Shortages, momentum and the search for meaning

A general malaise is not new. Sociologists have been writing about it since the Second World War. Today, of course, the malaise isn’t simply general, it’s also specific.

There’s too much pain and disconnection and uncertainty in the world. And yet, there are technological marvels, new opportunities and many people who have enough resources to meet their needs. For someone with enough, two things can get in the way of a life filled with meaning:

Affluence and stasis.

When we don’t have enough to eat, don’t have a roof over our heads, don’t have something that we need and can imagine getting, it’s not a general malaise, it’s a specific one. If you’re in this position, life is hard indeed.

On the other hand, spoiled kids are spoiled by parents who have already figured out how to cover their basic needs. When people stop focusing on making a contribution or wrestling with urgency, it’s easy for them to feel a sense of ennui.

And stasis is the feeling that nothing much is going to improve.

In wartime London, under attack eighty years ago, food was scarce and life was dangerous. But those that survived recall it as being a great moment (even if it was something that they’d very much like to avoid repeating).

Compare this to the widespread dissatisfaction described by people who grew up expecting things to get better (momentum) who are now coming to the conclusion that it might not happen.

“Compared to what,” is the question that gets asked at work and home every day, and if the ‘what’ is yesterday, it’s difficult to keep a positive promise forever. Day trading on better is a rough ride.

As we enter a post-industrial economy where good jobs are going to continue to get more scarce, creating a positive cultural dynamic-one in which the social contract can deliver meaning-is more urgent than ever.

The constant awareness that’s pumped in via the media rarely matches the experiences (positive or negative, exciting or not) that many people choose to experience every day. That mismatch often translates into unhappiness.