This common problem
I don’t just feel like this is a common thing people go through, people literally tell me on a daily basis that they are feeling lost in life. Do I have this problem solved that I can tell you the answer for it? Absolutely not, do I have an advantage in that I’ve been thinking about and researching this answer longer than most, almost certainly.
I’ve listed a few important reasons I think we as a society feel this way and some things I’ve been able to do to reconcile this burden.
Our lives are way too fucking easy
Do you feel like your life is too easy? You probably don’t feel like it is, but this is the case.
For the past ~4 Billion years every species of life on earth has had to wake up daily and find, fight for, and scrounge for just enough food to get through the day. Starvation has been something every life form has to constantly think about and fear since the dawn of existence. In nature, every day humans would wake to hunt or be hunted, there was very little time to feel lost or ponder our purpose, instead we were busy surviving. Avoiding to be prey, resting to save energy, and thinking about the next meal.
12,000 years ago we experienced the agricultural revolution where we learned how to harvest crops, and gained some stability. Then we only had to worry about disease, violence against and from other humans, famine, and natural disasters.
Then, only about ~150 years ago we underwent the industrial revolution and everything changed for humanity. We now have such a large excess of production that almost none of us have to work to directly survive, we work for money and then we buy food pre-packed at a grocery store, no one has to actually hunt or grow food to live. Our lives are so good that rarely does someone worry about survival. In our current society a person has zero chance of starvation, in fact a person is far more likely to die from obesity rather than lack of food. We’ve cured so many diseases that our mortality rates have plummeted.. We still have natural disasters but we understand them better, we have tornado warnings, we know where earthquake fault lines are, we can evacuate better, we have a high control of rivers and potential floods thanks to dams. Technology has removed the human race from the evolutionary food chain forever, but this comes with unintended consequences. Our purpose used to be to survive, now we
We don’t deal with the real struggle of existence, something our evolutionary system has prepared us for, instead we have nothing but free time and resource abundance to deal with, which our culture has not been able to create a system to deal with yet. Largely because it’s such a new phenomenon.
This information may not make you feel better about the problem, but it should. Feeling lost and purposeless is a real problem, but the fix is incredibly simple: go try and live on the land with no modern amenities. I guarantee you’ll find this problem of feeling lost to disappear quite quickly. The alternative is to appreciate that we have the lesser of these two problems.
Our culture doesn’t value meaning, only materialism
Feeling lost is an absence of purpose or meaning. Our culture used to be really good about this problem, we did it usually with religion or grand narrative. People were comforted that they were part of a cosmic or national narrative, they had a destiny and there was a reason for their place in it. Maybe this appeals to you, maybe not, but as a system it has been effective.
Our current culture is based on liberal enlightenment, and while hyper individuality is a beautiful thing it also has unintended consequences.
(I do not use the term liberal as a political connotation but a cultural one, to mean that the individual’s goals and rights are superior to the goals of the state).
There is no talk of philosophy, meaning, or purpose in our current culture and we are quick to dismiss the value of our predecessors. While I’m personally a big fan of technology and science, it’s extremely clear to me that science has not had any success in the problem of purpose or the struggle of the human condition. In our current situation it seems the only thing people universally value is material goods or the perception of “success”, and it’s ruining us.
We spend so much time, energy, and resources on fancy cars, clothes, and materialistic bullshit that never make us happier, and it’s 100% voluntary. Like an alcoholic who eventually finds out there is nothing at the bottom of that bottle he’s working so hard to get to, our meaning cannot be solved by buying enough materialist junk to satisfy our cravings.
It seems to be a natural part of maturity
I don’t have any evidence to support this, but I do have some compelling insights.
First, it seems like this highly affects people in their 30’s more than anyone else, so maybe it’s just part of our maturity process. When we leave behind the superficial distractions of our 20’s and start thinking about how our future will turn out and realize we are grossly and hilariously under prepared, a little freakout is probably appropriate. In our 30’s we start to figure out our parents don’t have all the answers, and if you’re really paying attention you’ll notice that the vast majority of humans don’t have the answers either (except me, I have a lot of answers). This is a blessing and a curse because realizing the world is essentially made up of the blind leading the blind can be terrifying and surely would make anyone feel lost, but it also represents a magnificent opportunity to find ourselves and create the life we want to spend the next 70 years enacting.
The Phoenix metaphor is an ancient story that I am in love with, it’s about a bird who burns itself to ashes and is reborn over and over again for eternity. I believe the Phoenix story represents something our ancient ancestors knew about our humanity – that we go through phases in life where we burn down our old life and are born anew. I think this happens multiple times in our lives and I think it’s a natural process of growing, the feeling of being lost is often an integral piece of this mechanism.
We lost our connection to the earth
We live in cities, we don’t hunt for our own food, we don’t grow our own crops, and we don’t see the damage we do to the planet because it’s so far away. We have removed ourselves from the symbiosis that humans and earth shared since the dawn of time. The fact is humans and the planet are in an ecosystem of balance, and besides that we are ruining the planet on a global scale, our disconnectedness to the life cycle makes us quite unhappy. Maybe we would appreciate how good our system is if we had to see the beautiful land and oceans we dump our waste in, or if we had to kill all the cows and chickens we eat rather than living vicariously through the slaughter that happens out of sight, or if we simply lived closer to uninhabited lands so we could experience the beauty that man and earth live together. We aren’t simply visitors who live on this arbitrary planet and have no connection to it, we evolved on this planet because of exactly the way it exists and the feeling of being lost, I believe, is largely correlated to the fact that we have abandoned our home.
What to do next?
These are my explanations for this extremely common feeling, but what to do about it? I claim no advantage in giving advice here, but this is what I personally do to deal with this problem.
Read the texts that came before you
I spent 33 years of my life as a staunch atheist who thought religion was one of the worst things humanity had ever done to itself. Turns out I was wrong, and the situation is far more complicated than that. Each of the big religions Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddism, and Hindusm try to solve many of the same problems, and do so in only slightly different ways. What are they trying to accomplish? They provide rules for dealing with the human condition that have been learned by our predecessors over thousands of years. It’s true that religion has been hijacked by those with nefarious purposes so it’s certainly not a perfect recommendation, but if you can get away from dogma and the supernatural, the lessons in the old religious texts can be quite useful.
If you don’t like religion, there are still plenty of thinkers who have shared your pain and expressed their feelings about that pain on paper and you can connect with them over that shared struggle. Philosophers and writers who reflect about human purpose are in no shortage. As I mentioned above the Phoenix metaphor is an ancient story that can be used to describe our pain, meaning that we aren’t the first ones to have to figure this problem out, and if we spend time learning from those who can before us we might find some answers or at least consolation that we aren’t doing it alone.
Listen to the universe
Humans are creatures of complacency, we love routines and normalcy. It’s not always healthy for us because we can make a lot of lousy situations feel normal and it’s also hard for us to trade the comfort of our complacency for something new and unknown. Before making drastic changes though, finding time away from normal life can provide clarity and often peace in and of itself. I mentioned above that I believe a feeling of loss is directly attributed to a lack of connection to nature, so maybe spending some time in nature will help reflect on this feeling.
Time away can help remove the influence of social forces that constantly impact us. Sometimes we feel lost because we aren’t sure what we want to do, sometimes we feel lost because we have undue pressure from our societal environment that negatively impacts us. Both of these can be mitigated by some healthy time away from our normal lives, preferably in nature, and usually best when completely alone. The life you want might not be what anyone else thinks is best for you and that’s ok, it’s your life, so let the universe tell you what’s best and ignore everything else.
I don’t have kids, so I can’t really comment on this, but it does seem that the problem of feeling lost most often affects single people with no kids. Humanity has solved the problem of purpose centuries ago: have kids. It’s not an elegant answer and it might be one you hate, but it also might be the most correct answer. It also will keep you busy enough that you won’t have to dwell on this trivial problem any longer.
Self development is a really good purpose to have. It’s not ancient and there is little philosophical precedent for this as a way to live, but I love it. Life feels most meaningful to me when I’m challenging myself or working on difficult goals, and sure it comes with downsides but it is also the most rewarding. Perhaps this could be all the meaning we need in life, to constantly better ourselves simply for the sake of progress.
Learn everything you can, lean into your curiosity, spend time around new and exciting individuals, practice your spirituality with sincerity, see the whole world, look forward to what the future has to bring.