I asked a question in the discussion section a little bit ago and got very productive responses. What follows is mostly a paraphrase of people's comments.
From time to time, like Pierre, I don't care. I get emotionally nihilistic. I find myself doing things that are morally awful in the conventional meaning of the word: procrastinating, sneaking other people's food out of the communal fridge, being casually unkind and unhelpful, breaking promises. I don't doubt that these are awful things to do. I figure any moral theory worth its salt will condemn them -- except the moral theory "I don't care," which sometimes seems strangely compelling.
What I want to know is: what goes through people's heads when they're motivated not to be awful? What could you tell someone as a reason not to be awful? If you are, in fact, not awful, why aren't you awful? What do you think, or feel, when you care about things? What would you tell someone who claims "I just don't care" if you wanted to get her to care? What would you tell yourself, in your nihilistic moments?
The (more) trivial utility function
Nihilism feels like a utility function where everything is set to the value zero. Landing that job offer or school admission letter? That's worth nothing. Making someone smile? Worth nothing. Being in good physical shape? Worth nothing. Living according to moral values? Worth nothing. Nothing is fun, or appealing, or worth looking forward to.
The thing about a nihilistic mindset is that you can't really argue your way out of it (at least, I've never succeeded.) It's perfectly logically coherent. A function that's constant at zero is still a function. You can have a function where all the best things in life, all the "peaks," matter much less to you.
Edit: Vladimir_Nesov comments that it's not really a zero utility function because even a nihilistic person doesn't behave totally at random, and can usually keep up some minimal degree of self maintenance. This is a fair point. It's more accurate to say that it feels like nothing matters, or at least that the desire for goal-directed behavior is significantly diminished. Maybe it's not a flat function, but a flatter function, where the things you used to value the most seem empty.
Most of us aren't in a nihilistic state all the time. But we can have days like that. Or weeks, or months, or years. (I had a year when I was almost always in this state.) And until you snap out of it, you can do a lot of damage, to your career, your relationships, your body, and your moral values. So how do you avoid all that?
Tactic 1: Get rid of the nihilism
Nihilism doesn't feel good. You don't have any positive emotions. The SEEK switch is turned off in your brain. It's really in your interest to escape this flat utility function.
So one thing you can do is to try to find a physiological switch. Take a nap, get some exercise, have something to eat. I've also found that what you eat matters: carbohydrates make me a bit more emotionally "down." Sometimes the physiological is enough. Sometimes you need a cognitive switch: start doing something absorbing, like reading a book or watching a movie or talking to a person. Because your motivation is very low here, you don't want to be ambitious. Do something that's easily available, or something that's already a habit. (I run enough on a regular basis that "go for a run" doesn't take much more motivation than "go to Subway and get a sandwich" -- but if you're not a runner, then running is a totally unreasonable choice.)
Tactic 2: Plan for nihilism
If this has happened to you before, and you know it could happen again, you need to anticipate and plan for those times when you can't bring yourself to care about anything. First, you need to prepare by "stocking up" on things that tend to help you escape a nihilistic mood. Keep the right kind of food easily available. Get adequate sleep over the long term. Make a habit of exercise (so that it's available as an option for you when you're "down.") Keep absorbing activities available: have books around you, and also have friends and social commitments that you can't easily blow off.
The other way of planning for nihilism is to have ironclad rules and habits, so that you can do pretty much the right thing even when you're not in a mood to care. Being rigorous when you're in a good mood should carry over somewhat to when you're feeling nihilistic. If you NEVER miss deadlines or play hooky, force of habit will carry you through even in your bad times. If you NEVER steal or make hurtful remarks, you're less likely to start when you get in a foul mood. Think of it this way: even now, you probably don't do just anything when you feel nihilistic -- it's unlikely that you murder people, no matter how bad you feel, because that's totally outside your range of possibilities. If something is totally outside your range of possibilities, if you normally never, ever do it, you're not very likely to do it for the first time when you're having a bad day. On the other hand, if something is an occasional vice of yours, you're liable to do a lot of it in bad times.
Tactic 3: Heuristics for escaping nihilistic thinking
These are things to remind yourself, or reflect on, that seem to be shortcuts to modifying your utility function away from flat.
- Empathy. "How will this action make other people feel?" When you think about this, you may find that you suddenly care how other people feel.
- Respect. "What would [person I respect] think of me for doing this?" You may find that you suddenly care about earning someone's respect.
- The future. "Will I regret this later, after I've snapped out of my nihilistic funk?" You may find that you care about preventing harmful future consequences.
- Awesomeness. "Am I being awesome?" You may find that you want to be awesome.
You may have your own heuristic -- something that reliably makes you care more, some kind of trigger.
Tactic 4: Avoid "rock-bottom rituals."
This didn't come up in discussion, but it occurred to me in my own life. Sometimes you have a "rock-bottom ritual," something you do when you start to feel terrible, that sort of cements the feeling. It's an official declaration of nihilistic misery. The prototypical example is drinking a lot. I don't do that -- I listen to Wagner and eat unhealthy food. You may have something different. The problem is, rock-bottom rituals prolong your nihilistic periods, when what you really want is to shorten them. Saying "Ok, it's time to break out the Jack Daniels" (or the Tannhauser and peanut butter) is just about the worst thing you can do for yourself.
Hopefully this will help. I'm still trying to figure out how best to manage emotional nihilism. It seems to be common, but it also seems to be more of a problem for some people than for others. I'd like to see any further contributions from LessWrongers!
Are we talking about nihilism here or depression?
Nihilism is a philosophical position.
Depression is a mood - a physiological state which causes a psychological state.
Nihilism is sometimes offered by depressed people as a rationalization/justification of their behavior. It is an effect, not a cause.
Chronic depression can be treated pharmaceutically. Episodes of depression often respond to physical activity. Running is a good suggestion for some people.
Nihilism, as a philosophical position, can be treated by reading better philosophy. However, treating nihilism does nothing to cure depression.
I'm not talking about philosophical nihilism. I'm talking about a kind of psychological state: lack of motivation, lack of pleasure and desire, temptation to give up on everything. It's the sense that very little matters.
I didn't want to call it "depression" because I didn't want to deal with the issue of whether this is a part of normal life or a pathology -- I thought I would describe the psychological state itself, and taboo the name for it. I actually don't know when and for whom pharmacological solutions are appropriate. That's something I'd like to understand better.
As you probably already know, therapists and psychologists generally cannot prescribe anti-depressants - that takes an MD (psychiatrist). I am not a psychiatrist, nor do I play one on the internet. I have no idea whether the cause of your friend's depression is biological or purely psychological. I have no idea whether his therapists have advised him to see a psychiatrist, or whether they are the kind of quacks who "don't buy into the biological model". So I don't have the information I think I need, and I don't even know enough about depression to know what information I do need to help you and your friend.
If I were in your shoes, I would call the local suicide prevention hotline. Tell them the story. They can give you good advice, which may include referring you to even better resources. Do it now. Those hotlines are open 24hrs, and the people (volunteers) who man them know what they are doing much more than I do.
Yes. You already have the strongest evidence it is possible to get without him dying.
I'm interested in testing what happens if you watch "8 minutes of courage":
Are you supposed to watch it full-screen while staring into the eyes of the wolf and listening to the thumpa-thumpa on headphones?
I found the off-putting slogans too jarring to make up for the rest, and I generally don't have the patience to watch video. I'd prefer to look at a static, full-screen montage of the better ones.
I made up a few more:
THE VERY BEST YOU CAN POSSIBLY DO
IS WHERE THE REAL WORK BEGINS
DOING THE IMPOSSIBLE
WAS JUST FOR PRACTICE
FOR THEIR LIVES
DEATH RIDES A PALE HORSE
STEAL THE HORSE
ETA: A static, full-screen montage of the better ones.
T-shirt design: in an arid landscape, a man on Death's horse rearing up in triumph, while Death, depicted as the traditional cloaked skeleton, lies dead on the desert floor, pinned to the ground by his own scythe through his chest.
Apparently my theory was wrong.
When I'm feeling down, what snaps me out of it will be something which exhibits what TV Tropes would call the Determinator trope. Shinji 40k, Fate/stay Night UBW route, etcetera. 8 minutes of courage is that in highly concentrated form, and the silliness doesn't bother me. I guess, however, that this is an idiosyncratic response which doesn't extend to anyone else.
But yes, when I get up in the morning, and didn't get quite enough sleep, and the prospect of working on the rationality book fills me with weary dread, watching "8 Minutes of Courage" is enough to make me think, "YOU CALL THIS AN OBSTACLE? I CALL IT A SPEEDBUMP".
Maybe when MoR finishes, I'll find someone with the flash skills to do some slogans set to the Rationality Patronus and the music of Emiya #0.
I'm pretty familiar with the state you've described here. I usually drop into this temporary anhedonia when I haven't talked to people for a while, haven't recently accomplished anything I'm particularly proud of, and haven't gotten much exercise. (My diet is fairly consistent, so that wouldn't appear to me to be the controlling factor.)
I can escape this anhedonia by getting some exercise, or spending time around friends. Accomplishing major goals would also do it, I suppose, but that's a rather harder to control.
This came together really nicely. Something I'd add to #4 is that "venting" when you feel bad is only occasionally useful, and pretty reliably keeps whatever you're venting about at the front of your consciousness.
A friend pointed out to me that when one feels depressed, one acquires blinders about the past and the future. After he suggested this I started noticing it--on a really bad day, it felt like all days were really bad. If I couldn't get ahold of someone for some company, no one ever wanted to see me. Noticing this consciously was incredi... (read more)
Unless your habitual 'rock-bottom' rituals are really damn good for you. I know mine are. (I get fed up, think 'f@#$ this' and go run for 40kms. That is a powerful reset button.)
"Rock Bottom" actually tends to come with positive connotations along those. It is often use to indicate that the person has got as low as they are going to get and are about to kick their way out of it.
What's a good way to deal with something that seems like a major personal failure?
A few hours ago, I submitted something important approximately one minute after the deadline, which probably cost me a shot at a dream job. :(
I'm feeling better now, but it's so disappointing...
I am so lucky.
I got a confirmation email a few minutes ago - my essays were accepted (I guess I was close enough to "on time" that it slipped through the cracks or something) and I qualify to participate in the next round.
Do you have any evidence for your claim about tactic 4? I'll sometimes (as you mention) eat unhealthily when I'm unhappy, but this seems like a perfectly rational "Eating unhealthy foods makes me happy; I can't do it all the time because it would make me fat, but I can do it as an acute intervention when I'm unusually unhappy to make things a little better." This seems to work okay for me.
Nice post. I will be linking friends here frequently. It would be great if you replaced all references to "having a 0 utility function" with "feeling like you have a 0 utility function". I know Vladimir_Nesov already pointed this out, but it's more than a technical concern: I've actually used this distinction personally to get out of emotional nihilism myself.
See my first response in this comment thread.
The point is that even if you can't think of what you want to do, you might be able to imagine what you would do in certain circumst... (read more)
I agree that nihilism is self-consistent, but ironically my usual heuristic is often an argument based on the fact that nihilism has everything set to zero. The general idea once I start feeling awful and like I could just act awful, is noting the fact that, even as I feel like this, I'm still mostly not being awful. Noting my habits that I do [like going to class or hanging out with frien... (read more)
"I just don't care" is a curiosity-stopper. The actions of a "nihilistic" person of the kinds you describe are still very specific: they don't convulse uncontrollably, choosing to send random signals down their nerves. Thus, "all-zero utility function" is an incorrect model of the situation, making further analysis flawed.
Agreed that all-zero utility function is more or less just wrong.
People like this can still remember what happiness is and wish that they were happy; they can dislike feeling nihilistic.
They can still experience all sorts of things as unpleasant, such as making an effort.
A state of mind in which happiness is very difficult to obtain and drive/motivation is at an extremely low ebb is not a zero utility function.
Nonetheless I find it very easy to understand why "zero utility function" would be used in this case as a poetic metaphor.
good point, and something to think about. Obviously someone who assigned truly equal value to every possible action would behave completely at random, which nobody does.
A better guess: what happens when you feel nihilistic is anhedonia. You don't get as much value or satisfaction out of the "peaks" -- experiences that once were very desirable are now less so. This results in expending much less effort to attain the most desirable things. Your ability to desire intensely is messed up.
I think you could model that by flattening out the peaks. It leaves most processes intact (you still speak in language, you still put on clothes, etc.) but it diminishes motivation, anticipation, and happiness. You can do a little goal-directed activity (rock-bottom rituals, choosing to eat or sleep) but much less than normal.
Yes, reduced intensity and resulting disturbed balance of psychological drives is a much better description.
I think harmless "rock-bottom rituals" can help. When I feel like everything I do is pointless so I have no motivation to do anything, spending a day just watching TV and eating junk food is like acknowledging to myself that I am sad and that it is okay to feel sad. It's normal.
I give the "sad" part of me its time, let it have its way with the unproductive day of TV, and then it's my turn again. Otherwise I will be constantly trying to fight it and that's exhausting. If I embrace it once in a while, most of the time it's not there.
Of course I'm talking about a day here. If it was more than a day, this kind of thinking would just be an excuse to spiral downwards.
I can't say I've ever experienced an emotional state such as you describe, of just not caring about anything, so this is probably useless advice. That said, I find that when I am feeling conflicted about what actions to take, or what I want to do, I respond well to cleaning out excess 'stuff' from my life.
For instance, just over a year ago I had so many books overflowing my bookshelf that I needed to get a second one to start storing them on. But gradually, over the last year I've switched to a mental space that values quality and simplicity over quantity.... (read more)
Thanks for raising this important topic. I see definite value in tactics 1 and 2. Tactic 3 sounds useful in principle but in practice I've found it ineffectual. I have mixed feelings about tactic 4. I've found that rock bottom rituals which look destructive on the surface can actually be good relative to the other realistic alternatives available. But certainly it's possible to carry such things too far and fall into habits which prolong the period of emotional nihilism as a result.
One tactic which I've found useful and which you don't mention is that of... (read more)
Yep, I've been there, sometimes for extended periods. As you noted, nihilistic moods respond to physiology - food, exercise, carbohydrate. I'd like to add that they also respond to dietary deficiencies (in my case, thiamine, though I'm biochemically atypical); and that taking a multivitamin regularly tends to be one of the first things to go with self neglect. So if you find yourself there, and haven't been taking multivitamins lately - go get some, and make sure to take one every day. It might have a surprisingly disproportionate effect.
I thought when you talked about "being awful", you meant having wrong goals, not the absence of goals.
I suggest just getting some casual exercise or watching some good films and tv shows. They're full of emotionally motivating experiences.
I think there is a worrying tendency to promote puritan values on LW. I personally see no moral problem with procrastination, or even feeling bad every so often. I feel worried that I might not hit deadlines or experience some practical consequence from not working on a task but I wouldn't want to add moral guilt. I think if people lose sight of the pleasures in life they become nihilistic which in turn leads them to be ... (read more)
I often exhibit the traits described here, but I avoid the term "nihilism". The Russian revolutionary nihilists were real enthusiastic believers in nothing, whereas I merely don't believe in anything. I'm not unhappy either, I'm too contented to move out of my comfort zone (like a warm groove made in a comfy chair). And of course I don't care about my attitude and have no desire to change!
One other question to ask, whenever you're feeling nihilistic: Am I in caffeine withdrawal right now?
Maybe you should try some music other than Wagner, then? Oddly enough, one of the few things that can consistently snap me out of a bad mood is spending an hour listening to one of my favorite CDs from beginning to end.
I think emotional nihilism is more like a utility function that's locally constant at zero. You have emotional investments, but they're options that are too far out of the money. (Worse is when your short puts and calls are at the money and your longs are out of it.)
The advice presented above about behaving as you would were you not feeling nihilistic, while you are, is strikingly similar to Aristotle's advice about virtue: 'we become just by doing just acts; good by doing good deeds. virtue is the result of habit'. For Aristotle, virtue was a means to the end he defined as the 'good', which in turn was pleasure. Not hedonistic pleasure, but intellectual pleasure.
Exercise, drugs, counselling and relaxed socialisation.
Is this "emotional nihilism" the same thing as "anhedonia"? I often get into a state where the positive parts of my utility function get flattened, but the negative parts remain as sharp as ever. More specifically, a state where the things that used to feel good don't feel good anymore, but the things that used to feel bad still feel bad, and so I keep trying to avoid them. Your advice seems like it applies to this condition, even if it's not exactly the same condition.
This does seem like really good advice. The sort of advice that ... (read more)
What's wrong with peanut butter?
"Happiness" is an arbitrary choice for a utility function when the universe has no intrinsic purpose.