We are thrust into this life, tumbled around in our youth, only to come to the surface with time and realise that we are living without meaning. This was best put by the french 1940s philosopher Jean-Paul Satre when he said,“Being precedes essence.” His idea was that first we exist as human beings and then we find meaning for our existence.
Without looking to polarise ourselves on this topic, we can all agree that regardless whether this definition is true, or if there is a predisposed meaning for us (through religion), it is our duty as rational beings to discover it. Many of us who have ventured down the path of questioning the meaning of our existence will find it a paradoxical endeavour; as rational beings we view the world through the lens of our conscious mind, so when we try to direct our mind’s inquisition onto itself, we find our human cognition falls short. This in turn makes it difficult to understand the meaning of our conscious existence.
When we look at a chair, we see the preordained purpose of why the chair was created – to be sat on. However, this purpose is one that we are imposing on the chair. This meaning is not absolute. Another person could view the chair as an odd arrangement of sticks, useful for nothing. It is a trick of our own mind, that in order to make sense of this external object, we have decorated it with a purpose. If our viewing mind was not to exist, then the purpose we have divined for it would cease too. Why do we do this? It undoubtedly makes understanding the world around us much easier; instead of analyzing every object as a completely unique and separate entity in the world around us, we give it a purpose so that it can be defined and interacted with. However, when looking at our own lives we must accept the same simple answer as that of the chair; that the purpose or meaning of our existence as conscious beings can only come from within; that we are both the chair and the one giving it purpose.
We – the perceivers of our self – are the only ones who can give our existence meaning.
So even if we choose to believe in a religious outlook where our meaning for existence is one originating higher than us, it is still in our mind that we have chosen that meaning. While at first this may seem extremely terrifying, once understood and accepted, it is a liberation beyond any other. It is the truest sense of freedom that we have as human beings; a self-sovereignty that allows us to live free from any predefined path, as our conscious will demands.
Accepting this does not mean that our lives are without meaning, it means that it is our duty to search, discover and create this meaning.
The Purpose of Life
Coming to a purpose of life is not a simple flip of the coin matter, it has been discussed by many thinkers over thousands of years. To take a shortcut, we can examine three ideas that could be the purpose of life. By examining each idea, we can isolate a single purpose of life; the root of all purposes. These could be suggested to be virtue (right and wrong), love, and happiness; three things that seem to be pillars of life so fundamental that human life could not exist without them.
Virtue as the Purpose of Life
Kant, the late 1700s philosopher, argues that morality is the output of our rational minds, and hence he might suggest that virtue (living morally) is the purpose of life. Morality is what separates us from the lower forms of consciousness in the animal kingdom. Morality is what the rational mind says “I should”, when the primitive mind is saying, “I want”. Since we are rational beings, it would seem that our purpose is to fulfil the primary output of our minds. However, to look at religion or social law, we see that this does not work in reality. To do good, is not a motivation in and of itself. People need a promise of the afterlife in religion, or punishment in society, to enforce morality. So while still fundamental to our lives, morality cannot be the ultimate purpose.
Love as the Purpose of Life
This leads us to love, the driving force behind nearly all of the world’s positivity. It takes no philosopher to tell us that a world without love would be one so insufferable we would have to term it hell. However, while being a core driver of our humanity, can love be the ultimate purpose? One could easily argue that we only love others for our own benefit; that love by itself is not the driver, rather the positive outcome that results from love.
Happiness as the Purpose of Life
This leaves us with happiness. The only argument that can be made against happiness is that, a society of people focused on their individual happiness would conflict and result in chaos. We will leave that argument to be addressed later, as that withstanding it seems that love is something the rational mind needs no justification for. Even the concept of heaven is an abstraction of eternal happiness. We do not need to be persuaded or encouraged to seek happiness, it is born within us to strive and discover it. It is our natural instinct as rational beings; it is why you are reading this right now. Happiness is our core desire as rational human beings; it is the ultimate purpose of life.
The purpose of human life is happiness.
While this definition sounds selfish and narrow-minded, we will shortly see how far from the truth that is.
Happiness as a Right
Our next step is understanding the implications of this definition and examining any possible alterations to this seemingly obvious truth. Immediately we can see that if the purpose of life is happiness, then all our efforts in daily life should be geared around this one goal. Our thoughts, desires and actions should all be focused on achieving a life of happiness. How we go about doing that is not yet defined, however, this is still profoundly important. If we are in agreement that the sole purpose for life is happiness, then everything else that is not driving us towards this goal is redundant. Everything we do should be driven by a goodwill for our happiness.
To speak more plainly, this ‘goodwill’, which is explored deeper here, can also be called love. Love is the intention to do good by another. So this gets us to the fact that our purpose of life is happiness, and we will go about achieving it through love.
The purpose of my life is happiness and
I will achieve it through self-love
However seeing as we live in a society of humans we need this law to apply holistically; any law that we discover for ourselves, must also apply for everyone else. So while the purpose of my life is my happiness, the purpose of everyone’s life is their own happiness.
Each and every person has the right to happiness
However seeing as we do not live alone in this world, we must examine how our definition applies in a society. The answer can be illuminated by seeking guidance from the ancient Greek philosophers. Plato, one of the first to wear this title, aptly described a society as, “an allegiance of people for the mutual achievement of common goals.” This means to live in a society is to make the purpose of the whole, the purpose of the individual. Or more plainly again, it is our duty as social animals to help everyone achieve the common goal of life, happiness.
Thinking more holistically is also important because it broadens our minds when thinking about happiness to be more inclusive and conscious of the happiness of others. It is not just a definition of our own happiness that we are seeking, but one that can be adopted by a whole society effectively.
This continuation of our definition implies that if each individual has the right to happiness, and as previously stated, the path to happiness is through love, then as participants in society this brings us to the simple conclusion of:
Everyone has the right to happiness
and the duty to love others
Admittedly we have made our way to this definition rather fast, quickly covering many assumptions that whole books have been dedicated to. While the first half of our definition seems axiomatic, the second can understandably be questioned. Living in a hyper-connected world where we interact with many more people, we are going to have an increasing impact each others lives. With each interaction we have only once choice; to act with good-will towards others or with bad-will; to act out of love or out of hate. If we are insistent about our goal of happiness, then our decision becomes easy, as it takes no grand feat of persuasion to understand that no hateful person is truly happy.