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What’s the point in life?

iStock_000007789001LargeDear Jules,

I have been going through a really rough time lately and it is quite similar to your experience. I was quite a happy go lucky person through life until I had a bad terrifying trip on weed (my first time trying) I took way too much and freaked out and that traumatised me – having very anxious scary thoughts like what if I harm my self, what if I harm others – what is the meaning of life and whats the point of it all.

Like you I thought I ruined my brain chemistry forever. I still have the strange belief that everything in life is so insignificant and now I’m applying this to my daily routine – why bother getting dressed, why bother looking well in-front of people…strange thoughts like that and even when I give myself a sensible answer to this I boil down to WHAT’S THE POINT IN LIFE?

It’s like being told Santa isn’t real again.. Only I’m an adult and I want to be the happy-go-lucky one who got joy out of things instead of having this thought that puts a dampener on them (it is probably the worst thought I have, it makes my heart sink). Anyway I just want to know if you think I can be happy and live a life where I don’t feel like someone is poking me telling me life isn’t worthwhile.


Dear Rachel,

Thanks for your email, and I’m sorry you’re having a rough time of it at the moment.

Some basic initial steps. Firstly, if you’re feeling depressed and frightened, it’s worth telling your parents – including telling them about smoking weed. They may react with anger and fear in the short-term, but that’s because they care about you. I didn’t tell my parents – or anyone – for years about my bad trips, and I think this made a difficult situation a lot worse.

Secondly, you might find it helpful to talk to a therapist. I’m not a trained therapist, but these days you can get free therapy on the NHS – find your local IAPT centre (it stands for Improving Access for Psychological Therapies, it’s an NHS talking therapies programme) or ask your GP. I can’t promise the therapist will be helpful, but it’s worth a shot.

The therapist will probably tell you that how you feel isn’t necessarily how things are. Sometimes our emotions become habits – we get habituated to taking a dark view of things, and are sure this view of things is true. So be wary of immediately believing your feelings to be true judgements of reality.

They will also tell you that sometimes we have irrational beliefs that cause us suffering, which we can learn to question and challenge. For example, I used to find it difficult to go to the theatre because I was very worried I would shout something out and everyone in the theatre would look at me. No shit! I honestly was so worried about this I’d put my hand over my mouth throughout the whole play. Then gradually I learned I wasn’t going to shout out, it was an irrational fear and I could call its bluff. Now I can sit through plays without my hand over my mouth. Progress!

Although I’m not a therapist, it doesn’t sound like you have schizophrenia to me, it sounds like you’re having what’s called an existential or spiritual crisis.

This happens when our consciousness sees through some of the constructs and conventions that ordinary life is made up of. We no longer believe in the things we used to believe in, and this makes us unhappy, because we’re not sure there’s anything worth believing in.

There’s a story-line that many of us follow in life. It goes like this.

In the beginning I was a happy-go-lucky innocent, without a care in the world or a distressing thought in my head. I lived in a Happy Valley of childhood. Then something went wrong. Something bad happened to me, and now I’m exiled from Paradise, and I’m stuck in a world where everything seems grey and miserable and somehow lacking in warmth and colour and joy and purpose. And I can’t get back to the Happy Valley. I can’t find my way back home.

Prince Siddhartha (the Buddha) wakes up to death and suffering
Prince Siddhartha (the Buddha) wakes up to death and suffering

This is exactly what I felt like when I was in late adolescence and early adulthood. And I think it’s a classic psychological journey. It’s the Fall of Genesis. It’s also what happened to the Buddha – happy teenager, then a sudden shock to his world-view, then a period of depression and searching. A lot of us go through the Fall when we’re in our late teens or early 20s. It’s a nasty surprise, not something our parents or teachers told us about, although it’s described in many books.

The Fall is really an awakening. It’s our consciousness realizing that some of the things we believed in are actually a bit of a charade.

When I was 17 or so, I went through one of these awakenings – suddenly, the world seemed a rather sordid and selfish place. Everyone else seemed a bit of an egotistical phony, chasing after their shallow and pointless goals. Getting a career, getting a nice house with a nice lawn and a nice wife, getting a thousand followers on Twitter…what’s the point!

People are like greyhounds chasing after a mechanical rabbit, desperately trying to out-run each other, and if one of the greyhounds stops, scratches his arse and says ‘it’s just a mechanical rabbit’, they call him crazy.

And what lies beneath all the ego, all the desire, all the shadow puppetry? Nothing. The abyss. Human life is a game of charades played over a trapdoor of nothingness, and every now and then the trapdoor opens, one of the actors disappears below, and everyone goes on like nothing happened!

So, you’ve rumbled us. You’ve rumbled adults. You grew up thinking we knew what was going on. We don’t know what’s going on. No one knows why we’re here and we’re all basically winging it and passing the time trying to impress each other before we die.

What's the point?
What’s the point?

When I realized this, it made me feel quite melancholy – although maybe there was a certain pride in my melancholy too (I, the Deep One, have seen through the phoniness. I am the Awakened Greyhound).

I didn’t exactly choose to awaken to the emptiness of constructed reality. It was an accidental awakening – maybe through drugs, which can alter our consciousness and make us see things differently. Some people go through similar accidental awakenings through, say, meditation – suddenly everything seems a bit empty and pointless. Or it might happen to them when they first lose someone they love. They notice the trapdoor beneath their feet and think: ‘what’s the point!’

This kind of awakening to the emptiness of our constructs has been called the Dark Night of the Soul. In truth, it happens occasionally through life. It comes with being human, unfortunately, and with being blessed / cursed with consciousness.

So how do we get out of it? How do we discover a sense of purpose or meaning?

People get out of the darkness two ways. Firstly, some people just fall asleep again. Life changes, and they stop thinking such deep thoughts, and get caught up in the game once more.  Actually, this happens to everyone. You fall in love, you get a great job, you go on holiday, and things are fun again, and you shelve your inner Hamlet and enjoy the festivities.

There is nothing wrong with this at all. Sometimes the game of charades is a really fun game, and it’s fun to get involved, though unfortunately we often forget it’s just a game and end up totally believing in it and taking it very seriously.

Secondly, some people get out of the darkness by discovering a philosophy or an attitude that helps them through it and gives them a sense of meaning. Their old philosophy – ‘be happy-go-lucky’ –  doesn’t quite work anymore, but they discover a new philosophy which works better.

I’ve turned to different philosophies to help me when I’m lost: Buddhism, Stoicism, Sufism, Taoism, Christianity. These are all quite different philosophies, but I think they have a core message to them.

Which is this: We’re here to know ourselves, to discover our nature, and to help other people do the same.

The journey to know ourselves is not an easy one. It involves a lot of wrong turns, a lot of dark forests, steep mountains and sinking swamps. And we meet bad people along the way, fools, liars, egotists, and people who wish us harm. What makes the journey particularly difficult is, when we ask passers-by how to get to our destination, they all give us different directions, and they all seem immensely confident that they’re right.

On this journey, I don’t think you can go backwards. You can’t go back to the Happy Valley of childhood. Frodo and Sam can’t go back to how things were, they’ve got to go forward. You have to go forward. Your consciousness grows – sometimes accidentally, sometimes through education and experience – and then it’s like you don’t fit into the old clothes any more, they feel cramped and ridiculous. That means it’s time to go forward.

Winston Churchill, who suffered from depression, once said: 'If you're going through hell, keep going'
Winston Churchill, who suffered from depression, once said: ‘If you’re going through hell, keep going’

But what is the point? That question hangs over us like a cloud when we’re starting out on the journey, just as we find ourselves outside the Happy Valley. Why bother going on, when everything looks so dark and gloomy?

You won’t find an answer right now. It’s not like there is a Fortune Cookie slogan I can give you, which tells you The Point. First you need to practice taking care of yourself. Epictetus said: ‘practice, for heaven’s sake, in the little things, and then proceed to greater’.

Practice taking care of yourself. Practice taking care in the little things. Practice not letting your negative thoughts beat you up and cause you suffering. Why be so mean to yourself? Would you let someone be that mean to your sister, or your boyfriend, or your dog? So why be so mean to yourself?

Practice taking care of your body. The health of your consciousness is connected to your physical health – when you’re tired or hungover, you’re more susceptible to the automatic negative thoughts. Practice taking exercise, going for walks or jogs or swims or yoga, practice getting out into parks or the countryside. Feed your body with good things, feed your soul with good things.

Practice being appreciative of little things – a cup of tea, a good book, a beautiful song, a funny film. Practice being appreciative of other people – little moments where people are kind to each other, despite all the hurt and confusion in the world. Practice loving other people. See them in all their beauty and vulnerability, and how much they want to love and be loved.  (I am rubbish at this, I’m usually an utter misanthrope – I need to practice being kinder and softer-hearted.)

I think this practice is easier if you find other people to practice with. That might be a self-help group, or a humanist group, or a Buddhist, Jewish, Christian or Muslim group, or it might be a group of friends that you can be genuinely honest and vulnerable with. Some of these groups might be dodgy, and we always have to be wary of ‘gurus’….but in general I think it helps to practice with other people.

All this practice slowly gets you into good habits. It’s like Mr Miyagi teaching the Karate Kid and getting him into good habits. Wax on, wax off!

And then, one day, perhaps months or years after you started the journey, you realize you’re in a different place, and that your world is full of joy, and colour, and meaning.

What is that place? It’s our inner nature, beneath the flaky conventions and constructions we’ve pasted onto it.

To get a bit mystical, I believe our nature is full of light, and when we practice well, when we get into good habits and out of bad habits, we let that light shine out, and we see the light in others too.And that’s the point. It’s not a sentence or a slogan. It’s an experience of consciousness enjoying itself, and helping other people’s consciousness shine out too.

I no longer feel as lost and scared and confused as I did when I was 21. I never became the happy-go-lucky child again. I never regained the innocence of childhood. I pressed on, and after a while I found something else, a kind of happiness regained, occasionally. I still have days of darkness, confusion, fear and ignorance – and I’m sure I have some bigger challenges ahead of me when I will write to someone and say ‘help!’ But I enjoy life, I’m grateful for it.

This is basically me, just so you know.
This is basically me, just so you know.

It’s difficult to talk about spiritual matters without sounding a pompous git spouting cliches. I’m 36, single, fitfully employed, writing this in my dressing gown. I’m a lazy, boozy, self-satisfied, egotistical idiot, caught up in the charade and wondering how many times his article has been re-tweeted. Just so you know who you asked for help.

Here’s a passage from The Catcher in the Rye which I’ve found helpful over the years:

Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many people have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement.

What that means is, when you find a way through the particular forest you’re in at the moment, remember the way, and pass it on.


On English melancholy

An academic got in touch with me last week, inviting me to a seminar on Stoicism, which was nice of him. On the seminar programme, he described me as ‘an author of books on happiness’. Alas I’ve only written one book (one that was published anyway), and it’s strange to have it described as ‘on happiness’. My friends, when they’re introducing me, also often say something like ‘he writes about well-being’, or ‘he writes about happiness’. And at the philosophy festival, How The Light Gets In, I was actually described as a ‘happiness guru’, which sounds pretty horrific – I think if I ever encountered a ‘happiness guru’ I would shoot them on sight, then mount their head on my living room wall.

I suppose I did have a blog called The Politics of Well-Being, and I do run something at Queen Mary called The Well-Being Project, and I have written quite a lot about the fad for measuring happiness (though usually from a sceptical point of view). It’s strange, anyway, to be thought of as a writer on happiness, as I’d say I naturally have quite a melancholic disposition – and I’m OK with that, and feel no need to try and dispel the occasional mists of melancholy so the sun shines unremittingly.

I believe there is a fine English tradition of melancholy. You see it particularly in English music – many of our greatest pop musicians are deeply melancholic. Think of Damon Albarn, who has described himself as ‘an English melancholic’, and songs of his like The Universal or End of the Century (or the wonderful album title ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’). Albarn even wrote a song called Melancholy Hill (Oasis, by contrast, don’t seem a melancholic band at all).

Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker also has a wonderful melancholy streak in him, so does Pulp guitarist and mournful crooner Richard Hawley, so does Badly Drawn Boy. Further back, Morrissey discovered a rich vein of poetry in English melancholy – and also discovered the humour in it, the reveling in the downbeat (‘I was looking for a job and then I found a job, and heaven knows I’m miserable now’). Paul Weller, Elvis Costello, even Sting all tap into that melancholy vein. Pink Floyd had it in spades – particularly the song Time, which, if you think about it, is an incredibly downbeat song for a rock band at the height of their popularity:

Every year is getting shorter
Never seem to find the time
Plans that either come to naught
Or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation
Is the English way
The time is gone
The song is over
Thought I’d something more to say

Alison Goldfrapp, mistress of melancholy

The uber-melancholist of the 1960s would have to be Ray Davies of the Kinks – I wonder if English melancholy in pop was in some ways a rebellion against US culture? The Beatles could tap into it too, particularly John Lennon, though Paul McCartney’s For No One is sublimely melancholic, as is Eleanor Rigby of course. The Stones seem much less in tune with that mood. Nick Drake is a perfect embodiment of the melancholic bard.

And then there are all those melancholic minstrelettes: Amy Winehouse, Adele, Alison Goldfrapp, Laura Marling – compare them to, say, Rihanna, Avril Lavigne, Lady Gaga, or Katy Perry. Their American counterparts don’t do melancholic. Lana Del Rey tries but comes across as mawkish. OK, some contemporary American female singers are masters of melancholy, like Cat Power. But they tend to be at the margin of American pop these days. In British pop, they’re still front-and-centre.

'Always Dowland, always miserable'

English song-writers have themselves traced this melancholic vein in English pop back to the Elizabethan era. Damon Albarn, for example, looks back to Dr John Dee, and the link between Saturnian melancholy and creative power. Sting has performed a concert of the songs of John Dowland, the famous melancholic bard of the Elizabethan era, whose motto was ‘Semper Dowland, semper dolens’, or ‘always Dowland, always miserable’.

Why does this strain exist in our culture and temperament? It could be connected to the weather, to the seasons, and particularly to this time of year, when summer changes into autumn (‘it is November when the English begin to hang themselves’ was apparently a common saying on the continent in the 18th century). Robert Hooke, one of the founders of the Royal Society, believed he could plot his melancholy by tracking it against weather patterns.

But there are melancholy strains in other cultures too – think of German Romanticism and The Sorrows of Young Werther, the ennui of Baudelaire, the Jewish tradition of kvetching, the strain of Japanese melancholy found in the novels of Haruki Murakami, the Russian melancholy of Chekhov and Lermontov, the blues of African-American music.

Anton Chekhov: 'A fine day to hang oneself'.

Really, then, melancholy is a sort of patchwork global construction, and English melancholy has certainly drawn on these other national variations (English pop drew heavily on American rhythm and blues, English comedy has drawn on Jewish kvetching, and English literature has drawn on Russian and German melancholics like Chekhov and WG Sebald).

While Nietzsche famously declared that ‘humanity does not strive for happiness, only the English do that’, I’d suggest English melancholy is much older and more prevalent than the Benthamite cult of happiness to which Nietzsche was referring. And I like the melancholy strain in our national character. I like the poetry it has led to, the humour, the mysticism. I like the scepticism of melancholia – the wise sense of human limits, human fallibility. The melancholy awareness of death and impermanence make life more beautiful, more poignant. I don’t think we should try and drive it out of our national psyche, like St Patrick driving out the snakes from Ireland.

At the same time, of course, you can indulge in too much melancholy and it turns into the sort of crippling depression that hit Coleridge, for example, and disabled his creative powers. Melancholy’s a bit like drugs – a little bit of it appears to be good for creativity but indulge too much and you incapacitate yourself (or even kill yourself). I think one can celebrate English melancholy, and also celebrate therapy. I don’t see Cognitive Behavioural Therapy as some sort of American invasion, some attempt to transform our national psyche and turn it into one big smiley face. After all, CBT came from Stoicism which is, let’s face it, a fairly melancholic philosophy. That’s probably why melancholy English thinkers like Matthew Arnold are so fond of it.

CBT prevents the mists of melancholy from turning into the storm-clouds of violent depression, when our negative beliefs turn into prisons, and (in the words of Thomas Gray in 1742), our mind “believes, nay, is sure of everything that is unlikely, so it be but frightful; and on the other hand excludes and shuts its eyes to the most possible hopes, and everything that is pleasurable; from this the Lord deliver us!” Amen to that.

Anyway, here is a Spotify playlist I have made of English melancholy pop. What have I missed out?

Since I wrote this, I heard about a new book called This Will End In Tears: A Miserabilist Guide to Music. Sounds brilliant! Here’s a video interview with the author: