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Purpose & meaning in life: why we all need our own Moby Dick

Having a purpose or a life aim, one that we can more on less picture ahead of us, is crucial for our well-being. Having a purpose doesn’t mean “to be happy” or to reach some unattainable goal (or else), but rather to look forward and feel useful, with long-term challenges that keep us motivated.

About one month ago, we shared in the community tab one video originally posted nine months prior. We produced it in the Biellese Alps, Italy, with the help of our friend Paolo, who was born in the area.

In the video, a family showed us how they learned to cope with the region’s industrial decline by producing small batches of high-quality textile products on old machines essentially discarded by others abandoning ship.

Reinventing an individual and familial purpose

It all had started almost fortuitously: the area is rich in centenarian know-how of textile techniques, hosting the headquarters of successful companies that started as small shops, such as Ermenegildo Zegna. With only old machines and know-how, the Trinchieri family completed their small farm with alpacas, first perceived as nothing more than pets.

Given the animals’ high-quality wool, Andrea Trinchieri put his know-how and ingenuity to work, using salvaged spinning machines and building his own high-precision loom to knit their products. By overcoming difficulties with naïveté and imagination, the Trinchieris are now thriving and have to choose their projects.

The video, which hasn’t reached as many visits as others, was appreciated by a commenter:

“Thank you guys so much for this inspiring work – I know that it must be exhausting sometimes. But it means so much to ‘meet’ special people like this from around the world who live outside the box.”

Indeed, we work hard producing the stories, but I found it amusing that somebody might have thought that doing something I consider purposeful can be “exhausting.” So, I decided to reply to the comment:

“We both have read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning’ (recommended). We have nothing to whine about. When what you do is aligned with your idea of “meaningful” stuff, there’s no exhaustion but healthy tiredness. When you’re tired, you rest regularly, eat well, sleep well.”

The search for meaning in what you do

When we find true meaning in what we do, I tried to explain everything else is secondary, bearable, and, most times, constructive.

Another example, this time more popular for Kirsten’s watchers: at the beginning of the twentieth century, when Sicilian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere chose the California Central Valley town of Fresno to settle, he wanted to grow a citrus orchard, but he soon realized that the 80-acre plot he had purchased had “hardpan” soil unfit for farming.

We wouldn’t have known the story of Baldassare had he chosen to surrender and dedicate his efforts to any other activity. But, as Shera Rodrick explained to us, “when life gave Baldassare lemons, he decided to make limoncello with it.”

He didn’t overcome the obstacle, but invented a whole new way of living in Fresno. During the 1906 heat wave across California, he decided to excavate a home underground with just hand tools, a Fresno scrapper, and two mules.

You got lemons, go ahead and make lemonade

Soon, Baldassare was growing an underground orchard in desertic land by essentially excavating several acres of rooms, tunnels, a chapel, one aquarium, courtyards for farming, and yes, an innovative, climate-controlled orchard. Despite having no education or architectural training, Forestiere built Roman arches for support, which still holds. Most citrus trees from the area die at around 50, but the trees planted by Baldassare are still healthy and yielding fruit one hundred years after they were planted.

Driving after our visit, I couldn’t help but think that Baldassare’s story is so inspiring because he found a life purpose and followed it with determination to create a very personal kind of beauty: wouldn’t he have faced such bad circumstances, Forestiere wouldn’t be a part of our conversation today.

He would have had a more conventional, perhaps equally fulfilling life; he wouldn’t have felt the urge to overcome extreme heat and unproductivity in his barren lot by creating an incredible subterranean villa with a beautiful, productive citrus orchard, his very own garden of Eden on Earth. Today, the Forestiere Underground Gardens are open to the public.

Perhaps, stories like these can help us realize that fulfilling achievements carry a deep meaning to those who pursue them, even when others have a very different idea of dedication or success. And, in our contemporary society, we seem to be going through a period in which alienation and despair are prevalent among those who should be building their own towers of meaning and pursuing their very own Moby Dick.

Contemporary apathy and exhaustion

In today’s apparently busy and self-assured existences, it’s easy to get the feeling that there’s always something to do and so little time, and all experiences (no matter if professional, personal, or provided by entertainment) propel the individual to exhaustion.

German-Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han argues that we’ve entered an era of chronic, societal exhaustion. In his essay The Burnout Society, he argues that the previous world of institutions of control and discipline has been replaced by a place where screens, fitness studios, airports, etc. try to get our attention by showing us how to accomplish the apparent goal of our times: achievement.

People aren’t obedience-subjects (looking up to institutions) anymore but achievement-subjects instead, and they ought to be willing to embrace self-actualization and entrepreneurship, or else: the alternative in such a society that worships positivity and the can-do ethos is failing at such hyper-competition for success and becoming depressive or “loser,” the forbidden word when everybody can succeed with hard work. Hence “the burnout society,” exhaustion in a world of self-entrepreneurs punishing themselves with extra work for not living up to expectations.

Are these thoughts by Byung-Chul Han exaggerated? What does any of us have to say, according to what we experience and observe? Popular influencers insist on their inflated formula of success by working harder than ever, sleep deprivation, cognitive enhancement, and exercise routines that deliver happiness and success (according to them).

No wonder the formula seems to consist of working ourselves to exhaustion, then amusing ourselves to death, as Neil Postman noted in his 1985 analysis of a future of bliss mass fabrication through drugs, cognitive enhancement, and entertainment. The cognitive cocktail, not surprisingly, ends in burnout. Phenomena such as lack of engagement at work (“quiet quitting”), alienation through social withdrawal and into the digital world (hikikomori), and a sharp rise in behavioral diseases, from addictions to depression, are on the rise.

Race to keep us engaged

Among young and middle-aged men, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and self-reported alienation —i.e., not finding a purpose— have risen sharply with the new century. In the United States, young male adults ages 25 to 34 seem to be the most challenged, leading to the rise in “deaths of despair,” which more than tripled between 1992 and 2017 among middle-aged white Americans without a bachelor’s degree.

However, the phenomenon of alienation and burnout through despair and feeling of absence or life purpose is not as new as we’d like to think. Decadentism and alienation were a troubling trend in industrial societies at the end of the nineteenth century, right before important reforms brought prosperity to the new urban and suburban populations through higher salaries and time off. In 1897, French sociologist Émile Durkheim, studied what he called “anomic suicides,” or deaths caused by alienation in modern society.

Post-industrial society has dematerialized despair. Today, exhaustion and burnout migrate from the physical, mechanically repetitive efforts of old industrial jobs to the cognitive saturation of a world that migrates its attention to the digital realm. This process, marketed by the companies most benefiting from it as an incremental gain in personal freedom and cognitive enhancement, could be equally analyzed oppositely. Apple’s introduction of what the company astutely calls “spatial computing.”

The conquest of our reasoning and peripheral vision

This full immersion in dematerialized computers has been marketed as a less alienating version of the metaverse because people can attune their awareness of their physical surroundings while interacting with virtual tools like Tom Cruise’s character in Minority Report. Charlie Warzel explains in The Atlantic why the double engagement real-virtual world is a loaded promise:

“There is a moment in Apple’s demo where we see an exhausted-looking woman on a crowded airplane. A baby is wailing in the background. She adjusts the Vision Pro: The chaos of the plane fades to the background as she becomes one with her premium content. This full immersion has an obvious appeal but also represents “a total concession to the screens,” as New York’s John Herrman put it. I see the Vision Pro as a play for the last available acreage of pixel real estate: Your peripheral vision.”

As the first reviews arrive, there’s speculation about the success of a type of computing that hasn’t yet found a use compelling enough for people to compare the breakthrough with the arrival of the personal computer, the web, or the smartphone.

Basecamp’s co-founder Jason Fried summarized the other day the crossroads moment we’re in: after a few years of marginal incremental gains in technology and saturation of social media and all-you-can-eat platforms fighting for people’s attention with nothing new, two technologies arrive with something different, compelling, and with very different visions of the future: text-based, minimalistic generative AI, and immersive computing via glasses (still too heavy, bulky, expensive, but finally capable of inserting the digital realm on top of our sensorial perception, or what theoretical physicist David Deutsch calls “the fabric of reality“).

Is it enhancement, or postergation?

Generative AI and spatial computing want us to take the next step in human-computer interfaces, bringing our alienation to a different stage:

  • by pivoting to generative AI tools that promise to “liberate” us from the apparent burden of having a blank page in front of us, the angst of reasoning on our own and weighting our arguments analogically, we could give up much more than the cognitive discomfort that makes us human and prompt us to build reasonable arguments;
  • and by pivoting to inward-facing technology, we enter a stage in which our entire perceptual world, our sensorial “now,” is no less than a canvas for apps. Who will be deciding where the attention point is? If only for a moment, will people believe that such tool can cure despain through meditation and therapy apps?

Once again, the commercial quest by influential companies to sell tools to propel time-consuming, ultimately unfulfilling digital escapism as a human enhancement will be compelling to the masses. Transitioning from a world in which the majority use computing for limited work and leisure, then engage with reality as a choice, into one in which people want to escape what they see as the unbearable meaninglessness of their everyday life to put on a screen as reality fix, will seldom give people the life purpose they are lacking.

The symptoms of cultural decline (how much of it is fragmentation and noise, though?) and cognitive exhaustion are pervasive. They’ve been turned into the post-industrial common denominator that philosopher Byung-Chul Han and writers such as Michel Houellebecq analyze and portrait today, respectively.

In a world where music, books, and media archives aspire to be fully digital, the temptation to tamper into the master files is too high, and some commentators perceive the curation of analogical cultural artifacts as no less than a public service. Nobody can guarantee that publishing companies and organizations such as school boards and governments will respect the literality of previous texts and images.

Risks and advantages of an all-digital reference field

In a fashion out of Orwell’s 1984, Stalin doctored historical pictures to eliminate adversaries from history (and hence the retrospective reality we tell to each other). With generative AI and the cultural zeal of censoring words or entire texts (or other multimedia records), a few companies and organisms, public and private, could dictate our streaming content in the future, not only facilitating but curating our exhaustion. Physical books, magazines, paintings, vinyl, pictures, and archives can store a part of our collective knowledge.

Media fragmentation and saturation brought some advantages: for example, as content platforms competed with cable and TV, indie and regional studios could develop their own series, although this model is showing signs of saturation in a catalog full of formulaic platitudes.

More content meant a higher possibility for finding personally meaningful stories, fresher independent productions, and minority takes that weren’t as readily available as today. Eventually, however, hyper-competition contributed to the current feeling of overload and hangover, a concern expressed by audiences and by content producers. The use of generative AI (for brainstorming, scripting, and production) could exacerbate the feeling that formulaic content is taking over.

A larger and more personalized amount of media entertainment has also contributed to cultural anxiety and polarization. As people have the option to abandon a shared public discourse (and reality) to entrench themselves in a customized silo of content, the online world is turned into a partisan warzone in which some people find themselves in the dilemma of: either showing restraint and magnanimity at the expense of their views’ engagement in others; or radicalizing their posture to nurture the immediate reward mechanism of social media engagement.

Escape from freedom

Different theories explore the factors contributing to radicalization and despair, especially among middle-aged, suburban men in the United States. The decline of work as the realm of fulfillment and self-identification is one such factor. Others, more complex, have been in the making over the decades and were already getting epidemic proportions in previous cohorts.

Decades after the work of the sociologists that pioneered studies of alienation and existential despair in industrial societies, like the mentioned Émile Durkheim or his most influential contemporary, German sociologist Max Weber, sociology embraced a multidisciplinary approach to explain why, despite living in a world in which people live objectively better, longer, and richer than ever before, a record number of people don’t find a reason to keep their spirits up and feel some bliss. German American social psychologist Erich Fromm and, more recently, French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg, have studied the paradoxes of nihilism and apathy in the contemporary world.

Given the ambient conditions of modernity, no wonder depression and stress are on the rise, both argue. Erich Fromm developed the theory that most people suffer from their perception of two values: freedom, and belonging. In Escape from Freedom, he argues that the post-modern crisis of faith and belonging left the individual with the mandate of commanding his own life (given the lack of a divine direction), and this sense of responsibility turns too often into paralysis, angst, and inaction. The need for belonging has been eroded too, according to Fromm, who wrote about this in the 1940s.

To Alain Ehrenberg, depression is mainly the by-product of an unexplained transition in modern societies from a disciplinary, institutionalized reality (with trusted church, school, media, and public realm) into a society in which each adult individual has to sell himself on a constant basis:

“Depression began its ascent when the disciplinary model for behaviors, the rules of authority and observance of taboos that gave social classes as well as both sexes a specific destiny, broke against norms that invited us to undertake personal initiative by enjoining us to be ourselves. . . . The depressed individual is unable to measure up; he is tired of having to become himself.”

Alain Ehrenberg, The Weariness of the Self, 1998

The importance of having a why to fight for

All these perspectives are incisive and help us understand the causes of our despair, but what happens when it comes to credible advice and solutions from the perspective of modern sociology and psychiatry, and not from the familiar, snake-oil-prone self-help industry, with its ever-growing collection of best-seller books, an army of influencers, and dedicated apps?

The dominant post-war Viennese Psychotherapy, established by Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, developed an army of imitators who, in retrospect, missed creating a response to an important question: why do people feel despair and alienation in their lives, even when their living conditions may be not only bearable but advantageous if compared to misfortunes from the past? Two thinkers, Viktor Frankl and Abraham Maslow, tried to describe ways to avoid this existential angst and thrive as individuals.

Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl became an influential force in modern psychology after writing one account of the factors that helped him avoid despair as he strived to survive across several Nazi concentration camps. His Man’s Search for Meaning describes how important it is for any human to identify a life purpose, no matter how dreadful and desperate his situation is.

Like Freud and Adler, Frankl and Maslow were influenced by Nietzsche’s ideas on overcoming life’s circumstances by celebrating one’s own circumstances (“amor fati”) and affirming life through one’s own initiative, by identifying personal purpose. Frankl quoted Nietzsche in this respect:

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

The vision of a meaning ahead of someone, Viktor Frankl explains, contributes most than anything to one’s survival and thriving:

“To find and to fulfill meaning is the basic motivation in human beings.”

Man’s search for meaning

Contrary to those equaling human beings to biological machines with immense computer power that can be imitated and enhanced by artificial machines, the Viennese psychiatrist thought that the force that allows us to overcome the risks of angst and alienation is not the search of pleasure (escapism, hedonism), or the search of power (the Alpha male myth, as exposed by Alfred Adler or by TikTok charlatans), but the desire to find a meaning to our biggest quest: our own existence.

No matter how concrete, each life situation can be a part of a bigger meaning, which can be material and symbolic or abstract at the same time. Few of us may compare to Captain Ahab in search of Moby Dick, but finding meaning in our life is a powerful antidote against the void of existence, no matter if it materializes as despair, apathy, exhaustion, depression, escapism (through addiction, content binging, etc.).

As it happens in extreme situations, the challenges of real life can generate a reaction of despair, mild or extreme: apathy, boredom, lack of initiative, lack of interest, cynicism about the real world (believing, for example, that we can’t change our surroundings for the better). Yet anybody can combat this inner frustration by being conscious about it and knowing that we sometimes can’t alter things that bother us dramatically, but we are in charge of how we react to it.

Finding “meaning” in existence isn’t as abstract as it sounds. There are, according to Viktor Frankl, different sets of values that help anybody turn a potential void into a sense of purpose:

  • we can create things, from artistic endeavors to purposeful menial jobs, that make a difference (things in which we find meaning don’t need to be grand; a person may be able to find a purpose in working day by day to achieve a goal);
  • we can experience things as researchers and teachers, helping others (or, for example, learning to appreciate the beauty of what’s at hand: in Frankl’s own experience, being able to watch a sunset with his fellow prisoners helped some of them to overcome the negativity and odds surrounding them, there’s no need to achieve or accomplish something to feel this sense of purpose);
  • we can choose our attitude at any given time. Choosing how to respond to suffering. By being put in a death camp, writes Frankl, “we knew we had nothing to lose except our ridiculously naked lives.” When creating or experiencing something isn’t possible, what we make out of the situation is what counts.

To Viktor Frankl, self-actualization isn’t some sort of formula to reach existential bliss; it can only fall in one’s lap once a person has fulfilled a concrete meaning, and can do, in practice, the best of a given situation.