Number 8: The Purpose of Life is to Be Happy

god-adam-sistine-chapel---learn-to-be-happyThe biggest question we face as humans is, why are we here? What is our purpose? To become a happier person, you should try to answer this question for yourself. I take my cue on this from the Dalai Lama who said, “The purpose of your life is to be happy!” This may sound selfish, unrealistic or even wrong to some people. But I think it is true. The purpose of life is to be happy.

Let’s start this question from the beginning – the very beginning in fact. Humankind came into a world that was pretty dangerous. Both the environment and the creatures that lived in it could be lethal. So, it did not pay to be too relaxed and happy. If you reached for an apple on a tree you learned fast to make sure that there was no snake or poisonous insect on the branch next to it.

We evolved to be both wary and unhappy. Psychologists have found that happy people may be more creative, but they are less careful. In the old days, a happy creative person might have discovered fire, but an unhappy careful person was still around when it came to cook dinner.

The genetic heritage that kept us unhappy and alive back then is still with us today. In the well-known study, Bad is Stronger than Good, [1] the psychologist-authors report that we still see much more bad in the world than good, and we remember the bad longer.

Today, when we reach for an apple at the supermarket there is little chance of being bitten by a poisonous snake, and perhaps nobody fears this. However, in less obvious situations the mind’s tendency is still to go to the dark side. We see a lot more danger and threat in a world than is really there. We can’t help it.

This tendency to see bad in the world, and our tendency to be unhappy, now threatens us. We have conquered nature and the wild beasts that were intent on having us for lunch. Now we have to tame ourselves. The biggest threat to mankind is mankind. The instincts that told us to view the world as hostile now work against us. We see too many people as enemies, and they see us as enemies.

Our purpose now is to learn to be happy, and move beyond the mind-body’s natural tendency to see evil in the world. Learning this may be what keeps us from destroying each other.

The good news is, while we evolved to see danger in the world, we also evolved to band together to protect ourselves from it. Some psychologists say we are “obligatorily gregarious,” meaning that it is our nature to form secure relationships. These relationships kept us together and alive in the past. Relationships are so important to us that the loneliness we feel when alone is an experience akin to pain. In fact, the part of our brain that experiences loneliness is the same part that registers physical pain.[2]

We are happier when we are securely attached to each other. In addition, the human traits that impel us to build and maintain these relationships are also those that make us happy. And, the people who seem to do the best jobs of building those relationships are happy people. Happiness, then, is closely associated with life’s major purpose of building strong relationships. As we strive for the feeling of happiness we also move towards our primary goal of staying alive.

It is easy to see why good relationships and happiness go together. Long ago, being together meant we were better protected. A mother could relax and nurse a child, knowing that others were around keeping an eye on things. A hunter could comfortably sleep in the middle of a jungle, knowing that he had his mates around for protection.

What is less obvious is that simply practicing the human traits that help build good relations also makes us happy. In the book The How of Happiness,[3] we find that practicing the traits (virtues) of charity, compassion, selflessness and forgiveness help build secure relationships; and as we exhibit these traits we find ourselves becoming happier. For example, if you perform a “random act of kindness” for a complete stranger you feel good about doing it. If you do it often enough this kind of act will make you happier.

Authentic happiness also improves life at all levels. Granted, happy people may be a bit too trusting, but they tend to be more successful, they have better relationships, they are healthier, and they live longer. So, even on an individual level, because happiness is so tied in with an improved quality of life for an individual, it is a major purpose of life.

Any time we talk about life purpose we inevitably move into the spiritual and religious realms. But here also, we are guided towards happiness as our purpose for life. I mentioned earlier how virtuous traits make us happier. All religions encourage these virtuous ways of being. We are also told that the religious experience ultimately leads to happiness. The Bhagavad Gita, one of the most important Hindu scriptures, says that the Divine leads to happiness.[4] Similarly, St. Thomas Aquinas, the great Christian theologian/philosopher, seemed to believe that our natural desire for happiness is synonymous with our desire to know and love the Divine.[5] It appears that the closer we are to the Divine, the happier we become. Despite the old proverb, maybe it is really happiness that is next to godliness, not cleanliness.

What to do

Back to the original question: what is the purpose of life? I conclude that our purpose is to be happy. To gain this ability we have to learn to overcome the natural tendency of the mind-body to be negative and to see more evil in the world than good. Sure, we have lots of other purposes in life, such as inventing the next great app and getting rich. But, in the end, what people have always wanted is to be happy, healthy and safe. Perhaps some part of our collective wisdom knows that we have to become happier. At a minimum, happier people have less incentive to destroy each other.

Think about this for yourself. If you are wondering what to do with your life – whether you are a twenty-something in a quarter-life crisis, a fifty-something with a midlife crisis, or just a person who wants to know what life is all about – think about this. Perhaps try this idea on for size.

Here is an exercise:

All you need to do is take some quiet time for yourself, and ask yourself, what is my purpose? Then say to yourself, “My purpose is to be happy.” Try it out. If this idea feels good to you then periodically say this phrase to yourself. If it does not feel right, then don’t worry about it.

Whatever you choose to do, remember the words of the Buddha: “Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think.” If you come to know and understand your purpose, and hold it in mind, you will eventually become that purpose.

Posted by D.E. Hardesty

* * *

For more, see Finding Your Power to Be Happy.

finding your power to be happy

[1] Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer and Vohs, Bad Is Stronger than Good, Review of General Psychology, 2001. Vol. 5, No. 4, 323-370.

[2] Cacioppo, John T.; Patrick, William (2008-08-17). Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.

[3] Lyubomirsky, Sonja, The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want.

[4] Easwaran Ed., Eknath, The Bhagavad Gita (Classics of Indian Spirituality) (p. 235). Nilgiri Press. Kindle Edition.

[5] Aquinas, Thomas, Summa Theologica, Coyote Canyon Press.


One thought on “Number 8: The Purpose of Life is to Be Happy

  1. Pingback: Number 8: The Purpose of Life is to Be Happy | How to Be Happy

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