How Do Atheists Console Themselves? June 8, 2009

How Do Atheists Console Themselves?

From a reader:

As atheists we know better than to use woo to console us: Karma, prayer, chakras, puh-lease…

But I really need to re-charge as the world of non-profit in which I work goes from suck to doomsday across the country. The more I try to come up with a logical solution to this problem the worse I feel. The thoughtful answers are no good.

So what do you do when you feel like you are on the Titanic?

What do you do to make yourself feel better when all the news you hear is depressing?

Turning to friends or family is the best answer I can think of, though that is usually temporary. Even though it’s nice to know there are people who love and support you, the problems won’t disappear on their own.

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  • Claudia

    I don’t think there’s any one solution as to what a person can do to console themselves. It’s going to vary widely depending on the person involved.

    Some people may want to distract themselves completely with lighthearted things: Watch a silly comedy, go out with friends unrelated to the object of your depression, play sports, videogames etc.

    Some people feel best when they feel they are achieving something. In that case, it might be a good idea to look into something with relatively easy gratification. Sign up to be a Big Brother or Big Sister, help a neighbor with home repairs, help out at an animal shelter or visit kids in hospitals (though these last two might be counter-productive for certain people very sensitive to suffering).

    Finally, a word in defense of meditation. The fact that the effects of meditation are explained through ki (or woo, or chakra) does not mean that those effects don’t exist. I haven’t seen a shred of evidence that there is any such thing as the “energy” I’ve had described to me during Ki exercises, but I have noticed the very real effects of concentration and controlled breathing on my body. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Meditation does have benefits, even if their justification is often layered with supernatural mythology.

  • There isn’t a specific thing I use to console myself. Years ago I did tend to turn to alcohol or self-harm but thankfully that’s all behind me. Then I had a wife to help out but unfortunately things fell apart there. Now I just tend to accept that life is always going to have bad parts – the universe has no inherent, built-in sense of fairness and does not owe me a happy life.

    We’re responsible for our lives and that includes, to a certain extent, our happiness. These days I feel that just accepting that responsibility and getting on with things gives me enough of a boost to help me through whatever bad times happen to be upon me.

  • I think every atheist has to come to terms with the fact that there is no cosmic supernatural force that’s going to make things OK. The only way things are going to get better is if we take action ourselves. We also need to acknowledge that there are some things that we do not have the power to change, but there is no need to feel as if it’s part of some sort of supernatural punishment for bad behavior or that it’s necessary as part of a master plan. There’s no god that can make things better, but there’s also no devil making things bad.

  • Matt

    I think a lot of what Cannonball said in his second paragraph hits it on the spot. It is our responsibility and strangely enough that sentiment that the Universe doesn’t owe us anything, rather than being depressing, is humbling and truely… amazing because we are part of the intricate tapestry of life, just experiencing short bursts of it. It’s just amazing.

    I console myself by listening to a favourite song, reading a great book. I also love viewing sunrises and sunsets and watching the clouds move slowly across the sky. It just gives this humbling feeling beyond… beyond words. The Universe is not here for us and we are just so lucky to be able to observe it and bask in its wonder.

    These things I guess are rather un-orthodox ways of cheering yourself up.

  • I usually feel better when I’m learning something. Anything that get my brain making new connections will do the trick.

    I also read recently, in the book The Art of Possibility by Ben and Rosamund Zander, that if you can have presence in the moment- without resistance, then you can take on the question “What do I do from here?” Their example is a vacation in FL where it’s raining. The tendency is to focus on how all your plans are ruined. They suggest acknowledging that yes it’s raining, and it’s disappointing. Now what other options do we have to spend our time? Read a book, have great sex, go see a movie, catch the next flight to sunny Arizona, etc. They give another example with Jane Goodall and how she can keep speaking and working to help the planet, despite all of the horrors she’s seen.

  • Gavrilo

    The reader who posted this question might not like this, but I think there is no consolation for us..

    Studies have shown that religious people tend to be happier in life, which can be easily explained by the fact that you don’t have to think so much about the world we live in, and, ultimately, you don’t have to worry about children starving in Africa because, after all, God is already worrying about them.

    So I fear that we won’t have an easy consolation such as religion, which may be the price to pay for having a more accute view of the world…

  • Depressed? Having dismissed the idea of a cosmic puppet master manipulating our lives for his amusement I find myself generally cheerful. When some things get me down I try to look on the bright side of life.

    Some things in life are bad
    They can really make you mad
    Other things just make you swear and curse.
    When you’re chewing on life’s gristle
    Don’t grumble, give a whistle
    And this’ll help things turn out for the best…

    And…always look on the bright side of life…
    Always look on the light side of life…

    If life seems jolly rotten
    There’s something you’ve forgotten
    And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing.
    When you’re feeling in the dumps
    Don’t be silly chumps
    Just purse your lips and whistle – that’s the thing.

    And…always look on the bright side of life…
    Always look on the light side of life…

    For life is quite absurd
    And death’s the final word
    You must always face the curtain with a bow.
    Forget about your sin – give the audience a grin
    Enjoy it – it’s your last chance anyhow.

    So always look on the bright side of death
    Just before you draw your terminal breath

    Life’s a piece of shit
    When you look at it
    Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true.
    You’ll see it’s all a show
    Keep ’em laughing as you go
    Just remember that the last laugh is on you.

    And always look on the bright side of life…
    Always look on the right side of life…
    (Come on guys, cheer up!)
    Always look on the bright side of life…
    Always look on the bright side of life…
    (Worse things happen at sea, you know.)
    Always look on the bright side of life…
    (I mean – what have you got to lose?)
    (You know, you come from nothing – you’re going back to nothing.
    What have you lost? Nothing!)
    Always look on the right side of life…

  • I just shrug and keep going.

    I guess I’m fortunate, in that I’m pretty much unflappable and centered. A bad day may make me cranky, but by the next day, it’s done and forgotten.

    I guess my release mechanism is ranting humorously and sarcastically, probably caused by watching too much MST3K.

  • Valentin

    First, religion never saved people on the titanic. Money did. If you have to die in atrocity, I do not see why you need be consoled.

    Secondly, if religion was a cure for depression, we would know it.

  • Nick Awesomeson

    I masturbate. Masturbation, Video games and comic books.

  • Kahomono

    Read some Vonnegut

  • Todd

    Read Kafka.

  • chinaman

    i agree with Gavrilo, maybe this is the price we pay. although i think consolation is available, but not in the form that theists have, ie bullshit.
    i think it’s good for us, it forces us to really face the problem and deal with it.

  • Cafeeine

    I mirror some of the others above. I engage in various forms of escapism, like games, reading, movies etc. Another thing that I now do to prevent such bouts of depression is try to anticipate my worse-case scenarios, following a mantra of hoping for the best, but expecting the worst.

    As a comment to what Gavrilo said, I think it is a byproduct of the ubiquitous nature of religious escapism. A factor in depression in former believers comes from knowing that there isn’t in fact a pot at the end of the rainbow. Accepting that gods do not exist is one step, acknowledging there is a manufactured god-shaped hole in your outlook on life is another.
    it also has to do with getting diminished expectations. If I told you you would get a $10.000 check in 24 hours you would be gladdened. if I told you however you were gonna get a $1 million check in 24 hours, but instead I give you a $20.000 check, you will be nonplussed, and depressed qabout it than in the first example, even if the money doubled in the second case, because you’re mentally comparing it to the million. You may even prefer the fantasy of getting the million over the actual 20.000 bucks. The trick is to realize that there never was a million, and that whatever situation makes us feel depressed isn’t going to change just because we wish it so, nor because we get depressed about it.

  • Ron in Houston

    Shakespeare had it down:

    for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so

    Perhaps a little simplistic but consider some more brilliant British philosophy from Monty Python’s Life of Brian:

    Life’s a piece of shit
    When you look at it

    Painful things happen in life however it’s totally up to you whether you suffer or not. You can’t find peace, happiness, or consolation outside of yourself.

  • Ann

    This is what I do, and mostly by order:

    1. The quick and easy method: Friends + Family.
    2. Other methods: Blogging about it or venting it in some other public forum that allows me to give others the opportunity to listen and console me.
    3. Internally: work through the problem even when it seems “hopeless” and proactively work with myself (with or without including others) on the next steps to take to fix it. Its not hopeless if you can take control of it, even if its just a matter of changing your attitude.

  • Joe

    Might sound simple, but when it gets really stressful, I just think “This too shall pass.” Just have to remind myself that what is bad now just may not seem as bad, or even important, when remembered.

    That, coffee and sarcasm can get you through pretty much anything. 🙂

  • Miykael Poly

    I am kind of a freak, as in that I have never been drunk, so I dont find alocohol or drugs necessary.

    I guess I am more of a escapist, in that when I feel like I need to be consoled, I prefer to dodge the subject. Usually I play WoW or watch tv-series.

  • beckster

    I tend to keep in mind that in life one has to put up with some awful shit to appreciate the wonderful stuff. Going through something truly horrible (losing a brother at age 25 was mine) really does put things into perspective.

    To get rid of a bad mood, I find some alone time is the best medicine for me.

  • I think through things. I sit myself down and go “Okay, why am I feeling like this.” When I figure that out, I ask “Can I do anything about the problem?” If the answer is yes, I get to work- action inevitably makes me feel better. If the answer is no, then why waste so much emotional energy on it? Feeling bad, I tell myself, won’t fix a thing, and will ruin other unrelated aspects of my life- so then I have something else I can work on.

    Of course, it’s never as simple as saying “I’m not going to feel bad”, but if I put that as a solid goal to work towards- reminding myself when I get into destructive patterns of thought that I’m not being reasonable, seeking out positive things like friends, family, indulgences (mmm, chocolate) or much loved hobbies/distractions, and generally focusing on what I can do, not what I can’t, I get past things much faster than if I simply wallow. It’s all about taking action, in the end.

  • Ken McKnight

    Exercise works for me.

  • Robert Thille

    What’s worked for me lately is hanging out with friends and getting exercise.

    Of course, there can be comfort in the arms of the opposite sex, or same sex, depending on what you’re in to.

  • medussa

    Exercise is great. So is meditation or yoga. So is sex. Going to a museum. Playing World of Warcraft.
    Reminding yourself that as much as you have dedicated your life to a non profit, and that goal is admirable and necessary, and people rely on you: You can’t fix it all. This country was in a bad way BEFORE Bush got his stupid nitwit hands on it, and now people like you have to suffer the fallout. Do the best you can do, and then you have to let it go.

  • djdew

    Do selfless, nice things for other people.

  • Exercise works for me. Just keeping calm on a daily basis is important.

  • This reminded me of a blog post called “10 articles that changed my life”, most people are depressed for a very good reason

  • I also think to myself “It could be worse” and when people ask me how I say “It could be raining”…or flooding if it’s raining….or you could be on fire and then you’d be better off in a flood. There’s always something worse that could happen so it is important to make the very best of what you have now.

    There really is no point on dwelling on errors and mistakes or in bad situations beyond the necessary steps of learning from your errors so you don’t repeat them. Lingering doubts tend to build up and don’t really help. It is worthwhile consoling yourself with the knowledge that any mistake is a learning experience.

  • Sea

    If it’s just a general malaise or mild depression about particular things that are happening, I can usually get rid of it by focusing on the abstract instead of the immediate. Philosophy does the trick.

    If it’s more acute and I can’t focus on anything, I squeeze my guitarist hand exerciser. The act of trying to crush something (without doing any actual damage) can bring me back to normal.

    Even when I was religious I never felt like talking to God would help me out, despite my earnest attempts. I certainly don’t need any gods now.

  • lazareus

    spark a fatty.

  • I second the comment above
    “This too shall pass”.

    Focus on the big picture.
    If something bad happens and you get all depressed about it, you just turned one bad thing into two bad things. Try to keep a positive mental attitude. Be creative. Humor is always good. Finding other activities to distract you can provide temporary relief.

    Again, always remember the motto “This too shall pass”. It always does. Just make sure are around when it does pass.

  • Tom N

    Movies. In theaters preferably. That is my church.

  • Twin-Skies

    Not an atheist here, but I’m pretty much in agreement with most of the regulars here regarding religion and new-age mumbo-jumbo.

    I’ve always found jogging to help with bad news, as does hitting the heavy bag, sparring, or practicing stick drills.

    Basically anything that needs my full mental and physical attention, and requires that I take my mind off any particular distractions.

    The problems seems less troublesome when I get back to them after a 2-3 hour session. That and I feel more relaxed and focused.

    @Nick Awesomeso
    Well there’s always those alternatives when I have an injury or the weather’s bad. Mostly manga for me though.

    Oh, and Stephen Colbert! He has yet to fail at making me smile.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    “I think every atheist has to come to terms with the fact that there is no cosmic supernatural force that’s going to make things OK.” — Fledchen

    Isn’t how we as atheists define ourselves anyway?

    * * * * *

    On a tactical level, to get out of a funk, I strap on the guitar, get the tubes in my Valveking 212 hot and sweaty, and throw down some blues, or jazz, or rock, or even . . . funk.

    And I remember the Serenity Prayer my mom had hanging the kitchen wall:

    “God grant me the strength to change the things which need to change;

    the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;

    and the wisdom to know the difference.”

    Although, as an atheist, I utter not as a plea to god, but as a directive to myself. Usually does the trick.

  • toby

    How to shake out of a depression …

    Listening to classical (including religious) music, reciting poetry aloud (I like Henley’s Invictus), re-reading a treasured book, watching a favourite movie, reading a science or philosophy book, a long walk in a nice location… the possibilities are endless.

  • Bo J

    On a lighter note, there is nothing that can stop the healing power of dancing. Lame as it sounds, it really helps. Might I suggest Matt and Kim’s “daylight” to get you started, it’s certainly a toe-tapper.

    Or, the movie Hot Fuzz, starring Nick Frost and Simon Pegg. Dry British humor gets me every time.

  • Karen

    The big appeal of religion for most people is that it (supposedly) takes away those unhappy feelings of unease and worry we all face.

    “It’s god’s will” “the lord will work this out for my good” etc. are the platitudes that the religious cling to, and without them life can be stark – especially if you’ve grown up falling back on the idea of a loving god who’s in charge of your destiny.

    What I have learned to do is just face up to the negative. Life sucks sometimes, and that’s awful. But you can learn to be “in the moment” and accept that you feel badly from time to time and that is a real part of life. Instead of escaping to a fantasy, you work through the negative – a healthier, more adult response in the long run (I think).

    The thing that helped me the most is the realization that while you can’t control the bad circumstances of life, you can control your response to it, and that’s the most important thing.

    So you can respond poorly, selfishly and wallow in your sadness or disappointment, or you can respond positively, do something for others and look on the bright side, which generally makes you feel better pretty quickly. There are times when we have to all go through depressions, however, and that’s okay.

    Part of letting go of god, for me, was learning to accept myself for good and bad.

  • Ashley

    When I feel bad I try to remind myself of how mucky I am to live the life I am to and for the opportunities I have. Using an outlet like blogging is also very therapeutic as is involving yourself in community/group events.

  • I’m probably the worst person to give advice, since I’m prone to bouts of depression that I don’t exactly handle well… But when my ex of 2 years broke up with me in the most dramalicious way I could imagine, I did the only thing I could think of to cheer myself up: I threw a drag party at my place. Scribbling on a fake goatee, watching my male friends arrive in pretty dresses, and consuming large amounts of alcohol was about the best thing I could have done for myself.

    If that doesn’t float your boat, chocolate. Lots and lots of chocolate.

  • The thing about atheism is that there isn’t one answer to that question. What someone is going to find consoling in a bad situation is going to depend, not only on the person, but on the specifics of the situation. The things I find consoling in the face of, say, a financial setback are going to be different from the things I find consoling in the face of artistic frustration… which will be different again from the things I find consoling when a loved one dies.

    But if I had one all- purpose source of consolation, it would probably be this thought:

    This, too, shall pass.

    When things are hard, I try to remember other hard times in my life, even times that seemed irrevocably and inconsolably hard. And I remember that I got through them, and got to a place where I was happy and satisfied again. Even if I can’t remember how exactly I got through it, remembering that I did helps keep me hanging on.

    Like others here, I also recommend taking care of yourself: being sure to exercise, eat well, get sleep, etc. (Exercise especially is a wonderful stress- reducer.) And the company of people who love you, of course, is vital: whether to help you with soul- searching, or mindless distraction, or just making you not feel alone and reminding you of why you soldier on. But for me, the main thing is always remembering other hard times that I’ve been through, and remembering that I am, in fact, resilient.

  • Cathy Jones has put together a website… Godless Grief. There is a forum there and some other resources.

  • ME

    Remember without the blah days you wouldn’t appreciate the good days. Rather than try to force yourself to feel good when you feel crummy, investigate the problem and attack it with some rational realistic thinking (cognitive therapy).


    Negative: I feel crummy. The economy stinks, people have no jobs and people are not giving us money.

    Realistic and true (won’t work if you tell yourself phony, upbeat B.S.): The economy does stink and people are getting laid off. But most experts say the economy is recovering, people will be giving more and jobs should return as well. In the meantime I can do stuff I like (exercise, painting, hanging out, whatever). There is no law that says life has to be fun and meaningful all the time, but I can do things that I know I enjoy, and I can comfort those who are unemployed and struggling. Hey, at least I still have a job.

    Some good authors on cognitive therapy who have written very atheist friendly books are Albert Ellis, Aaron Beck, and David Burns.

  • My solution pisses most people off, but I find it suprisingly effective for myself. I just say, “This is how it is. I can deal with it, or I can deny it.”

    And then magically I feel better. Sometimes it’s not much, but it always helps just a little. And I know the result every time; no crapshoot attempt at banking all my money on a prayer.

  • stephanie

    Watching “Where the Hell is Matt” always works for an instant reminder of the indomitable buoyancy of the human spirit.
    Then there’s always taking a stark look at my situation and seeing if it’s really 100% bad, or calling friends/family to ask for good news.
    Games can sometimes work, too. I know when my mother was dying of cancer I went through Sudoku like a demon while my brother played Call of Duty from the time he put his kids to bed until he could sleep. Sometimes it’s enough just to do something mindless for a while.

  • Euan

    Ride a bike, you’ll feel like a kid again.

    Flippancy aside, physical exercise out in the fresh air has positive mental effects.

  • Tom

    I sleep a lot until I’m prepared to at least minimally face it. Then I call a friend and ask them to please lend me a shoulder to cry on.

  • Arlo

    I don’t really “console” myself. If I’m alive, things are pretty hunky dory, but if I need a pick-me-up I just tend to my needs as a human being. A hike out somewhere in the sun, some vigorous weight lifting, doing something fun and social with my friends.

    If I’m not feeling social, making sure I strength train and get a nights proper rest usually has me back to normal by the next day.

  • Julia

    I volunteer with a non-profit (small animal rescue) and when it gets bad I remind myself of all good that has been done instead of all the work there is left to do and how hopeless often is. I have yet to be unable to smile when I’m with happy rabbits who are running, jumping with joy, and zooming up to take treats from me.
    Black humor is pretty common too. I like to invite my fellow volunteers to pull up a chair and help me try to empty the ocean one teaspoon at a time. 😛
    The stupid thing is I started to do the volunteer work to make myself feel better when I was going through a horrible time with multiple deaths in my immediate family.
    Other ways I try to make myself feel better are much the same as those already mentioned. Computer or video games, friends, exercise, funny movies or tv, finding easy stuff to fix or at least stuff that has a solution and sleep. I’m a big fan of sleep, which is just avoidance, but at least I’m well rested!

  • Robin

    First, make sure I’m getting enough exercise. Next, check my diet. It’s amazing how bleak things start looking when you are not eating enough fruits and veggies, and sometimes if you are not eating enough lean protein. Then, honestly, clean your living space. It’s something that you can control and when you live in dirt, it makes you feel bad in the place that you should feel safe.
    You are addressing a microcosm of the big problem, facing things in life that are outside of your control. That’s why trying to come up with a logical solution makes you feel worse, because this is not something you can control. People who believe in gods solve this by telling themselves that someone else is controlling it, but practically, that is exactly the same. You can realize that there are things in life that you cannot control without accepting that “god’s” taking care of it. So it’s important to look at two categories of life: things I can change, and things that I can’t. Which is really hard, because people in education or charities want to think that they can change the world. Sometimes it is better and more realistic, to give yourself the luxury of triage.

  • When things go bad I turn to… life for comfort. I haven’t had and extraordinary life but it was a pretty good one. Remembering that I experienced life “counsciously” always gets me going. Sometimes an image of earth from space, a recent documentary I saw on Discovery Channel, the memory of the fishes I swam along in the Red Sea, the sensation of going on a roller coaster or the feeling I had during my first flight are enough.

  • Jeff Flowers

    Basically, I remind myself that none of this will matter in a thousand years.

  • One more thing. There is a lot to be said for just doing something when you’re feeling down. There is nothing worse for depression than sitting about in a grungy dressing gown surrounded by unwashed plates (or pizza boxes), dirty laundry and mess. Get up and clean up, organise things, put stuff away, do something with your hands :winks: or read a book.

    When my mother died my brother floundered and it was left to me (big brother) to organise the funeral, get a coffin and burial plot, get the service ordered, put a notice in the paper, ring all her friends and our family, sort out probate and bills, terminate all contracts, clear her flat, return her disability gear and all the other stuff that needed to be done. I had so much to do that I couldn’t sit around weeping and wailing. I even forced my brother to drive me around so he’d keep busy.

    I don’t feel that keeping busy is avoiding the issue because I was doing something that had to be done and would have acted as a weight around my neck if it hadn’t been done. You can see similar behaviour in people who decide to run marathons to raise funds for cancer or work towards a goal to help others. Keeping occupied helps to keep depression at bay.

  • Kdk

    Thank you for sharing these personal, thoughtful ways to console oneself. I bet the religious people whom Gavrilo refers to are as depressed or empty as any escapist. But there are those who don’t just assume God is worrying about the starving but believe he is expecting them to be his “hands” and “arms” and feed the hungry. I believe these activists are more fulfilled and joyful, even in the face of extreme poverty.

    One such activist I know, who is a Christian, is Gary Haugen who started International Justice Mission, His consoles himself in depressing situations by seeing what good can come from actions like those hoverFrog just mentioned. Gary writes:

    “In concrete terms, what does that desperation look like? For me, it means being confronted with a videotape of hundreds of young girls in Cambodia being put on open sale to be raped and abused by sex tourists and foreign pedophiles. It means going into a brothel in Cambodia as part of an undercover investigation and being presented with a dozen girls between the ages of five and ten who are being forced to provide sex to strangers. It means being told by everyone who should know that there is nothing that can be done about it. It means facing death threats for my investigative colleagues, high level police corruption, desperately inadequate aftercare capacities for victims and a hopelessly corrupt court system. It means going to God in honest argument and saying, “Father, we cannot solve this,” and hearing him say, “Do what you know best to do, and watch me with the rest.” In the end it means taking that risky bargain and seeing God do more than I could have hoped or imagined—setting girls free, providing high-quality aftercare, bringing the perpetrators to justice, shutting down the whole nasty operation, training the Cambodian authorities to do this work themselves and seeing the U.S. government willing to pay for it.”

    I’m not an atheist, but if I were, making a difference in others’ lives would lift me out of depression and give my life meaning. My husband goes to Ethiopia to teach teachers and sees first hand how a horribly impoverished people can be the most generous and truly joy-filled people. Why is this so?

  • tamarind

    When I’m stressed or depressed, I have a drink and a good night’s sleep.

  • Mike

    For the cure all, I remind myself that being a survivor is a better option than wallowing as a victim.

  • sam

    get a stuffed animal. either hug it or beat it up when you get depressed. works all the time, every time, for everything. seriously. just get one that’s really ugly so you won’t feel bad about punching it. eventaully, you will look at what you are doing and think “this is ridiculous; I am so not going to keep punching/hugging this thing.” you will be laughing, and the depression will leave (although that may be because you realized how stupid you looked). =)

    In all seriousness, though the above method does work over little things, if you are really depressed, try to talk to someone. Write it down. Or, develop a solution. If your job sucks, what can you do to make it better? Even if you don’t want to quit, you can do something!!!

    I know this thread said how do athiests console themselves, but I actually did not realize religious people had it any better… you might be able to trust your god if you are religious, but that won’t solve the problem. I think we all face the same issues here.

  • Manuel2p

     Wow, thinking about that would make even more depressed… because I would be DEAD.

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