Since at least the 1946 publication of Victor Frankl’s bestseller, Man’s Search for Meaning, lack of purpose in life has been a well-discussed problem.
But discussing the problem hasn’t made it go away. In fact, it may be getting worse.
Four out of 10 Americans say they don’t have a strong sense of purpose or meaning in their lives, according to a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.
And this seems to be a problem in many other countries too—at least judging by the high or rising suicide rates in many developed countries around the world.
I believe people are struggling even more today to find meaning because greater prosperity and more personalized technology have pushed the key philosophies of modern western culture—materialism and individualism—to crowd out other options—like Christianity.
Materialism and individualism used to be counterbalanced in western culture by key institutions and traditions—marriage, family, community, church, schools, patriotism, professionalism and civility. But in recent times, materialism maximized by unprecedented wealth and individualism unleashed by digital technology have worked to redefine those institutions and traditions. Rather than things that form individuals, these institutions and traditions have become things that individuals form—and reform to their whim.
I’m particularly interested in how a lack of purpose in life generally is leading many people—especially Millennials—to look for purpose in their work and in their consumption.
Most people know that money can’t buy happiness. But the culture around them gives them few other options. It gives no basis for prizing the non-material over the material.
In the corporate environment in which I now work, the constant ethos is that promotions are always good. And those who have received more promotions are to be emulated, even envied. Almost no one ever says, “Are you REALLY sure the extra power and money that come with this new job are the best things for you and your family? Will you have the same time for your neighbors and friends if you accept this new job with higher pay?” And literally no one ever asks, even of themselves, “Will you still have enough time to pray and grow spiritually if you take this job?”
Our culture regards the material as more significant—in fact, more real—than the non-material. This isn’t a new development. Richard Weaver, in his famous book Ideas Have Consequences, traced the problem to a philosophical shift in the late Middle Ages, which declared that words and ideas actually did not correspond to universal, transcendent truths. Over the following centuries, this shift produced a series of other changes that gradually replaced a cultural belief in universals—like God and goodness, beauty and truth, soul and spirit—to a cultural belief only in material things than can be perceived by the senses.
Weaver wrote, “Man created in the divine image, the protagonist of a great drama in which his soul was at stake, was replaced by man the wealth-seeking and -consuming animal.”
With more people today having their material needs met and exceeded, more and more people are looking for purpose. This is especially true among Millennials, who were born into the increasingly prosperous times of the 1980s and 1990s. These younger adults are wiser than earlier generations to the emptiness of material things. Perhaps they saw their parents achieve financial success and yet fail at marriage, climb the ladder at work yet be unavailable for them at home.
Yet Millennials are still looking for purpose in decidedly material places—the jobs they work and the brands they buy.
According to a December 2017 survey published by American Express, three out of every four Millennials in four developed countries—the U.S., U.K., Germany and France—said successful companies in the future will have “a genuine purpose that resonates with people.” The U.S. was highest, with four out of five Millennials saying they want purpose at their employer.
Zappos, which the company that pioneered selling upscale shoes online, defines its purpose as “delivering happiness to the world.” This higher calling of happiness enables Zappos employees to select which products to sell and to wow customers with incredibly convenient and pleasant service. Zappos’ purpose-filled culture has been so attractive that, even after the company began offering new hires $3,000 apiece NOT to work at Zappos, 96 percent of them refused to take the money. They wanted to be part of the purpose.
People also want to buy from companies that have a lager mission. In 2015, Nielsen surveyed 30,000 online consumers in 60 countries and found that two out of every three—66 percent—are willing to pay higher prices for products and services that come from companies that are committed to what they view as positive social and environmental impact.
People want to sit down and order up purpose and values, but the beliefs our culture holds puts only material choices on the menu. And those don’t satisfy.
The pursuit of purpose shows a desire among people to be part of something bigger than themselves—an environmental cause, a mission to make the world happy, a movement to improve health or well-being among millions of people.
The problem is, people in developed countries are less likely than ever to be part of institutions. And even when they are, they strongly prefer ones filled with people who reinforce their own identity as individuals.
In the American Express survey, an identical percentage of people as who wanted purpose in their employer also wanted their employer’s values to match theirs. So their sense of a “genuine purpose” is one that matches their own individual values.
But the true power of purpose is that it connects our lives to something larger than ourselves, something bigger than our own values. Individual empowerment can never do that.
The good news is that being followers of Christ gives us exactly this kind of purpose. Being a Christian means that our entire life is part of the glory of God. The mere fact that we exist glorifies God. And now that we are in Christ, he works in us to make our actions also glorify God.
This includes even our most mundane actions—like having breakfast, lunch and dinner. It also includes our work—whether that’s at the office, the factory, the store or the home. As the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
A critical part of God’s glory is Christ’s work to build His church and through it to overcome evil. (Matt. 16:18) All Christians—through whatever work we do—are part of that larger project.
The glory of God, the building of Christ’s church—those are purposes that, truly, give meaning to life.