Apr 13, 2023
“If we somehow manage to convince ourselves that the purpose of life is our own personal happiness, then we are in for a world of hurt.”
Today, everyone is looking for the meaning of life, its purpose, what, if anything, makes life worth living?
The consensus (not unanimous) of western philosophers is that the purpose and meaning of life is ‘personal happiness’. This is an oxymoron. When we say something has purpose or meaning, we are connecting that thing to something outside it; but happiness is not ‘outside’ the happy person, so the concepts of purpose and meaning can’t apply here.
X cannot be the meaning of X; otherwise, ‘meaning’ would have no meaning. The meaning of X can only be found somewhere in ~X. Personal happiness refers only to X. If we somehow manage to convince ourselves that the purpose of life is our own personal happiness, then we are in for a world of hurt:
“… Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself (love). Happiness must happen…” (Victor Frankl)
“Happy? Anyone can be happy. What’s the purpose of that?” (Bob Dylan)
How could things have gone so wrong? The divine values, Beauty, Truth, and Justice are values that everyone in every life circumstance is free to pursue to the best of their ability. Happiness, on the other hand, is often dependent on fickle circumstances.
We may find it hard to ‘whistle a happy tune’ in the face of crushing poverty, chronic disease, unrequited love, or personal tragedy. It would be nice if we could smile our way through life’s vicissitudes…but it’s unrealistic. The ‘happy slave’ is, for the most part, ‘bourgeoisie fiction’.
If anything is the purpose of life, realizing it should not depend at all on things beyond our control. Rephrased: if the proposed ‘purpose of life’ is something outside our control, then that cannot be a purpose. A purpose can only be a purpose if it can be achieved; otherwise, it’s just a fantasy.
Beyond this, there is a cultural element at play. In our culture, children no longer have any intrinsic value! They exist for the enjoyment of their parents. They exist to be loved; what can possibly be wrong with that?
Not so long ago, things were different. Couples conceived explicitly to produce offspring that could be an economic asset. Kids were raised to help run the house, the farm, the ranch, the store, or the loom. Every child had a purpose! Hopefully, they were also loved.
Today, at least in the Atlantic community, children have no short term economic value. Ask any parent managing the cost of daycare, summer camp, groceries, and college tuition…
As good parents, and of course, we are all good parents, it’s easy to make our children’s happiness Job One. Who then can blame a child then who, upon graduation, continues to steer her ship solely according to that beacon?
I have lived a full life. I married, had children and grandchildren, built a successful business that created jobs, enhanced the wellbeing of tens of thousands of customers, provided a comfortable living for my family, and left me with plenty of playtime!
Looking back, I see that playtime, such a source of happiness for me at the time, is the least important part of my story. I don’t regret it per se, but I see it now from a different perspective. Caring for others and helping to smooth their way in the world still seem like a worthy ‘purpose’; enhancing my short-term personal happiness does not.
It would be nice to think that I was motivated by the opportunity to care, and that I used my playtime merely to recreate. It would be nice…but then I’d be writing about another man.
The minute I put the tuba down, the music stopped. What happened to all that happiness? Is it stored-up somewhere in a vault? Can I make periodic withdrawals of principle? Oh well, I have the memories…at least for another few years, I hope.
How I treated others, good and ill, will reverberate through the universe until Big Freeze; how much I enjoyed the foie gras at Biba in 1990 will not.
As pupils in a parochial (Catholic) elementary school in the ‘50s, we did not have this problem. Every September, we’d take our seats on the first day of class and that day we would learn just two things:
God is the supreme being who made all things.
God made us to know him, love him and serve him.
First grade? Eighth grade? Same lesson! No reference to personal happiness or ‘self-actualization’. The alleged Death of God has made such catechetical memes unintelligible to my grandchildren. I don’t worry about them now, they’re fabulous; but I do worry about where they’ll be when they finally decide to put their own tubas aside. Will they look back at all that’s left undone in their lives, and say with me, “Gee, I could have had a V8?”