There are a variety of factors, of course, but underpinning every major cause of despair and hopelessness is the lack of self-observation. Most people are suffering because they have no idea who they are and what they want.
The present moment mindset
Before any form of sentience is achieved, it is necessary to understand the effect that time has on the mind. Time can be spent in three ways: the present, the past and the future. A past-oriented mind is preoccupied with reminiscing former glories or regretting former mistakes. A future-oriented mind is preoccupied with fantasizing about upcoming successes or worrying about upcoming failures. A present-oriented mind, on the contrary, is one that truly reflects on the present self.
Self-reflection can only be done in the present moment
The past and the future cannot be sources of self-reflection because every waking moment is spent imagining events beyond our control. What happened before is gone, and what will happen is not yet here. There is no influence whatsoever over these two circumstances. However, people expend a significant amount of mental energy stuck in these mindsets. It is like running on a treadmill: there is a lot of sweat and strain, but it doesn't get you anywhere.
The present moment is different because the only locus is the individual. A present-oriented mind concentrates not on the imagination but on what is actually happening in the here and now. The person is able to access a part of himself that can ask questions such as "How am I doing?", "Am I in the right place in life right now?", "What can I do to improve my circumstances?" and so on.
Desperation results from a lack of self-understanding
Many people who find themselves stuck in a rut are often there because of their own making. Living the majority of their lives in the past and future mindset, they never attempt to sit down and mind themselves. They don't write their experiences in journals, have heartfelt conversations with loved ones or friends, or face painful realities that require risky decisions. They simply survive on a daily basis, and any free time they have is spent in the escapist world of sleep, television and video games.
The consequences of not minding yourself
Being unaware of yourself has major consequences. It not only prevents you from forming meaningful relationships (because every relationship requires at least a basic sense of who you are and what you want), but it also significantly degrades your status in life. There is no such thing as staying put in one place; people are either on an upward spiral of self-improvement or a downward spiral of self-destruction. There is no middle ground. It is just the case that many men and women on a downward spiral are not even aware of it. It usually takes a significant event to jolt them out of their reverie and make them realize what is happening in their lives. There are many words for this type of event. "Midlife crisis" is one of them. The mind can no longer afford to remain unaware, so it forces itself to take notice for the first time in many years. The effects of these brief moments of clarity can be quite unsettling, as anyone who has ever experienced it can tell you.
The benefits of being sentient
Taking heed of yourself is not only beneficial for figuring out where you are in life and in what direction you are headed. It is also an essential component of being human. One of the major obstacles facing computer scientists and engineers today is figuring out how to develop intelligence in machines. It is not enough that machines can store data and process information. They also need to be able to make choices for themselves that are not dictated by their programming. The gift of personal reflection is an ability that is innate to people alone, and it is only accessible by staying in a present moment mindset and taking a detailed inventory of your fears and dreams, weaknesses and strengths, dislikes and preferences. Unfortunately, many are simply wasting this talent.
You do not need to live life on automatic pilot, going about your day in quiet desperation. The only way out is to stop and mind yourself.