. For some that means writing the great American novel and for others it means going for hikes in nature or raising our children. The meaning is all around us. By existing, we are in turn creating ourselves and becoming what it is that we want to be, which I’m sure everybody on this planet wants the same thing: to be happy.
Philosophy can certainly help with depression, but it has to be the right philosophy. It can sometimes be stressful, looking at up at the vast night sky and feeling alone in the universe and wondering what the point is to all of this. It’s this empty feeling that fuel depression and you may even find yourself pulled towards nihilism from time to time; after all, it is easier to believe in nothing than something. But remember that you are an individual with the freewill to take charge of your destiny. Existence precedes essence, and that is the essence of existentialism.