When I was about 12, I excitedly told my brother and grandfather, Gramps, that I had figured out what the purpose of life was: to have fun! Gramps said that was fine, but added the caveat that one also has to avoid hurting others while having all this fun. In high school, I changed “fun” to “happiness” and added another amendment: we have a responsibility to help others increase their happiness, too. And finally, there are times when one must even sacrifice some of one’s own happiness to add to the overall happiness in the world. So this, then, is The Purpose of Life:
Be happy without hurting others, show responsibility to others, and occasionally sacrifice that happiness for the greater good.*
It’s easy to say the purpose of life is happiness, but it’s not necessarily easy to be happy. That’s what the five keys below will help us achieve. Before we get to the list, though, there are a few other considerations. Aristotle recently told me that one’s happiness depends on good fortune. One certainly couldn’t be happy if one were on the rack, he said. It’s true that the guy on the rack probably isn’t too stoked that his limbs are about to be torn asunder. But if he lived a good and just life, he can take some comfort in that.
I take a couple lessons from Aristotle’s argument. First, bad things can happen to good people, but this shouldn’t deter us from pursuing that which makes us good or happy. The goal isn’t perfect unbroken happiness (which is impossible), but creating more opportunities for happiness. By focusing on the things we can control, we increase our odds for happiness. To a certain degree, we make our own luck, but when something outside of our control goes awry (evisceration being an extreme example), we deal with it in the best way possible. “Be Fortunate” isn’t on the list below because doing more of what’s on the list creates more fortune, regardless of where one currently is on the fortune continuum.
Second, a distinction should be made between fulfillment and happiness. Fulfillment is a higher good than happiness. Fulfillment can encompass happiness, but it also comes through wisdom, good-ness, and right-ness. One can live a life full of bad fortune, a life that is rarely touched by happiness, but if that life has good purpose, it is a fulfilled life. Think of old Mel Gibson as William Wallace yelling “Freedom!” just before he succumbs, or Mel’s good friend Jesus Christ on the cross. JC and WW may not have been happy while facing imminent demise, but most people would say they were fulfilled. Fulfillment is having the right balance of the last clause in The Purpose of Life above. Incidentally, though, while one can live a fulfilled life without much happiness, I don’t think the reverse is true – a happy life requires at least some fulfillment. So here they are, the five keys to fulfillment (and happiness):
- Be Good To be fulfilled, if not necessarily always happy, one need go no further than this step. Being good is all it takes to live a fulfilled life. I discussed this idea in detail in “Climbing the Totem Pole of Magnanimity.” The gist is, anybody in any situation can do good. And if you do good continually (doesn’t have to be continuously), you are a good person. Being a good person is fulfilling.
- Improve When I was in elementary school, I decided I wanted to learn everything. I started reading the encyclopedia.** I quickly realized that I probably wouldn’t learn everything, but I’m still working on it. I get excited about new projects, adventures, experiences, knowledge (so much so that I have to tether myself to a few projects at a time, lest I become a dilettante). Learning doesn’t end with school (and shouldn’t be restricted to school, of course). It’s important to constantly question our assumptions and adjust accordingly. We can also continue to improve ourselves by learning about and practicing empathy, beneficence, self-control, creativity, healthfulness, and just generally being better people.
- Be Healthy They say each cigarette you smoke takes seven minutes off your life. I guess that’s scary, but smoking cigarettes also makes me feel less healthy and alive right now. Eating well and exercising have important long-term implications for your health, but they’re also extremely important for your day-to-day health and happiness. When my daughter has a meltdown because there’s not enough milk in her cereal, when my son can’t find the exact right pair of pants, or when I experience grumpiness at a piece of paper falling off my desk, it can often be attributed to not having eaten enough (those are very near-term consequences (LBS), but of course there are multiple temporal levels in which we’re affected by food and exercise). I’ve been experimenting for a few years with different diets and exercise regimes, so I’ll have a lot more to say on this in future posts.
- Live Simply We have this confused notion, especially in the United States, that stuff makes us happy (he says, as he taps away on his seemingly indispensable computer). Beyond a certain level, material goods cease to make us more happy. Maybe we need to re-examine what that level is. Why not spend less on what we don’t need, so we can work less at jobs we don’t like, so we can spend more time working on what we do like? My friend Mr. Money Mustache has a few things to say about this topic.
- Cheat Occasionally As that guy who became Booger says in Risky Business, “Sometimes you gotta say, ‘What the fuck.'” We are funny-looking, hairless apes, and we have some debaucherous, Dionysian tendencies. It’s OK to indulge them from time to time, even if they’re not in keeping with steps 1-4, as long as they don’t conflict with the “not hurting others” clause of The Purpose of Life. Sometimes we need to beat our chests, shake some branches, and throw some shit around (metaphorically, of course). Practice excess in moderation, then resume picking nits out of each other’s hair when the dust settles down.
This list is necessarily lacking in detail. I could write a whole book on each of the items in the list… or maybe a whole blog – in fact, almost every post I write will touch on one or more of the items in the list. Now that we’ve found the trail, let’s strap on the 40 lb. packs (there’s some beer in them) and start hiking.
*There is another level that a few very noble people – martyrs, in the best sense of the word – attain, by sacrificing much or most of their happiness, and sometimes their lives, for a better world. Most of us, myself included, aren’t willing or able to sacrifice this much. This is a fulfilled life, but not necessarily a happy life.
**I think I made it to aardvark.