Why are you so downtrodden?
Anxious, depressed, angry – Watch the news, read the social media feeds, ask the hard questions in line at the grocery store – You’ll find we struggle with meaninglessness and hopelessness.
And it doesn’t make sense.
Things are going really well, actually.
Never has there been so much wealth in this world. Fewer hungry people exist today than 25 yrs ago despite population growth.[i] We’ve seen the poorest sections of Africa and India create clean water sanctuaries and join the world with access to internet. You can speak with friends and family members right at this moment who live across the country without waiting for a letter to be delivered and sent back.
Contrast the world we live in with the one that existed only a short time ago.
Citizens used to defecate in the streets of even the most affluent cities with the vast majority of the world’s population living from one indigestion-causing piece of stale or rotten bread to another. Having grandparents was a rare happening as world life-expectancy hovered somewhere between 30 and 50 years in most places. And don’t even get me started on the effectiveness of medical help for modern-day “simple” issues like impacted wisdom teeth, strep throat, or appendicitis.[ii]
It is difficult to imagine that much of the world was filled with daily aches and pains, hunger, and a level of abject poverty that would make current American homelessness an international upper-middle class, but this is all true. This was our not-too-distant past.
Now here we are, in the future. And what are we doing with it? Why do so many of us struggle with such base and awful feelings when the world is so much better than it used to be?
Why do we struggle to find meaning? What can we do to find it again?
A strange dichotomy in our #firstworldproblem culture is that so many systems allow us to shirk responsibility by choice and thus remove the mantle of our world’s betterment from our own shoulders.
That guy on the street corner—there are shelters for that, I don’t need to take action. My children’s development —that’s what schools, daycare, and nannies are for, I don’t need to work on becoming a better parent. A cause I’m passionate about – that’s what Facebook likes and heartfelt shares are for, right?
In social psychology, the phenomena is known as “the bystander effect”. When we feel many are watching and present, it takes the onus off of us to act even when we know “someone needs to do something”. This affect paralyzes us from taking action. And the actions we do take are often only a visage of effectiveness in place of a truly needed resolution, but that’s a topic for another letter.
The paradox is this: The more our responsibility for the world around us fades, the freer we are to “do what we want”. It turns out that such freedom is easily squandered on meaningless hedonism (slavery to superficial pleasures…eating too much sugar, binge-watching Netflix, staying up too late doing nothing productive…using time and energy in a way that’s not good for you or anyone else) culminating in the highest rates of depression that the industrialized world has ever seen.[iii] Funny how little happiness money can actually buy after the bills are paid.
It turns out that to have meaning, human beings need to feel needed. You want to have more meaning in your life? Look around. Find a “you” sized problem to solve and go about solving it. It’s really that simple.
Take note that the responsibility of filling a gap will limit your freedom to do what you want in the here and know. That’s the great trade!
Do you want to do whatever you like while living meaninglessly? Or are you willing to impose restrictions upon yourself in order to allow others to depend on you giving you responsibility and meaning? You can’t have it both ways.
If you’re ready to come out of the depression of obscurity and emptiness, start finding ways to be responsible for something in your world. You’ll thank me later.
Is the outside world and all of its problems, worries, and genuine nihilism eating at you? Why not take a look inside of yourself?
The deeper you understand your own inner workings, thoughts, feelings, desires, and actions the more you’ll find that the beauty, trials, and makeup of who you are bring life meaning.
Regardless of your spiritual belief, you are a conscious life form on a planet hurtling through space at thousands of miles an hour. You get to love, laugh, pity, act, fight, worry, and cry. If you are reading these words then your inner life is likely just as unique and awe-striking as every sunset and mountain stream. AND it is only measured by YOUR experience without subjugation to the opinions of the world around you.
In an in-depth look at world history through the lens of psychology, Carl Jung – the originator of personality psychology (you know, extrovert vs. introvert and so on) — said it these ways.
“Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
“As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”
“For a young person, it is almost a sin, or at least a danger, to be too preoccupied with himself; but for the ageing person, it is a duty and a necessity to devote serious attention to himself.”
You want more meaning in your life? Spend at least 10minutes a day alone purposefully looking inside. At first it will feel silly, but trust me, the deeper you go, the more meaning you’ll find in the person you are, the person you are not, and the person you want to be.
You want more meaning and less anxiety? “Know thyself” – You really are all you have.
The Strength of The West
In the past 60 Million years of Homo Sapiens’ history, the last 3 thousand or so of philosophy, science, and religion gave birth to a simple but important idea.
The individual trumps the collective.
History has shown us that this idea gives rise to innovation, economic prosperity, and personal self-actualization. How can we contribute to a whole and flourishing society if we are not whole and flourishing ourselves?
Take away all of the income inequality, gender gaps, and medical suffering and what are you still left with? The group cannot impart or force meaning onto the individual.
In reality, it is of utmost importance that we all cultivate our individuality and become the hero in our own life stories. Individual virtue, productivity, and freedom to take responsibility, dive deeper, and grow ourselves has propelled (and will continue to) our culture into unprecedented betterment and provision.
If we are to continue on this trajectory, we need to stop letting others (especially the state) take responsibility for our place in the world. We need to find out who we are.
The anxiety, depression, and anger make way for hope, purpose, and love.
And we stop relying on our government to make ourselves and our world a better place.