Lou Chen

@louchen.absurdist

A Personal Story about Existential Anxiety and the Pursuit of Fulfillment

Hello,

My name is Lou, and I’ve been undergoing a multiyear internal questioning of the meaning of my life. Almost everyday I find myself spending many thought cycles questioning the purpose of all the actions in my life, wondering what it is they’re amounting to, if anything.

The consequences of this have been nontrivial — I occasionally find myself with semi-crippling existential anxiety, and find it difficult to motivate myself to do anything besides metaphorically rot in my room. Why should I attempt to be productive when I’m unsure of the greater goal of any of my actions? [1]. And so I’m writing this essay with the goal of structuring some of these thoughts, and to hopefully end with some concrete actions and life goals to reduce the amount of anxiety in my life. In addition, I’m sharing this with you in case you find it interesting, relatable, or helpful in any way.

Let’s start from the most zoomed out perspective. Of existentialism categories, I relate the most to absurdism, the belief that humanity’s pursuit of inherent meaning in the universe will inevitably fail, but regardless, we should continue to pursue it. Absurdism describes this conflict between a human’s desire to discover this meaning and the impossibility of it the “Absurd”. However, Albert Camus, a philosopher, argues that despite that, we should continue to pursue discovering meaning, even if we never truly find it. Perhaps the pursuit of meaning will have meaning itself, or perhaps someday we will actually discover true meaning. I mean, we’ll never know unless we try, right? I actually consider this argument to be both practical and romantic. Practical in the sense that, really, what else can we do but try? Romantic in the sense that, despite the impossibility of the task, we should be optimistic and defiantly continue hoping and trying.

Camus illustrates this in The Myth of Sisyphus. The Wikipedia summary:

In the last chapter, Camus outlines the legend of Sisyphus who defied the gods and put Death in chains so that no human needed to die. When Death was eventually liberated and it came time for Sisyphus himself to die, he concocted a deceit which let him escape from the underworld. Finally captured, the gods decided on his punishment for all eternity. He would have to push a rock up a mountain; upon reaching the top, the rock would roll down again, leaving Sisyphus to start over. Camus sees Sisyphus as the absurd hero who lives life to the fullest, hates death, and is condemned to a meaningless task.
Camus is interested in Sisyphus’ thoughts when marching down the mountain, to start anew. After the stone falls back down the mountain Camus states that “It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end.” This is the truly tragic moment, when the hero becomes conscious of his wretched condition. He does not have hope, but “there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” Acknowledging the truth will conquer it; Sisyphus, just like the absurd man, keeps pushing. Camus claims that when Sisyphus acknowledges the futility of his task and the certainty of his fate, he is freed to realize the absurdity of his situation and to reach a state of contented acceptance.
The essay concludes, “The struggle itself […] is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy”.

I love this story / metaphor. While our everyday work and tasks are certainly more meaningful than repeatedly pushing a rock up a hill only to see it roll down again, the amount they contribute to our attempt to find inherent meaning is arguably equally as unexceptional.

With absurdism in mind, I’ve decided perhaps I shouldn’t spend too much time worrying about inherent meaning in the universe. In my lifetime, it is very unlikely we will ever learn why or how the universe or humanity was created. I also don’t think I’m capable of contributing at all to this discovery. Without that knowledge, attempting to discover inherent meaning in the universe or in something greater than ourselves will be even more likely to be fruitless.

So if inherent meaning is impractical to pursue in my lifetime and I’ve decided to continue pursuing meaning, what kind of meaning should I pursue? Well, selfishly, I guess what I’m really trying to accomplish is to feel like my life has meaning. If I think my life can have meaning, does that mean that lives, in general, are meaningful? Because I am conscious and think my life can be meaningful, does that mean that all consciouses can have meaning to me? While I think this line of reasoning is fairly weak, it does make me think that the most meaningful part of my life are my fellow conscious humans around me.

Putting that thought aside for a while, perhaps we should zoom in a little. I guess put more simply, I think my life would be meaningful if I felt fulfilled. Introspecting and reflecting on the experiences in my life, I think I’ve felt the most fulfilled when I solved problems, whether that was problems for work, problems for my friends and family, or problems in my life. I think perhaps humans have, over a long period of time, evolved an innate need to solve problems. Without unconditional, unending support, an individual will never survive or consistently find moments of happiness or pleasure without repeatedly solving problems. I think solving problems also makes me feel useful, and sometimes even feel needed.

I grew up incredibly lucky and privileged. For over twenty years of my life, my only real “problem” and focus was on education to eventually find a job to sustain myself during adulthood. After college (which my parents paid for), I worked as a software engineer at a high paying technology company. With more money than I knew what to practically do with, I quickly found myself with only trivial first world problems, like wondering where I should vacation to next or what TV show I should watch next. The only real problem I had in my life was what I was going to do with it.

I often find myself contrasting this life with the lives of my ancestors. My ancestors worked on farms for as long as anyone in my family knows. Their lives were difficult — constantly worrying about money, performing difficult physical labor everyday in the fields, and truly worrying about the wellbeing of their family. This contrast inspired two interesting thoughts. First, I wondered if my ancestors lived incredibly meaningful and fulfilling lives. While stressful and difficult, the work they did everyday sowed visible, concrete contributions to solving their major life problems. Second, it made me feel guilty about feeling unhappy. Wasn’t this life what my ancestors wanted for me? Wasn’t this what they worked so hard everyday for? [2]

Going back to point one, I can only imagine that they lived incredibly meaningful and fulfilling lives. If I was in their shoes, spending everyday solving problems that directly helped people I cared about must feel rewarding. Is there a way for me to do that too?

I think my anxiety is perhaps also slightly exacerbated by working in Silicon Valley. Everyday I read about all the amazing projects and ideas people are actively working on to better the world. I also truly believe that Silicon Valley as a whole is doing a great deal of good for the world. The survivorship bias of the news has made me unrealistically believe that I, too, can have impact and change the world. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this is strictly a bad thing. These stories inspire me to want to do good on a large scale. But the expectation versus the likelihood of actually achieving that expectation in my lifetime probably wasn’t as far off for my ancestors.

Well, regardless, even so, I have to start somewhere. What can I do in my life to help others so I can feel fulfilled [3]? My life comprises of a few major components:

Work

We spend an estimated 80000 hours of our lifetime at work, so work seems like a clear candidate to change to spend more time working on something that I find fulfilling. Since I want to help people, what kind of work should I transition into? An extreme thought I had was to move to somewhere where I could directly see the effect my work had on bettering someone’s life; for example, doing manual labor for a non-profit to build houses in areas of extreme poverty. The thing, though, is that I probably wouldn’t be exceptionally good at it, and it would probably be more impactful if I donated the difference in income working as a software engineer to an organization that is better suited for building houses in areas of extreme poverty. The fulfillment I’ll receive from work is probably a function of both how direct the impact is in addition to how much of an impact I actually had. Is there a job where I could help people, be good at it, and be effective? [4]

I realized that I don’t need to swing so hard on the kinds of things I work on — not everyone can directly work on “the world’s most pressing problems”. We’re all doing good in some way, and we have our own preferences in what good we care about or what we’re interested in. I’ve decided to start looking for a job that either directly or indirectly helps an overarching cause that I feel strongly about.

Free Time

There are many things I care about that, unfortunately, are more difficult to work on as a sustainable career. For example, it bothers me that underprivileged communities don’t have access to the same amount of Computer Science education that other communities do. While my contribution is likely negligible and is treating symptom instead of cause, I’ve started volunteering at an organization that hosts after school computer science classes for specifically underprivileged communities near me.

I hope to find other ways for me to contribute my time to things I care about soon.

Income

I’ve been reading a lot about effective altruism recently. Effective Altruism focuses on the most effective ways to solve the world’s most pressing issues. One simple way to help is to donate money, and Effective Altruism has funds you can donate to that will give money to what they’ve analyzed to be the most effective non-profits for a given cause. Give Well also has a list of what they’ve analyzed to be the most effective charities. While the action of donating money and the effect it’ll have on people feel fairly far removed, I do believe it’s the right thing to do, and try to care. This year, I’ve decided to donate 1% of my income to various charities (mostly ones listed on Give Well), and I think it’s helped me feel a lot better about my work and how I can use what I’ve earned to help people.

Giving What We Can is a community of effective givers who created a tool to help you track your donations. Many people there also pledged to give away 10% of their income to effective charities. I think this is something I eventually want to do, but am having trouble mustering the courage to do it. I plan on donating 5% of my income next year and will iterate from there.

Something I realized about donating money is that it’s a trade off between how much I care about helping others now versus how much I think the money will help me (in any way, including helping me help others in the future). It’s interesting because the more money I accumulate, the lower the marginal utility is per dollar. And so, the more money I accumulate, the more money I’ll be able to give away without affecting my quality of life. At an extreme, think about how Zuckerberg is donating 99% of his net worth. The amount of good that money will do for the world is incredible, but his quality of life with 1% of his net worth probably isn’t drastically different than with 100%. I’m not trying to downplay his contributions at all — he’s a wonderful philanthropist doing incredible amounts of good for the world, but I think it clearly illustrates the idea that it’s easier to give away a larger percent of your income the larger your income is.

Family and friends

My family and friends enrich my life. They make me smile and laugh. They share in my joys and in my sorrows. They’re people I care deeply about. I’ve decided I should make a more conscious effort to maintain close friendships and to spend more mindful, quality time with these people in an attempt to give to them what they’ve given me.

Romantic Life Partner

I put a significant other in a separate category because I think there’s something particularly special about a romantic relationship in the role it plays in the meaning of my life. To me, a significant other is much more than someone I endlessly enjoy spending quality time with. While the romantic side of it makes it easier to bond, I think I also personally hold a large responsibility on the quality of my significant other’s life (similar to the responsibility one would have to their children). I actually prefer to think of my significant other as a “life partner” than as someone I’m just dating. I hope that my significant other will help me contribute to my life goals the same way I hope to help contribute to theirs. I imagine the responsibility and good I can contribute to someone I care so much about would be incredibly fulfilling. I’ve decided I should make a more conscious effort to attempt to contribute to my romantic life partner’s life goals, and attempt for us to move more as a unit than as two separate individuals.

Thanks for making it this far. It took me a long time (wall clock time) to write this because I had many ideas about different aspects of my life and how they all tied together. I personally found it insightful, enjoyable, and cathartic to express all of my thoughts into a single essay like this. I hope you found this interesting or helpful in any way.

Sincerely,

Lou Chen

[1] It’s true that not all actions need a defined goal at the moment (if you follow a positive trajectory, you’ll likely end up somewhere much better than you were before, even if you had no idea where it was exactly you were going towards at the time of the action), but the looming uncertainty and lack of even a clear “bigger picture” can be anxiety-inducing for me.

[2] I’m probably exaggerating and romanticizing their lives quite a bit. It’s possible they were so busy dealing with all the imminent issues in their lives that they didn’t even have time to ponder if they felt fulfilled or not. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs describes this phenomenon quite well. However, even so, the guilt remains, though I’ve recently been doing a better job of giving myself the permission to feel whatever it is I’ve been feeling. On the topic of what’s helped me feel less anxious, I also started seeing a therapist! Seeing a therapist has also made me feel significantly less guilty about the contrast between my life and my ancestors. I highly recommend anyone who suffers from depression or anxiety to take the initiative to see one.

[3] A quick note about “helping others so I can feel fulfilled”. It’s clear that my motivations for doing good for others is a bit selfish, but I guess I look at it as a win-win, so I don’t feel guilty about it. Things will (hopefully) be made betters for others and I can also feel good about it. Wouldn’t the world be better off if more people felt this way?

[4] The Japanese call this balance Ikigai!

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