We live in an age of unprecedented wealth, safety, and ease. In a sense, we in the first world have it all. And yet a lot of people lack purpose. They live in fear, or confusion, or boredom, or depression, or retreat into distractions. At a cultural level our values are ever more banal and narcissistic. This is the world your children will be shaped by. Many aspects of this problem are out of your control, but it is amazing what you can do in your own life, and for the lives of those your love, and for those with whom you rub shoulders. In your case things don't have to be this way, they can be much better, if you only take active responsibility for your life and do the things needed to make it good.
For thousands of years in Western society we have had an active tradition which has made us into better human beings, sustaining people through thick and think. Then the Baby Boomer culture threw it out, in favour of hedonism in the 1960s and “greed is good” in the 1980s. This tradition is making a comeback among younger generations, who want something better and deeper out of life. I am talking about cultivating character.
Character is not some stodgy notion, sexless nun, stiff Englishman, or rosy-cheeked boy scout. Rather it is an age-old ideal which can be defined quite simply. It is:
Seeing what is best in us as human beings,
and best in you as a unique individual,
and bringing that out. Making it real and active in your life.
Look at it this way: if you are unfit and physically weak then you may decide to exercise, knowing that you have fitness and strength within you as a potential. By exercising you turn the possible into reality. This is how it is with character: there are greater levels of strength, wisdom, and compassion within you as potential. A person of character develops these (and other) virtues in their daily life. They do this by choosing to exercise certain virtues whenever they are needed. Stepping up to the challenge. For as the ancient soldier-poet Antilochus said, "You do not rise to the occasion, rather you fall to the level of your training." If your training is only to seek pleasure when things get hard, then the day will come when you show your cowardice or betray your friend.
There are many benefits to cultivating your character. It gives your life more meaning. It overcomes much of that low-grade depression and anxiety which permeates many lives. It gives you freedom and confidence. It increases self-esteem because, rather than loving yourself for who you are (which often fails), you respect yourself for what you have striven to become and for what you actually do. Character leads to flourishing, in the same way that psychological research reveals that conscientiousness is one of the leading predictors of success. And to possess a deep and rounded moral character means that you are a force for good in the world, a source of nourishment in the lives of those around you. And that's a pretty wonderful thing to be!
At the core of character is love. Love of others, love of life, love for your own life as a gift. This is less about feeling love for others - every narcissist has such feelings in abundance - but enacting genuine love. This is about being, and having, and giving, the real thing, the genuine article, in a world of appearances.
In the West we have a profound 2500 year-old philosophical tradition which defines what character is and how to cultivate it. We can go back to Socrates and Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics, whose wisdom has sustained every generation up until the middle of the twentieth century. Add to this the modern research and applied science of positive psychology, which studies character and flourishing through the lens of social science and shows how to cultivate it in proven ways, and we have never been in a better position to develop this vital aspect of our lives. Let the Boomers mock it while counting their investment properties, character is making a comeback. Transcending the self in the service of others, doing the right thing because it is right or good to do, is coming into its own again. Living by deeper values - finding the grit and the heart to do so - is the new black. Looking beyond oneself and one's own generation, to serve others and future generations, is the future. In fact it is the only future if we want to survive as a species.
I was tempted to call my work "character coaching." This is how important it is, however the work I love to do is broader than that, even if this is a central passion. Of course this notion of exercising what is best in you as a human being and as a unique individual is core to everything I do. This is why I talk so much about strengths and values in the context of creating direction and purpose. This is not life coaching for narcissists, it is coaching to help good people become better. There is a clear philosophy and science here to guide you if you want it, whether through professional guidance like mine, or by your own steam. Either way, do it! Become the reason that some people believe in the goodness of others. Make your life deeply meaningful; there's no trick to that, no life hack or cosmic existential insight - it is more simple: develop the qualities that make for character, and so become a genuinely good person.