I was dreaming (or half awake) last night, and I started thinking about the purpose of life. Is it to be happy, or is it something else? So I Googled that question and found a variety of answers. For instance:
Everyone’s heard it from someone who’s transmitting the nuts and bolts of evolution and selection:
“Evolution only cares about survival and reproduction.”
“Evolution is a game about whose genes get into the next generation.”
“When it comes to evolution, survival and reproduction are all that matter.”
To the humanist, (biological) life’s purpose is built-in: it is to reproduce. That is how the human race came to be: creatures reproducing in a progression of unguided evolution as an integral part of nature, which is self-existing.
Humanity means caring for and helping others whenever and wherever possible. Humanity means helping others at times when they need that help the most, humanity means forgetting our selfish interests at times when others need our help. Humanity means extending unconditional love to each and every living being on Earth.
It is the Dalai Lama who tells us I believe that the very purpose of life is to be happy and Aristotle who said Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence. These two leaders are from different cultures, religions and philosophies, yet have markedly similar views
Humans are not designed to be happy, or even content. Instead, we are designed primarily to survive and reproduce, like every other creature in the natural world. A state of contentment is discouraged by nature because it would lower our guard against possible threats to our survival.
- Happy people satisfy their wants and needs, but that seems largely irrelevant to a meaningful life. Therefore, health, wealth, and ease in life were all related to happiness, but not meaning.
- Happiness involves being focused on the present, whereas meaningfulness involves thinking more about the past, present, and future—and the relationship between them. In addition, happiness was seen as fleeting, while meaningfulness seemed to last longer.
- Meaningfulness is derived from giving to other people; happiness comes from what they give to you. Although social connections were linked to both happiness and meaning, happiness was connected more to the benefits one receives from social relationships, especially friendships, while meaningfulness was related to what one gives to others—for example, taking care of children. Along these lines, self-described “takers” were happier than self-described “givers,” and spending time with friends was linked to happiness more than meaning, whereas spending more time with loved ones was linked to meaning but not happiness.
- Meaningful lives involve stress and challenges. Higher levels of worry, stress, and anxiety were linked to higher meaningfulness but lower happiness, which suggests that engaging in challenging or difficult situations that are beyond oneself or one’s pleasures promotes meaningfulness but not happiness.
- Self-expression is important to meaning but not happiness. Doing things to express oneself and caring about personal and cultural identity were linked to a meaningful life but not a happy one. For example, considering oneself to be wise or creative was associated with meaning but not happiness.
There are more practical reasons for space exploration, but one of the principle reasons we must continue is that we’re explorers. That’s why humans number in the billions — from our earliest upright steps, we’ve endeavored to learn more about the world around us, and this allowed us to build civilization. Exploring space is an opportunity not only to discover new worlds and build advanced technologies, but to work together toward a larger goal irrespective of nationality, race, or gender. If we stop exploring, we stop being human.
I find a lot of these comments very helpful and interesting, but I’ll stop quoting now and try to summarize what I’ve heard and I believe. I believe in the things that cause us to evolve as humans. Yes, our basic purpose as a group is to survive and reproduce. We are like other animals that way. But we have begun to question whether reproduction is an appropriate goal for our striving for survival. So we look at things like happiness for ourselves and others as being goals that give purpose to our survival and creating of people to replace us when we go. Yet we learn (and this seems correct) that we are not designed to be happy, because contentment would undercut our need to survive. We think about giving our life meaning, and we do various things to bring meaning to our lives. Yet these attempts never really satisfy us or make us happy. We think about grandiose efforts, like exploring space and the stars. A lot of effort has been put into that, but in the end it may be futile. It’s hard enough to create good solutions on our tiny planet earth, because we over reproduce, destroy the natural biosphere, create climate change, engage in warfare, and do other things that undercut happiness and meaning to life.
Seventy-five years ago, we created the United Nations, designed to achieve last peace. Yet we have failed in that goal. We have tried for decades to eliminate hunger and poverty, and while these efforts have partially succeeded, they have not achieved what could have been achieved. To me, the reason for this lack of success has been individual greed and corruption, which drains our resources and prevents these goals. “In 2019, the value of the personal luxury goods market worldwide was 281 billion euros. The global luxury goods industry, which includes drinks, fashion, cosmetics, fragrances, watches, jewelry, luggage and handbags, has been on an upward climb for many years.” In 2018, the sales of “superyachts” ran $2.9 billion. Moreover, it costs 10% of the yachts’ value to maintain them on an annual basis. Luxury cars cost $26.291 billion in 2020. The world’s richest people spent $234 billion on luxury goods and services in 2016, with the largest share spent on travel, cars, and jewelry. (I looked for figures on the annual cost on a world-wide scale for luxury housing but could only find reports on individual houses.)
If you just add the personal luxury goods, superyachts, and cars, you get a total of around $352 billion. “689 million people live in extreme poverty, surviving on less than $1.90 a day.” In 1990, “Around 1.89 billion people, or nearly 36% of the world’s population, lived in extreme poverty .” So the situation has vastly improve in 30 years. But consider that these extremely poor spend $693.5 a year each, which totals $477.821 billion annually, most of which could be paid if the luxury money went to them for food, clothing, and shelter. (In the U.S., the poverty line is $34.96 per day ($12,760 annually). People earning below that cannot afford rent, food, or other basic needs.)
This is just a simple comparison. People spend $352 billion annually on various luxury items. If that money went to care for those in extreme poverty, it would boost their standard of living by 71%. It wouldn’t take that much to raise their incomes by significantly more.
In my view, the happiness of humanity (at least so far as income is concerned) would improve if we could establish a system that eliminated greed and corruption. In both capitalist and socialist systems, a large slice of the national income goes to “the people at the top.” Those are different people in each system, but the result transfers much of the money to a “1% class,” which deprives the lower 20% of the means of surviving without funding from somewhere. In the 1960’s, the United States tried to fund a “War on Poverty,” which succeeded in part but not in whole. Those efforts have dropped away since the Clinton Administration (1993-2001). A general social concern with the happiness of all has disappeared except among those who label themselves “progressives” or “charitable.” (There are some who are charitable. See, e.g., these and these).
Far more attention needs to be paid to the happiness of all. The only answer is a method of shifting economic wealth from the top to the bottom, using this also to improve education and other means of improving happiness within the society. And if similar efforts could be made on a world-wide basis, I am sure that we could solve worldwide issues of poverty, climate change, and health. Our efforts involving happiness should be made with respect to all peoples everywhere.