The Relationship Between Hardship, Struggle, and Meaning

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I think the best thing to happen to America was a massive influx of people with The Immigrant Mentality™. A lot of people say immigrants are great—especially near San Francisco where I live—but they rarely complete the sentence with an explanation.

I’m not an expert on immigration, so this is largely a thought exercise.

I’m sure there’s a literature on this with some formal designations, but based on what I’ve read and experienced there are a few key attributes of the immigrant mentality that I’ll try to capture here.

  • They are thankful to be in the receiving country, because they acknowledge that it’s offering something not found where they came from
  • They’re extremely hard workers, and assume that it’ll be hard to get jobs and are willing to compete for them by working even harder
  • They’re extremely resilient to hardship, and simply get back up when they get knocked down
  • They tend not to complain about how hard things are, usually because they’ve seen much harder situations where they came from

As we’ve gone through this pandemic I’ve been thinking a lot about mental toughness. Not just for people during this very strange 2020, because yeah—there’s a lot going on—but even before then, with Americans in general.

According to the American Psychological Association, the rate of individuals reporting symptoms consistent with major depression in the last 12 months (as of March 2019) increased 52 percent in adolescents from 2005 to 2017 (from 8.7 percent to 13.2 percent) and 63 percent in young adults age 18 to 25 from 2009 to 2017 (from 8.1 percent to 13.2 percent). And again, that’s before the pandemic.

I’d love to see research on this.

I have known a lot of immigrants in my life, and while I know the plural of anecdotes is not data, I generally don’t see or hear of too many depressed immigrants. Sad immigrants? Yes. They’re often separated from their families and lonely. Overworked? Absolutely. Stressed? 100%. But those feelings—while negative—are not the same as depression.

I think depression usually includes a lack of drive to advance.

My loose hypothesis is that people with the immigrant mentality are resistant to depression because hardship and drive function as a depression vaccine. I think this is why so many Americans are depressed: because they have not experienced hardship and therefore lack any drive.

We can see something like this—or at least related—by looking at the attainment levels of immigrants vs. their children and grandchildren. This generational gap is covered extensively in many books, but I think this New Republic piece captures it well:

The longer immigrant children live in this country, the worse, on average, their health, their attitude, and their school performance. What’s more, with each subsequent generation, immigrant children do worse and worse.

On average, first-generation children function at significantly higher levels than do typical American-born children. But, by the third generation, that advantage is gone.

Why Do Immigrant Children Struggle More Than Their Parents Did?

I think people who have purpose, or drive, naturally produce meaning when they face adversity. Or perhaps meaning is the natural exhaust of drive colliding with adversity and low-level suffering. And the flip side of that is that depression could be the exhaust of a lack of drive colliding with a world of many options.

I imagine a tiny trickle of water being weakly pushed down a 10-foot pipe, vs. a massive stream of water being forced at high pressure through a tiny nozzle. The first stream of water is barely noticeable as a dribble, where the second can cut through metal.

So it’s not only the water pressure that propels the water at high speed: it’s also the clear (and restricted) path that it must take.

Immigrants are that high-pressure water nozzle. They know what they want—or need to achieve—which is usually a steady job, shelter, and the stability to safely start a family. That’s the pressure. That’s the drive. And the restricted nozzle is the fact that many immigrants have only one trade.

Perhaps they build things, or they cook, or they clean houses, or they know information technology. But it’s not as if most can open an art gallery and explore themselves. They have a trade and they are driven to get work doing that thing as quickly as possible.

60% of gun deaths in the US are from suicide.

The reasons so many multi-generational Americans are upset, depressed, angry, and are overdosing on drugs are obviously numerous. It’s a multivariate problem. It’s not one thing, for sure.

But I think a big part of it comes down to the lack of hardship, the lack of struggle, and the lack of appreciation for how easy it is to live in the US compared to most of the world.

Perhaps everyday meaning comes from something like this equation:

Hardship/Struggle (Produces-->)
Drive/Goals (Combines with-->)
Struggle/Adversity (Results in-->)
Meaning

In this model, hardship and struggle would come from serious things, like not having a place to live in your previous country, or having seen your parents go hungry so you can eat, or having experienced hunger yourself.

Drive and goals could be anything from a determination to never feel that hunger again, or to make sure your kids never experience it, to wanting to become a famous musician, or a lawyer.

Adversity is similar to hardship, except it’s the constant grind. It’s not the hardship you faced in the past that gave you your drive, but rather the opposing force that makes you have to push everyday to avoid being crushed.

US immigrants—especially from Mexico—have this. It’s neverending. Many of them had rough lives back home, and they’re here to better themselves and their families through hard work. They have the origin story that gave them the fire, and they have the daily and mandatory grind that keeps them afloat. This is why they can experience meaning in a good meal, a good beverage, and spending time with friends.

I think many multi-generational Americans have simply had it too good for too long. It’s not their fault. And it’s not their parents’ fault. It’s hard to impose hardship on children when you went through it yourself. The inclination is to do the exact opposite, i.e., to shield them from that and make things easier for them.

It’s counter-intuitive that that adversity you faced as a parent might be exactly what is needed to build the strongest character. Think about the slow water and the giant pipe again. That’s what so many American teens seem like today.

They’ve had an easy path their whole lives. They’ve never been cold. They’ve never been hungry. They’ve never felt deeply or consistently unsafe. They’ve never been denied an education. They’ve had it good. And that produces the slow trickle of a small amount of water (drive).

Then, they’re told by everyone, and the media, that “they can be anything.” Oh, great. Thanks. So I have no interest in anything, no passion for anything, no idea what I should feel passionate about…and your wisdom is to tell me that my options are limitless?

For someone with no direction, being told they can go anywhere just makes it worse.

This is why so many Americans are struggling with a lack of meaning. It’s not the driven people who are grinding through long days and nights to get their masters degree so they can become an archaeologist—which they’ve always wanted to do—that are hurting. They’re sleep-deprived, and exhausted, and stressed about money, etc. But they’re not as likely to be depressed.

It’s the directionless that we need to worry about. Especially the ones with “lots of options”.

Far too many of them are unable to produce a steady flow of water at useful pressure level. Instead you end up with a giant, abandoned water pipe that’s a bit swampy to walk through.

People like that are open to anything that will get the water moving. Anything to either increase their passion and drive, or to focus it into a tight stream. Again, the cure for depression seems not to be the achieving of goals, but having some that you care about.

If you have goals and the drive to achieve them, adversity is often the final ingredient for meaning. Adversity in that situation tells you that you’re doing the right thing, in the right direction.

But that same adversity applied when you have nothing to push back against it can feel like a smothering blanket.

I think if we are to have any long-lasting civilization we must learn how to imbue our youth with the memory of hardship. We must teach kids—somehow—what it’s like to struggle so that they can develop their own drive and therefore their own potential for meaning.

I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how you imbue basic hardship and striving skills into young people when they live in society where everything is easy. I suppose the easy answer is to create an environment in which everything is not easy.

Removing social media. Making them go without other things. Constantly teaching history of previous hardships. And having them work hard for seemingly small wins.

I suppose that works, and I’ve seen that it does, but it seems very difficult. Most parents are so busy trying to make their own lives work that they don’t have the time to create this falsely-difficult sterile environment for their kids. And this is especially difficult if all their peers have lives that pierce the necessity of your false training environment.

Anyway, it’s something we have to solve.

Obviously the quality of the goals matter too.

The path to meaning is having long-term goals that you’re driven to accomplish.

If we don’t learn this lesson, and figure out how to imbue our children with it, we will end up repeating massive cycles like the following:

  1. War resulting from people forgetting what hardship looks like
  2. A couple of generations of great people who now appreciate life
  3. 2-3 generations of people increasingly taking the good life for granted
  4. War resulting from people forgetting what hardship looks like

Enough already. We must do better.

Notes

  1. It should also be noted that not all pressure and goals are equally positive or constructive. There are many immigrant groups or cultures that absolutely have the fire of ambition, and they absolutely impart that to their children, but it comes in the form of telling them they’ll be nothing if they don’t do X or Y, or attain the status of Z. This can create pressure and drive, for sure, but it’s often of a hollow type that fades for the child once they’ve attained those things. So you have a lot of people in their 30’s who have no idea what they should be doing with their lives because they’ve already accomplished what their parents told them to do. They got their degree. They got their good job. Now what? That’s why it’s better to come up with goals that focus on helping people outside yourself, and producing value for others vs. a more temporary and hollow bar of attainment for oneself.


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