2023 is the year of anti-nihilism

The first year after repeated lockdowns was defined by decadence and a sense of meaninglessness. But a sense of purpose is returning

January 03, 2023
Excerpts from Franz Kafka’s diaries are popular on TikTok. Photo: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
Excerpts from Franz Kafka’s diaries are popular on TikTok. Photo: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

The past 12 months, our first year of freedom, have been defined by decadence, debauchery, a thirst for new experiences and making up for lost time that’s manifested in indie sleaze, the ubiquitous rattle of Elf Bars, extreme weather events and politicians that expire faster than groceries we can increasingly barely afford. The future was uncertain during Covid, 2022 seemed to be saying, and it’s still uncertain now, and we don’t know how much longer we’re around so why not smoke more, drink more, enjoy the planet before it burns up for good? It’s understandable that it was the year we embraced, on a philosophical level, the freedom of nihilism. 

On social media, particularly TikTok, interest in nihilism as a concept—the rejection of all religious and moral principles, of truth, ethics, values, in the belief that life is ultimately meaningless—has been growing. A wave of videos espousing the teachings of nihilist figures like Arthur Schopenhauer, Søren Kierkegaard and, a particular favourite of gloomy teens, Friedrich Nietzsche, have nearly 76m accumulated views on the platform. But don’t despair. Although we’re in the midst of the time of year dedicated to overconsumption and debauchery, it seems that we’re ahead of ourselves on New Year’s mantras for positivity and bettering our lives too. There might well be nearly 100m views on nihilist content, but the algorithm is gearing up to 2023 by serving an increasing amount of “anti-nihilism” content, slideshows of philosophy, memes, jokes and reminders that life is meaningful and worth living, to an audience of not so disaffected youth. 

TikTok’s “positivethinking” hashtag, for instance, has 185m views, and “antinihilism” has just under four million views (admittedly, much fewer than the Nietzsche and Kierkegaard fans, but growing—think positively). It’s not that interest in philosophical writing is decreasing, or that people are less interested in understanding life and themselves. But a move away from the meaningless towards more existentialist schools of thought are definitely growing (Kafka and Albert Camus, despite being dead over a century, both enjoy thriving careers as TikTok influencers). And while admittedly, both are pretty bleak, they seem more in sync with our collective end-of-2022 ennui: while they believe that life is hard and kind of absurd, they encourage us to ascribe our own meaning to it, and even enjoy it. But it’s not just on social media that newly positive ideologies are gaining traction. Recent Netflix documentary Stutz with Jonah Hill, which chronicled the actor’s mental health journey with his therapist Phil Stutz, presented a refreshing philosophical take on self-help and alleviating anxiety and depression to an audience well-versed to the point of boredom with traditional therapy and CBT; so much so that “go to therapy” has become less of a piece of advice and more of a meme.

And that’s for those who can even access CBT in the first place. The cost-of-living crisis and overstretched mental health providers mean that accessing therapy means dealing with waiting times and referrals that are, pardon the pun, Kafkaesque. It makes sense we’re relying on the internet then, for positivity, for a reminder that life is good, meaningful, worth living even when it gets dark at 3pm and you’re too scared to put the heating on. Of course, the internet and celebrity Netflix specials are no substitute for well-funded, accessible mental health care. And it’s important, too, to have some scepticism for “toxic positivity”, or using optimism as a facade for really addressing individual or structural problems that will continue to harm us. But it makes sense that TikTok, populated mainly by Gen Z, a generation that is widely reported to be more politically engaged and dedicated to affecting positive change than its predecessors, the notoriously apathetic millennials.

And a growing interest in philosophical positivity shows we still have hope as we move into 2023. It's not that our circumstances are getting any better—certainly the world events of 2022 and an oncoming recession dispute that—but we might be able to change how we look at it. The era of just doing whatever we want because we’re on a floating rock that’s slowly getting hotter could be over. Perhaps also our mental health support services are so overstretched we’re now relying on internet philosophy—and the goodwill of strangers online—to get us through the days. If the past year, our first of post-pandemic freedom, has been dominated by a sense of nihilism and debauchery, then 2023 could finally hold a salve to the dark, glittery tunnel we’re living inside.