You are totally and completely unimportant and that is a wonderful thing. The common consensus is that to live a life worth living, our lives need to involve deeply impressive accomplishments or that they should have a lasting impact on future generations. What a burden we put on our shoulders. It’s no wonder over 8 million people are experiencing an anxiety disorder at any one time in the UK.
Anxiety accounts for a significant percentage of all work-related ill health cases. I have my dream job, for example, speak on big stages around the world and share my story pretty openly on social media; but every day is still a challenge, as it is for all of us. I struggle with anxiety pretty much every day, that much has not really changed. I often feel so anxious I could pop. I think I will always be like that and I am not upset about it. Not anymore anyway. I have just learned how to deal with my anxiety and funnel it into excitement and energy. “Oh hello old friend, back again are we”?
I have had anxiety on and off for years and taken medication for it multiple times during my teens and 20s. I am most certainly not a Doctor, so this does not constitute medical advice, but you knew that already. Rather this is my opinion and a helpful perspective that very much helped me.
Cosmic insignificance therapy
Time for some therapy – some cosmic insignificance therapy. Let us zoom out and remember how little we matter, on a cosmic timescale – how completely irrelevant we are in the grand scheme of things.
The anxieties that clutter the average life, our lives – looming deadlines at work, relationship troubles, money worries – shrink instantly down to irrelevance against the vastness of the cosmos. Even pandemics and politics pale in comparison to the cosmos, which carries on regardless. And breathe. We are here but for the blink of an eye – a mere 4,000 weeks, according to Oliver Burkeman in his excellent book Four Thousand Weeks: Time management for mortals (Vintage, 2022)1, which we are going to unpack a bit further together. Time to take that pressure off and enjoy.
The truth is, our time on this planet is incomprehensibly short compared to the vast expanse of cosmic history. While the universe is 13.7 billion years old, we are a bit more recent. Homo sapiens have been around for just 200,000 years. Think about it this way: if we compressed the entire duration of the universe into the span of a day, with the Big Bang occurring at midnight, humans would arrive late, very late – at 11.59.56 pm to be precise, just four seconds before the clock strikes midnight.2
What we know as human civilisation, however, has only been going for 6,000 years. According to philosopher Bryan Magee, the golden age of the Egyptian pharaohs happened only 35 lifetimes ago, Jesus was born 20 lifetimes ago, and Henry VIII sat on the English throne a mere five lifetimes ago.3 That’s a blink of an eye in the grand scheme of things. Welcome to your insignificance.
While this realisation might be somewhat disorienting or even terrifying, it can also be oddly comforting. Burkeman calls this cosmic insignificance therapy, a term that I love. When life gets overwhelming, taking a step back and realising how small we are in the grand scheme of things can actually be very liberating. All of a sudden our everyday worries and anxiety pale in comparison to the vastness of the cosmos. OK, so maybe the fact that you accidentally sent an email that started out ‘Dead colleagues…’ is not going to be the end of the world – funny for everyone on CC though. The former bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, quoted by Burkeman, captures it perfectly: ‘The massive indifference of the universe’ can be consoling in a strange way.4
This does not mean that our lives are completely meaningless. Rather, it’s a healthy reminder that the things we worry about on a day-to-day basis, like a disagreement with a client, relationship troubles or money worries, are ultimately insignificant, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time. It’s a call to focus on what really matters, to let go of the things that do not and to embrace the fleeting beauty of life – you are not here for very long.
But here is the catch: most of us do not live with this perspective and such carefree abandon. How could you? You have 32,742 unread emails. Instead, we tend to see ourselves as central to the unfolding of the universe. I am still certain that I am in some weird kind of Truman show. It’s not just megalomaniacs, solipsists, narcissists, you and me who fall into this trap, it’s a fundamental part of being human. After all, from our own perspective, the few thousand weeks we are around do feel like the most important thing in the world.
Psychologists call this the ‘egocentricity bias’, and it makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. If we did not have this sense of our own importance, we might be less motivated to fight to survive and propagate our genes. But it also means that we tend to set the bar for a meaningful life way too high. We think we need to accomplish great things, leave a lasting impact on the world or transcend the mundane in order to feel like our lives were well lived. In reality, though, that is not the case. You don’t need to be a world-famous celebrity or a Nobel Prize winner to live a meaningful life. Instead, you can focus on the things that bring you joy and fulfilment, whether that is spending time with loved ones, pursuing a career that brings you a sense of eudaimonia (the feeling that comes from living with a sense of meaning), a hobby in ornithology (bird watching) or making a positive impact on your community by volunteering once a week in a local soup kitchen. That is a life well lived.
The truth is, even if your life is relatively small in the grand scheme of things, it can still be full of meaning and purpose. After all, what’s the point of leaving a lasting impact if you didn’t enjoy the journey and help a few people along the way? You won’t be here to enjoy it after you’re gone, anyway.
Tips for channelling cosmic insignificance therapy:
Tip 1: Perspective. When you find yourself becoming overwhelmed with feeling of anxiety, ask yourself: ‘Will this matter in 1, 2, 5, 10 years? What about 1,000?’
Tip 2: Beauty in the mundane. Don’t discount the value of the mundane. Our days can be unremarkable, but it’s the little moments of joy and contentment in them that add up to a life well lived. So, keep an eye open for them: catching an elevator as it closes, putting on a T-shirt as it comes out of the tumble dryer, receiving a message from a colleague you have not spoken to in years, etc.
Tip 3: Natural awe. Seeking out experiences that remind you of the vastness of the cosmos can really help to put your problems into perspective. It does for me, anyway. Watching a starry night sky (or an orange-tinged sky in London due to the light pollution), sitting by a lake or river watching the water flow or taking a walk in the woods can be powerful ways to experience awe and remind yourself of your tiny place in the universe.
There is an oak tree near me that is over 500 years old and when I walk past it, I like to think to myself how fortunate I am to live here and now. I write this as I sit here with a nice warm coffee, typing away on my Mac as it rains outside, rather than dying in agony with the bubonic plague in 1666.
1 Burkeman, O. (2022) Four Thousand Weeks: Time management for mortals. London: Vintage.
2 Sagan, C. (1977) The Dragons of Eden. New York: Random House.
3 McGee, B. (2010) The Story of Philosophy. London: DK Books.
4 Holloway, R. (2005) Looking in the Distance. Canongate: Edinburgh.
Ryan Hopkins is the author of 52 Weeks of Wellbeing: A No-Nonsense Guide to a Fulfilling Work Life (Kogan Page, out now), Deloitte’s former Future of Wellbeing Leader and now Chief Impact Officer at pioneering digital wellbeing platform JAAQ.