The 21st century is, in many ways, the best time in human history.
Medical knowledge is at an all-time high, education is continuing to increase around the world, and more people than ever before experience basic human rights.
As many troubles as we still deal with, a strong argument can be made that we are currently better well-off as a species than we have ever been in all of history.
Though there are still large parts of the world where tyrannical regimes still rule, and where violence is perpetrated needlessly against the innocent and undeserving, there is still progress towards a better tomorrow.
Fewer people today are in poverty; fewer today are dying from sickness and hunger, and literacy is at an all-time high. We are on a constant march forward, and while there is still a long way to go, we can say with certainty that we are on the right track.
But with all that said, why then are the richest nations in the world so culturally and emotionally fragile?
Anxiety and frustration tears apart the peoples of the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe; political frustration, cultural wars, anxiety about what tomorrow may bring.
Refugees from less fortunate countries risk their lives to cross borders and find a better life in these rich nations, leaving their families behind for the hope of a better future. But those who already live in these places feel nothing but anxiety, hopelessness, and unease.
Where is this coming from?
The Dalai Lama has his own theory for this first world cultural anxiety plaguing more and more people every day. In a column in the New York Times, the Dalai Lama shared the idea that this widespread cultural turmoil inflicting all of us comes from one thing— feeling unneeded:
“The problem is not a lack of material riches. It is the growing number of people who feel they are no longer useful, no longer needed, no longer one with their societies….
“If you wish to overcome that feeling of isolation and loneliness, I think that your underlying attitude makes a tremendous difference. And approaching others with the thought of compassion in your mind is the best way to do this.”
In one study shared by the Dalai Lama, researchers investigated the livelihoods of senior citizens.
They found that there was a link between premature deaths and how useful they felt to those around them.
Simply put, when people stop having others who need them, they are much likelier to pass away.
The need to be needed is one of the most important needs in our lives. It has nothing to do with ego or pride; wanting to be needed isn’t about desiring praise or payment.
Instead, it’s about this internal yearning to continuously serve those around us.
The Dalai Lama shared a quote from 13th century-Buddhist sages which goes, “If one lights a fire for others, it will also brighten one’s own way.”
Every single major religion teaches that serving others is one of the greatest things you can do in your life.
Not just spiritually, but mentally as well; scientific studies find, again and again, that people who make a point in their life to serve others are nearly twice as likely to confirm that they have found happiness in their lives.
In a German study, researchers found that people who actively enrich society have a five times higher chance of feeling happiness than those who do not care about serving others.
The main point is this: joy and selflessness are one and the same. We are social creatures, and the more we acknowledge our social needs and our connection with those around us, the more complete we feel with our lives.
And according to the Dalai Lama, this is exactly the reason why the most developed and richest countries of today are also the one’s experiencing the most social and cultural turmoil.
We have the resources, wealth, opportunities, and freedoms to keep us happy, but so many of us report as being unhappy. It’s not that we have of material; these days, we have a lack of need.
We have systematically created a society that no longer needs so many of us. For the most part, first world citizens are expendable, excess to the needs of a functional society.
And we recognize this, consciously or unconsciously. Over the last fifty years in America, three times as many working-age individuals have been cut out of the work force.
People are losing their jobs to automation and machines; too many companies have downsized. Even without considering the financial dilemmas, we have become socially isolated, with the emotional pain of knowing that we have no real value to add to society.
But this is where a cultural shift must come in. For too long, Americans and others around the world have made their lives about their careers.
We were taught by our parents and grandparents that our purpose can be found in our jobs, our paychecks, and by putting bacon on the table.
But without the need (or ability) to keep a full-time job anymore—simply because society no longer needs us for our jobs—we have lost a sense of direction.
Leaders must stand up and help guide others towards finding their own purpose. A purpose they choose, in a society that prioritizes compassion, not careers.
We must learn that there is need all around us; but that need isn’t in the office or the workplace, but in the lives of those around us.
The frustration and anger in our societies can be contained, the moment we return to a state of feeling necessary. As the Dalai Lama says, it is time that we work together to feed each other’s hunger for need; it is time we start caring.
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