An American Quagmire: The Elusive Quest for Fulfillment

Many of us Americans are in a confusing situation; a sort of fugue state fitting Tim Urban’s description of anomaly humans:

​“We’re living in the anomaly, when for many of the world’s people, survival is easy. Today’s privileged societies are full of anomaly humans whose primary purpose is already taken care of, softening the deafening roar of unmet base needs and allowing the nuanced and complex voice of our inner selves to awaken.”

— Tim Urban’s awesome post on Elon Musk

Without an obvious and pressing purpose in life, we’re left on a big vegetated rock floating in the cosmic haze, well-fed and sheltered, without a clue what to do (“we” denotes Americans, but all industrialized societies are implicated). Today’s rampant liberation from the singularity of survival motives charges us with the daunting task of seeking to provide for our inner selves in the way that food, shelter, and security provide for our base needs; from this enigmatic task comes the term, fulfillment.

The general fulfillment-seeking tendency of contemporary societies is to fall in line with their cultural narrative’s prescription: fill the great void of an anomaly life by imitating those around you — joining the game everyone else is playing. This is a safe route, as the mass-participation confers a sense of value and security that muffles the existential rumblings endemic to a spiritual* vacuum.

The American spiritual framework, or the underlying telos that theoretically guides the American game, lies in the triad of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Between our lively political debates on abortion, welfare, and ethnic/gender equality, life and liberty are staples of public discourse. Happiness, however, is murky territory. Perhaps due to its subjective and therefore elusive nature, we’ve sliced it up into various proxies — fulfillment, life-satisfaction, emotional well-being, etc. — all seeking to encapsulate that slippery concept. But this pluralistic ambiguity may actually subvert such subjective ideals in favor of objective, quantifiable ones. As we get better and better at measuring the external components of life, we lose sight of those immeasurable, internal components. Forget assessing how we’re doing, we don’t even know what the “pursuit of happiness” means, and that’s becoming less and less of a collective concern.

As Alan Gewirth notes in his consideration of self-fulfillment’s many modalities:

​“The idea of the state as an educational institution concerned with its members’ self-fulfillment and maximal development has largely been given up…The focus on self-fulfillment has been greatly dimmed not only because the poverty, disorder, and violence of modern life have made concern with it appear less pressing but also because the ideal itself raises serious conceptual and moral problems. To put it bluntly, to many moderns self-fulfillment has seemed a murky and confused concept that should not be invoked by serious-minded analytic philosophers.”

— Alan Gewirth, Self-Fulfillment, p. 2*

Fulfillment’s relegation to the taboo, despite its centrality to both the individual and collective psyche, may stem not from a genuine unworthiness for political discourse, but, as Gewirth suggests, from our aversion towards publicly exploring “murky” realms. We thus receive no help from our socioeconomic institutions in tending to our interior dimensions.

This may be seen as a positive by American “DIY’ers” — minimal outside interference in our personal lives means freedom, and Americans love freedom. But if we further define fulfillment as a subjective sense of abiding existential calm, an uncomfortable reality emerges: we’re doing an abysmal job on this front. American angst is everywhere: we’re experiencing decreasing subjective well-being returns on financial gains (once the backbone of industrialism’s notion of fulfillment), increasing dependence upon prescription drugs to mitigate our emotional frailties, historic income inequality looming upon an eclipse of pre-Great Depression levels, and a baffling norm of gun-violence. Americans are anything but the paragon of an existentially calm people who grasp fulfillment.

Why is fulfillment such a complex thing? Why is it so hard to find? And why, in this day and age of unprecedented “progress” and knowledge, do we not have better recipes for it? It’s so alien to our communal mentality that it doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page*. Anything with even a shred of cultural relevance has a Wikipedia page. To spur the much-needed conversation, the rest of this post explores the human relationship with fulfillment, and why we pursue it so egregiously.

The Onset of Fulfillment

America is not one of these traditional societies. Our metaphysics are not rooted in these existential questions of meaning or purpose — as we feel that we’ve outgrown such farces — but in rationality, empiricism, and the observable world (though our “grown-up” empirical metaphysics is technically a paradox). The reasoning mechanism such a system breeds is well suited to the alleviation of survival-related needs, thus we spent our first few hundred years ameliorating these outer circumstances. But in a post-Industrial age where us anomaly humans make up a significant chunk of the population, mere survival will no longer suffice; our cultural schema must also enable a meaningful existence, whatever that means.

Roman Krznaric, writing for Alain De Botton’s School of Life series, remarks:

​“The desire for fulfilling work — a job that provides a deep sense of purpose, and reflects our values, passions and personality — is a modern invention…For centuries, most inhabitants of the Western world were too busy struggling to meet their subsistence needs to worry about whether they had an exciting career that used their talents and nurtured their wellbeing. But today, the spread of material prosperity has freed our minds to expect much more from the adventure of life…We have entered a new age of fulfillment, in which the great dream is to trade up from money to meaning.”

— Krznaric, How to Find Fulfilling Work (The School of Life Series)

This really mixes things up, because the realm of fulfillment seems of a completely different fabric than the reality human beings previously existed within. The tools of exterior conquests — stones, printing presses, iPhones — are rendered obsolete when faced with this interior dimension of life. And while this makes sense, that tools used to conquer material complexities cannot be interchangeably used to navigate immaterial ones, it’s among today’s most controversial ideas.

Through evolutionary terms, we can understand our aversion towards accepting the need for an updated life-approach. In John Maynard Keynes’ great piece of philosophical insight into the long-term role of economics, he illuminates the problem:

​“This means that the economic problem is not…the permanent problem of the human race…[if] we look into the past-we find that the economic problem, the struggle for subsistence, always has been hitherto the primary, most pressing problem…of the whole of the biological kingdom from the beginnings of life in its most primitive forms. Thus we have been expressly evolved by nature-with all our impulses and deepest instincts-for the purpose of solving the economic problem. If the economic problem is solved, mankind will be deprived of its traditional purpose. Will this be a benefit? If one believes at all in the real values of life, the prospect at least opens up the possibility of benefit. Yet I think with dread of the readjustment of the habits and instincts of the ordinary man, bred into him for countless generations, which he may be asked to discard within a few decades.”

— John Maynard Keynes, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (1930)

For roughly 200,000 years the human physical and psychic tendencies developed in response to the lone impetus of subsistence, bestowing these acquired tendencies with a wholly economic context. Now, a huge portion of our species bathe in the good (?) fortune of having this original stimulus held relatively at bay, which as Keynes points out, introduces a great void in the “purpose of life” slot.

Filling this aspirational void should command the utmost importance, right? We ought to draw from the breadth & depth of wisdom-traditions, the frontiers of scientific understanding, the rich experiences of both American and worldly people, all to serve the common goal of imbuing our cultural ethos with a purpose, enabling and enriching our myriad quests for fulfillment. But are we? Wisdom traditions perennially advise a reflective stillness antithetical to today’s American mentality; scientific studies began echoing public dissent back in the 70’s with Richard Easterlin’s seminal paper finding that more money doesn’t necessarily imply more happiness (after passing a certain threshold)*, and Kathleen Vohs finds that constant exposure to exterior measures of value induce isolationist attitudes that deteriorate relationships, community, and compassion; perhaps worst of all, we’re ignoring the cries for help, the anarchic roars emanating from the pits of American experience that spawned the likes of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

In short, neither our institutions nor our biology enable the transition from subsistence to fulfillment, from material acquisition to immaterial expression. Our passivity in these vital contemplations allowed all sorts of pervasive Trump-weeds to grow. The simplicity of a two-player game involving only base needs and inner selves is far behind us, they aren’t the only two pieces of today’s puzzle; humans are far more confusing, and confused, than that.

A Meddlesome Capitalist Ethos

This mentality’s bias towards observable realities was picked up and amplified by the industrial boom, creating a mirage of progress. The illusion was amplified by our newfound ability to measure how much “progress” we’re making, feeding a worldview that snowballed into a kind of scientific imperialism. Anything not subscribing to the conditions of measurement, such as our “pursuit of happiness”, gives way to more tangible goals. But the loss of immeasurable spiritual values underlying society, broadly defined as a collective consideration and valuation of the unknown, has long been one of the prime factors precipitating social decay. As Carl Jung notes:

​“Anthropologists have often described what happens to a primitive society when its spiritual values are exposed to the impact of modern civilization. Its people lose the meaning of their lives, their social organization disintegrates, and they themselves morally decay. We are now in the same condition.”

— Jung, Man and his Symbols (1968), p. 84

The all-too-easy conclusion to draw from this trend — reason and logic poking fatal holes in the spirituality of primitive societies — is that spiritual values and modern civilization are incompatible. Certainly, many pre-scientific societies espoused a sort of blind spirituality that would today be considered silly, but to do away with the entire notion of reality persisting beyond the parameters of human perception and measurement is surely to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Spirituality and reason are not either/or, but complementary. Without spiritual values, reason has no vision. An aspiritual reason that creates its own underlying values can only lead to a version of Sartre’s humanistic existentialism, a worldview of empowering, scientific nihilism that can be dismantled by simply tinkering with its fundamental premise, that the ultimate ground of existence is self-centered, and that there is no deeper subjective experience than the ego.

It is as Kant tells us:

“The aim of metaphysics…is to extend, albeit only negatively, our use of reason beyond the limitations of the sensorily given world, that is, to eliminate the obstacles by which reason hinders itself.”

Kant, Lecture Notes on Metaphysics

Without metaphysics — spiritual values — enriching its scope, reason remains trapped in the phenomenal world, bound by the all-too human limitations. We will return to this coexistence between reason and spirituality later on. For now, it is suffice to acknowledge the cultural bias induced by our all-rationality-no-spirituality state of affairs. The inner world is not logical nor objectively observable, but experiential. And this is a profoundly consequential truth to neglect, as fulfillment cannot be reasoned, but only felt.

As it is these spiritual values that guide societies by contextualizing reason’s endeavors, any institution with a hold on this collective metaphysical space will, whether consciously or unconsciously, sculpt the trajectory of that collective. This is what made the old Church so powerful; being the sole proprietor of what was perceived at the time as man’s ultimate ground, they played an active role in molding social values and norms. Though the Church’s dogma fell out of style and lost its monopoly over our inner selves, the precedent was set: there’s both money and power to be had by filling the existential void beyond our base needs for us.

Thus when the Industrial Revolution replaced God with its infinite potential of mechanization, and the allure of progress — from the darkness of antiquated and irrational faith to the flickering fluorescent light of modern cubicles — dangled before us on a stick, we welcomed this amputation of the unknown. And after over 200 years of this frantic economic activity, our lives are stuffed to the brim with material aspects. The separation of church and state, originally devised to instruct only congress, has now secularized our most intimate conceptions of the world. In privileged societies, our continued subscription to the mass-industrial process is no longer derivative of the need for higher living standards, but the lack of any other culturally or institutionally supported path. In order to move beyond this well-trodden groove, a sufficient degree of angst is required, which instead ends up swallowing, rather than inspiring, trailblazers. Many have plucked the carrot from the stick, and don’t know what to do next, so we continue chasing the dangling stick bearing no fruit.

What further incentive should drive us forward? Which direction should even be considered “forward”? And are we so sure we ought to always be moving towards some direction deemed “forward”?

These are precisely the questions industrial culture must stave off by manufacturing needs — distractions — to soak up the emptiness beyond subsistence; to distract us from the vacancy on our dangling stick. The creed of boundless and amoral growth remains unexamined thanks to insatiable flurries of relative needs. We’re led to pursue answers to the newly awakened complexities of an inner world within the economic stratum of social hierarchies and relative measures of self-worth; essentially using temporal measures to approach transcendent puzzles. This leads us to mistakenly equate the temporal with the transcendent, spawning a shallow conception of the American Dream: beliefs like amassing enough money, or ascending the social ladder swiftly enough, will, in themselves, deliver a sense of fulfillment or existential calm.

Nice as it would be to defer blame to “the system”, that amorphous scapegoat is largely a reflection of its constituents’ collective attitudes. Our eagerness to engage in any of the myriad distractions, laid out before us buffet-style, suggests a latent craving to deny ourselves the uncomfortable stillness arising from a period of pause and reflection before sculpting our aspirations, both individually and collectively.

Keynes highlights the contrast between absolute and relative needs, unveiling the latter as pawns in the ego-driven realm of social status and desires for superiority:

​“Now it is true that the needs of human beings may seem to be insatiable. But they fall into two classes — those needs which are absolute in the sense that we feel them whatever the situation of our fellow human beings may be, and those which are relative in the sense that we feel them only if their satisfaction lifts us above, makes us feel superior to, our fellows. Needs of the second class, those which satisfy the desire for superiority, may indeed be insatiable; for the higher the general level, the higher still are they. But this is not so true of the absolute needs — a point may soon be reached, much sooner perhaps than we are all of us aware of, when these needs are satisfied in the sense that we prefer to devote our further energies to non-economic purposes.”

— John Maynard Keynes, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren

But this evolution from addressing the economic aspect of our lives to the non-economic is exceedingly difficult. We’re conditioned from all angles — our inner biology and outer culture — to countenance ourselves in quantifiable, economic terms; the same ones that delivered a privileged chunk of humans from the hardships of economic necessity. The logic is understandable, but flawed. Economist Richard Layard notes of the system:

​“Market democracies, by the logic of their own success, continue to emphasize the themes that have brought them to their current position.”

— Layard, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (2005)

Bill McKibben echoes:

​“When more and better shared a branch, we could kill two birds with one stone. Since they’ve moved apart, we can’t.”

— McKibbens, Deep Economy (2007)

And yet, we transition from meeting our base needs to riding the unending wave of relative needs without a moment for reflection:

“​Yet in order to sustain his creed, contemporary man pays the price in a remarkable lack of introspection…”

— Carl Jung, Man and his Symbols (1968), p. 71

The idea here is not to admonish all participants in America’s Capitalist game and convince everyone that we must jump ship. To do so, I’d need to propose a realistic economic alternative for the masses. I’m terribly unqualified for that. Besides, both E.F. Schumacher and Bill McKibben offer steps in this direction in their respective works, Small is Beautiful and Deep Economy.

As Winston Churchill said of the Democratic form of government, Capitalism is the worst form of economic organization, except all those other forms that have been tried. What we need is to rethink the capitalist framework, its purpose, its underlying (lack of) metaphysics and teleology, by addressing our individual attitudes that underlie the larger system. On this individual scale, and not by imposing outside regulations to impose some set of ideals upon the market (as in a forced socialism), we can consciously sculpt our systemic aspirations.

To make room for these vital and idiosyncratic self-explorations, ample space, support, and stillness must be worked into the fabric of our social systems and institutions. Abraham Maslow calls us to weave these “higher human needs” with economic theory:

“Classic economic theory, based as it is on an inadequate theory of human motivation, could be revolutionized by accepting the reality of higher human needs, including the impulse to self-actualization and the love for the highest values.”

— Abraham Maslow

Having discarded Maslow’s call to integrate the impulse to self-actualization with our economic mentality, the cleaved disconnect between inner and outer systematically induces an ever-greater cultural schizophrenia. Fulfillment embodies the bridge between these two realms; ignoring this cements the divide. But if fulfillment is to be found in tending to our interior-realms, as we defined earlier, this proves to be a fatal divide. By accepting a cultural track that encourages the separation of outer pursuits from inner-selves, lauding the former and repressing the latter, we demolish the one bridge we need most. Fulfillment will remain stranded on an inner island, and perhaps most consequentially, industrial angst will amplify, further permeating and plaguing American, and thus, unfortunately, global ideals.

“…the West — and all those cultures affected by Western influences — present the spectacle of a massive superstructure of brilliant, scientific achievement strung precariously over a chasm of meaninglessness, and are apparently incapable of building themselves new foundations from within their own traditional resources. Hence they are in desperate need of a more enduring foundation unassailable even by scientific and philosophical skepticism.”

— (Winston L. King, Forward to Religion and Nothingness, by Keiji Nishitani, p. xiii)

While perhaps grim on aggregate, more and more, collectives are forming under the banner of prudence, working to build these new foundations with the precursors to wisdom, fertilizers of fulfillment: stillness, reflection, compassion, etc. Organizations such as the Center for Mindful Learning are seeking to integrate contemplative values into modern society through both educational initiatives and in-depth mindfulness training; Mandalah works at the highest levels of corporate structure to reconnect profit with purpose, aiding companies in becoming more human-centric; Headspace is bringing meditation to both the task-oriented and time-pressed individuals who couldn’t otherwise stomach sitting quietly and doing nothing every single day; and the list goes on. These inspiring endeavors are tasked with simultaneously diversifying and intensifying. The aim cannot be local; priorities, values, the entire American mentality must be renovated. Our constant stream of engagements that keep life moving “forward” — wherever that may lead — must relent pervasively enough to allow a much-needed update; the mechanisms of reason that are well suited to address what are now, for many anomaly humans, antiquated problems, must ultimately be born anew.

A 17-year-old Dostoyevsky drives this home, providing the blueprints of a resurrected Reason:

“The guide for our intelligences through the temporary illusion into the innermost centre of the soul is called Reason. Now, Reason is a material capacity, while the soul or spirit lives on the thoughts which are whispered by the heart…Reason is a tool, a machine, which is driven by the spiritual fire.”

Letters of Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoyevsky to His Family and Friends

Perhaps the innermost centre of the soul is the next sensible human conquest; here the anomaly human may find her purpose. Dostoyevsky writes of a fully realized Reason, fluidly rooted in and fueled by a “spiritual fire”; a fire which America’s spiritual vacuum extinguishes. Reason alone can carry us to an arbitrary notion of “forward”, but cannot carry us inward. An aspiritual reasoning mechanism — one without a metaphysical foundation — is fundamentally blind. The work of anomaly societies, the recipe for fulfillment, may lie in constructing a new metaphysics for the modern age. Rekindling Reason’s spiritual fire. One that supports not only thriving cities, commerce, and the insatiable American entrepreneurial spirit, but stillness, reflection, and prudence. Introducing a hitherto unheard of congruence between inner selves and the outer pursuits of urban humans, our work is to extol self-knowledge as the new tenet of worth amidst a capitalist culture of technology and growth.

This is a luxury and an opportunity us anomaly humans, born beyond the singularity of base needs, are given. Why waste it?

An Alternate Ending for the Pragmatist: What We Can Actually Do

The real, pragmatic first step in this whole process is as mundane as can be: we have to all talk about this. Collectively, we must decide if there’s actually a problem here, or if I’m just some hippie spewing bullshit. There are many strong arguments that could be made purporting we’re still on a rising track of historic progress, both in terms of living standards and quality of life. The only way to move this discussion forward is to lift the subject from the politically taboo realm of spirituality onto the main stages of social debate.

So let’s do that. Let’s ask ourselves, our friends, our families, random people on the street, even rocks or trees, “why are you doing what you’re doing?”, “what’s your purpose, and how did you decide on it?” We need a kind of Socratic revolution where we learn how little we actually know, dispelling the rampant and illusory certainties of life. There’s no time to be soft about this; press and dig until you reach the absolute floor of the why-inquisition. Then, and only then, America might start to discover what “progress” means, and where fulfillment resides.


  1. Alan Gewirth’s book, Self-Fulfillment, is a fresh and modern analytical approach to the varying conceptions of fulfillment, ultimately calling for its revival in our political and philosophical considerations. Unfortunately, he does not address the narrow conceptions of “self” implicit in past critiques of fulfillment as a collective value, leaving untouched Eastern philosophy’s conviction that the essence of “self” transcends ego to a more unifying cohesion.
  2. To be fair, “fulfillment” is just one of many arbitrary terms all getting at the same kind of inner/outer congruence, and Wikipedia does have a plethora of other pages on such philosophies. Still, it seems that we use fulfillment in the “are you leading a fulfilling life” kind of way enough to merit a Wikipedia page on it.
  3. After a certain amount, hypothesized to indicate the appeasement of base needs.
  4. Perhaps also the latent fear and recognition that the industrial economy we’ve created can only survive on continuous growth, and to withdraw would mean a collapse of sorts, which may ultimately confront us with the vague apprehensions we manage to avoid through frantic economic activity.

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