Is the Purpose of Life to be Happy?
The idea that life’s purpose is “happiness” or “create great memories” may be a harmful idea… let me explain.
If the most important thing in my life is to have happy experiences — a fulfilling job, an exciting relationship, optimal health, stimulating hobbies — this is where FOMO (fear of missing out) and entitlement are born.
Think about it: is the purpose of life all about getting my way?
That would be an extremely limiting definition. I’ll always be falling short. Life doesn’t fulfill my wishes in every moment. I won’t be always have the perfect career, the ideal relationship, the best health, or have enough time for my favorite hobbies.
If we say that life’s purpose is to pursue those things, then we’re each out for ourselves. It becomes a terrible world to live in. Everyone around you is thinking: I want my perfect career, my idea of a perfect relationship, my freedom to do my hobbies… and you are a stepping stone to my life purpose.
What if we expand our hearts just a little, and allow others into our definition of “Life Purpose”?
What if we bring Love in?
Not “an exciting relationship” type of love, but True Love… the kind that has room for others in our hearts.
Perhaps the purpose of Life is: to truly Love more.
Yet, there are many moments in our day where “to truly Love” might not make sense for what we’re doing or learning.
Let’s expand the definition of purpose beyond “Love”.
At this time in my life, here are the virtues that I resonate with:
What about you — what characteristics do you admire in your heroes? Different people might resonate with different virtues.
Another way to put it: we each have a different character strengths profile.
Perhaps then, the Purpose of Life is for us to express more of our character strengths everyday?
If that feels right to you, then try this on:
The purpose of life is to become a better person.
Whether you are: on a client call … checking email … writing a blog post … replying to a social media comment … cleaning the dishes … giving a presentation … taking a walk … taking a shower … having a challenging conversation … having a tough time with a piece of technology… or at any other point in your day:
In every moment there is an opportunity to grow, at least a little bit.
In this moment, and the next, and the next, there is some opportunity to grow in one of your character strengths, whether it’s wisdom, or patience, or love, etc.
That idea — to grow in any and every moment — is a large enough “life purpose” that can include others in our hearts, not only build a self-absorbed life. It is usable enough to be carried into every moment, every breath:
I am here to Grow.
What about the pursuit of an optimal life?
Look at these things — a great career, an ideal relationship, optimal health, more financial and time freedom — as completely optional and not as requirements to your happiness.
The more serious and focused you get about your goals, the more you tend to forget the larger Purpose of Life.
If I’m focused on a great career, then others are a stepping stone toward my own greatness.
If I focus on having an ideal relationship, then my partner can constantly disappoint me, and then I’m off to the next person (that I fantasize as the perfect partner.)
If I’m all about optimal health, then I might be anxious about getting toxins in my system, not eating the perfect superfoods, not getting ideal exercise, and dozens of other factors that can affect my health.
What if instead we reframe goals not as requirements but as options?
What if goals are to be played with, not to get so serious about?
We typically think of:
Goals → Success
Instead, try this on:
Goals → Inner Growth
Having goals and desires for a better life provide you with the scenarios that bring you opportunities for inner growth.
As you work on having a better career, there will be many opportunities to work on your courage, your diligence, your humility, your persistence, etc.
As you relate to your loved ones, there are opportunities to grow in your patience, compassion, gentleness, gratitude, creativity, flexibility, etc.
As you give attention to your health, there are many opportunities to grow in your moderation, simplicity, lightheartedness, etc.
Think about any area of life that you want to improve:
It provides you with many opportunities for the most important improvement —
To grow in your virtues.
What about pleasure?
Pleasurable experiences are a respite along the journey of life purpose, as well as a possible result of inner growth… but it’s not the goal… and you don’t need it to be happy.
When I experience physical pleasure, I see it as a temporary respite along my journey of inner growth. It’s not something I’m entitled to, nor something I want to get attached to.
I am always looking for a deeper pleasure: that abiding feeling of joy, peace, and love that exists whether or not I have physical pleasure.
That is what I hope we can all experience more of: joy, peace, and love.
Nobody can guarantee a life of constant physical pleasure. In fact, the pursuit of pleasure tends to lead to addiction, hedonic treadmills, and a spiraling into selfishness — seeing others as a stepping stone toward our personal pleasure.
The more we need any physical thing, or the more we need things to go our way, the more needy we become.
When we try to make eternal what was meant to be temporary, we can become hungry ghosts.
This is why virtually all spiritual paths have a suspicion of physical pleasure. This is why renunciation and asceticism exist: they see physical pleasures as a distraction in the quest for deeper spiritual pleasures.
I’m not advocating for that. I don’t see all physical pleasure as sin. I see it as optional, a respite from focus and discipline… but just a temporary pit stop. If I stay too long, I get sucked in.
It’s healthy to occasionally ask oneself whether physical pleasures are becoming an obstacle to inner growth.
I welcome pleasure in moderation, and yet I subordinate it to the bigger purpose — inner growth.
Instead of being taken by worldly pleasure, keep looking for that deeper happiness, that eternal pleasure, that can be there no matter what — the inner joy, peace, love, and wisdom that arises from inner growth.
So if you ask me whether the purpose of life is to be happy, I’ll say this:
Yes, if we keep sensing into deeper levels of happiness, being mindful not to get attached to life’s shallower pleasures.
Even when you aren’t having a good time…
This is the key: purpose exists even when life doesn’t seem to be “going well”.
It is in every moment: Growth.
Often gentle, sometimes exciting, but it’s always there: the opportunity to grow.
The force of inertia or downward pull, is here to strengthen us, to make us wiser, to help us grow.
Having things go our way, having pleasure — these are temporary respites, a crutch. It’s not bad, but let’s grow beyond it.
Let’s find, in each moment of today, the opportunity to grow. Whether it’s love, beauty, wisdom, courage, humility, trust, connectedness, etc, there’s an opportunity here, right now, in this moment.