People sometimes ask what is the purpose of life? Why should we exist or chose to continue existing? To them I typically pose a counter question, what purpose would *you* like to have for life and can you live your life ‘as if’ that is the purpose of life? See an example answer I provide here about the meaning/ purpose of life.
However, this post is not about such philosophical questions. Instead it builds on my previous posts about 4 major goals in life worth striving for. To recap the four major goals are 1) Happiness 2) Success 3) Morality 4) Meaning.
Sometimes you come across a blog toward which you feel a natural affinity and know where the blogger is coming from. I recently came across the blog Qualia Computing and was fascinated by some advanced common understanding about psychological issues that the blog author shows. For example, in this post the author asserts that purpose of life is
To Understand the Universe
To be Happy, and Make Others Happy
Also, later, the author asserts that any experience is valuable to the extent that it answers in affirmative to one or more of these questions:
Does it feel good? (happy, loving, pleasant)
Does it make you productive (in a good way)?
Does it make you ethical?
Taken together with the earlier formulation about the purpose of life, one can add a fourth question 4) does it lead to better understanding (of the world) ?
Thus, imho, all actions should be guided by answers to the questions ‘would it make me happy, make me productive , would make me a good person or would make me understand things a bit more clearly? ‘
So how does all this relate to psychological concepts? For starters, there is a big debate in psychology about the difference between happiness and meaningfulness and also as to which one is a legitimate aim to strive for? While some would like us to believe that happiness is the ultimate currency, new research suggests that Meaningfulness in life has its own importance and that both are valuable outcomes in themselves and predict other valued outcomes.
Moving beyond a narrow focus on oneself- whether to be happy or lead a meaningful life; one is also hounded by the desire to make a positive difference or contribution to the world around us. Some of us want to put a ding in the universe and leave our marks, while others are much more OK living a mediocre life , that is, content creating and leaving some small ripples around them.
The desire to create an impact leads us to the interpersonal sphere- where traits of competence and warmth are important. If someone needs our help we can either provide them practical help (similar to problem focused coping) based on our competence, or just be there for them (similar to emotion focused coping) based on our warmth and again create small ripples of kindness around us. Or we can also create a big impact by being outstanding in our field using our competence or becoming a paragon of a character strength by using our warmth.
In either case, one purpose of life may be to increase productivity to become more and more successful (in helping others) and the other may be to become more and more ‘good’ or moral and doing the small, everyday right things that make a difference. This is the contrast between being great and being good. This is also the contrast between being characterized mostly by doings or by beings.
In the happiness literature itself, there is a contrast between feeling happy (measured by presence of positive affect and absence of negative affect) and knowing that you are happy (life satisfaction etc), so the point being that there is also a contrast between feeling and knowing just like there is a contrast between doing and being.
In sum, the following four are the purposes of life:
- to be happy by feeling preponderance of positive emotions
- to be successful by doing a lot with a lot less (being productive)
- to be moral by being good and caring about others
- to be purposeful by knowing that what you do has value/ meaning
If we keep these four goals top of our minds, it is much more likely that our lives will turn out to be beautiful lives and we will feel less the need to ask the purpose of our lives!!