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 it is said that 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 significant what you can do in your own life, and for the lives of those your love, and for those with whom you rub shoulders. If it is so bad (and to be honest I think things are generally better than people realise) well, in your case things don't have to be this way, they can be much better, if you only take an active stance toward your life, in outlook, and in action.
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, in the name of different kinds of progress, we threw it out, partly losing it to hedonism in the 1960s, and “greed is good” in the 1980s. This tradition is making a comeback, however, among younger generations who want something better and deeper out of life. I am talking about cultivating character.
Character is not some stodgy notion, some 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 your best potential 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 the actual. 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 wrote, "You do not rise to the occasion, rather you fall to the level of your training."
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 the respect-worthy things you actually do, and the strengths you now possess. Also, character leads to flourishing in the same way that psychological research reveals that conscientiousness is one of the leading predictors of success. Furthermore, 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. In some ways it 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. Of course that has feelings attached too, and they go very deep. Character leads to a fundamental contentment.
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, and which is being rediscovered at this time. 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. 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.
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. What I do is not life-coaching for narcissists, it is coaching to help well-intentioned 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 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.