The modern world can seem antagonistic to forming a strong sense of purpose. In addition to traditional stressors, such as poverty and loneliness, the modern world plagues us with entirely new sources of anxiety: perpetual connectivity, social media addiction, the need to multitask, the threat of identity theft, etc. Given this new anxiety-ridden world, it’s no wonder finding a sense of purpose can seem like a lost cause.
It’s easy to imagine a simpler time, when life wasn’t so antithetical to purpose-making. Can’t we go back to the good old days when we could work more with our hands, spend more time with family, and for God’s sake never have to stare for hours on end at screens? Couldn’t we then more easily achieve a strong sense of purpose?
In reality, a great many of us have the ability — technically speaking — to return to a simple life. If you have a middle-class life right now in America, you can always purchase a plot of land in the middle of nowhere for dirt cheap, build a cabin, start a garden, fish and hunt, wake up with the sunrise, and go to bed with the sunset. So, if meaning and purpose are found in that life, why don’t more of us go for it?
The obvious answer to this question is perhaps hard to admit: our sense of purpose is fundamentally entangled with the modern way of life. So long as you live in the modern world, the process of developing your sense of purpose requires navigating the intricate systems and simulacra of modernity.
Having a strong sense of purpose is closely related to envisioning and maintaining clear goals for your life. According to psychologists who study this topic: “The goals that foster a sense of purpose are ones that can potentially change the lives of other people, like launching an organization, researching disease, or teaching kids to read.”
In order to pursue goals of this sort (which is something we’re all encouraged to do from a very early age), you have to engage with the modern world. If you want to launch an organization, research a disease, or teach kids to read, you necessarily have to use modern tools. Even the most basic task of teaching children to read requires some level of interaction with, for example, the modern financial system to facilitate payment transactions. And I presume that the most effective teachers these days regularly incorporate sophisticated learning tools using modern tech platforms.
So far, this all might seem fairly obvious. But the argument I’d like to make is a bit more fundamental. Imagine if you went back in time a few hundred or a few thousand years — as long ago as you’d like while still being human. It’s a safe bet that you’d find yourself playing a familiar game. Your daily life would involve using the knowledge and tools of your culture to serve the needs of yourself, your family, and your community. You might say that your life purpose is so serve some ancient deity, but upon reflection you might notice that that deity is itself a type of technology embedded within your contemporary society.
No matter how far back you go in our history, the story of humanity is the story of learning, building, teaching — on an endless cycle, from one generation to the next. After thousands of years of this, we’re so deeply entrenched in the knowledge, skills, and artifacts of our ancestors that we no longer have a reference point for “base” reality. And indeed the moment we started passing down knowledge and skills, we stopped living in “base” reality, and instead began living within the knowledge and products that were created by those who came before us.
Put another way: Each cultural artifact you encounter represents the culmination of someone else’s life purpose. By accepting that world as it comes to us in modernity, we acknowledge and appreciate the life purposes of our ancestors. And by adding our own goals to the cascading web of human creation, we build further upon this same tapestry, handing our best work down to future generations.
If you stand back for a moment to take in all the books, all the computer programs, all the city skylines, etc., you’ll start to get the impression that it’s all connected within some grander purpose. It’s not national, not bound within some particular time, company, or culture. It’s a goal-oriented project we all belong to — a collective spirit of perpetually learning, building, and teaching, which could reasonably be called the purpose of humanity.
As humanity takes on increasingly more challenging goals (e.g. curing cancer, connecting everyone digitally, becoming interplanetary), it’s inevitable that modern individuals will find life more challenging. But the fundamental challenge remains the same as it has always been: finding a meaningful goal that can potentially change the lives of other people. Given this perspective, the modern world is more fertile than ever for discovering one’s sense of purpose in life.