There is a crisis of Meaning in our world today. Many people have told me that they feel overwhelmed, lonely, and unfulfilled. In chasing the “good life,” they have sacrificed their relationships, their health, and, at the end of the day, still find themselves with lives and work that bring them little joy and meaning. Depression is on the rise and many people simply can’t cope with the pace of change brought on by technological, cultural, and social transformations.
Throughout the many years that I have researched, taught, and written about the human quest for Meaning, people have told me they feel empty because they have lost connections with others due to the transitory natureof life : moving across the country; no longer belonging to or feeling connected to neighborhoods, organizations, social groups, religious groups, or political causes; feeling disconnected from society and fearing that their country is on the wrong track; worrying that terrorists will further disrupt their lives and they will have no one to turn to for help and support.
People have shared with me that they feel empty because they lack purpose in their day, not having an inspiring reason to get up in the morning. They worry about being left behind in the job market as more organizations lay off workers or cut hours and benefits. They worry about the instability of constantly chasing contract or part-time jobs. They feel like they are hamsters on the treadmill of life, running faster and faster and still getting nowhere. Older people have told us they wonder if they should they have done something more or something different with their life. Did they settle for something less than they really wanted or expected in their life?
People have also told me they are feeling overwhelmed with financial pressures, drowning under a stack of bills that can’t be paid, and stressing about family obligations, including wayward teens and elders suffering from dementia. They worry that their unhealthy lifestyles have led to a vicious cycle of obesity, low energy, and depression.
Many people are sensing this emptiness, this existential vacuum1, but are not sure what to do about it. Some turn to drugs and other forms of avoidance, some put on a happy face to mask the issues, while others simply withdraw and postpone living a full life. Although not imprisoned with real barbed wire and steel, many people feel like they are “prisoners” in their own lives.
As I have written about for some time now, the solution or antidote is not about the search for happiness or “positive psychology.” Happiness is an emotion that is linked to pleasure but it is fleeting; it doesn’t last. We can share a happy moment when we are enjoying a good meal or a good laughwith a friend, but this emotion only lasts a short time. Sooner or later, we must face and respond to the challenges life throws at us. We must be ready to take on the fullness of life — the ups and downs, the joys and sorrows, the pleasures as well as the suffering. As we wrote in our book, The OPA! Way, the ancient Greek philosophers, such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, wisely taught us so many years ago: life is not about living the happy life; it’s about living the complete life, the meaningful life.2