While life’s ‘biggest thrill’ may be personal freedom (as I recently blogged), what is the ‘purpose’ of life? For religious believers, the answer is easy – the promise of an after-life. But for the vast non-believing majority, the question is vital: why are we here?Thrills are most enjoyable when they contrast with the normal humdrum of life. But if every moment was a ‘thrill’, ‘thrill’ would be normal…and not a highlight at all… If you have the most wonderful food to eat all day every day, it becomes boring!
Life’s Purpose? Personal Enjoyment?
Most people act as if they believe personal enjoyment is the purpose of life. If only I could spend all day at the beach, eating, playing my favourite sport, doing my favourite hobby, travelling to my favourite places, learning new knowledge, gaining new skills. Wow! What a life!
Certainly it sounds attractive. People act on weekends and when they stop work as if this is the ultimate purpose of life – to enjoy yourself. Lucky you if you have this possibility, because for most people, this is unattainable. Work, lack of sufficient finance, constraints of family responsibilities, doing the basics, surviving the rat race are more the norm. All mean personal enjoyment for most of us is difficult to achieve. We’re often too tired to even have fun.
But, it turns out, for most people, doing what they like all the time also becomes boring and humdrum. People who win the lottery or have a similar financial windfall often return to work, even though they don’t need the money! Would I enjoy going out to great restaurants every day, playing tennis 7 days a week, perpetually travelling to new places? Actually, no. At best I’d need a rest, and balance.
Life’s Purpose? Raising a Family?
Many people argue that the real purpose of life is raising their family, making sure their family members are best placed to survive and prosper.
There’s no doubt that raising a ‘successful’ family – one whose members can support themselves independently and contribute their talents to the society’s benefit and advancement – is a very important purpose.
But so many of us have dysfunctional families or families or members that need continued support for much of their lives that, if we really focussed on whether we did a good job of raising our family, many of us would be judged as having failed to a significant degree.
Even more, why focus on just helping one’s family? What about other people who need help? And what if our family doesn’t need help or can’t receive help…or we don’t even have a family…?
Life’s Purpose? Helping Others?
What most of us want is some sense of ‘meaning’ for life. Why are we here? Research shows that helping others gives meaning to our lives. It makes us feel happy/happier too! Especially if people thank us, reinforcing our good internal feelings. Helping others moves our focus on to the wellbeing of others. It makes us more aware of our own good fortune – others are often worse off than we are. It can relieve stress in our lives and, depending on how we help, it may increase our physical fitness as well, increasing our chances of a longer life.
Another key benefit from helping others is increased social connectedness. Most people like being with other people. Just passing the time of day, social chatting, makes us feel better. Social connectedness makes for happier societies, not just a happier self, or happier receiver of help. And happier societies have less health problems, so it’s win-win all round!
Personal enjoyment sounds like the obvious purpose for life. But too much can be boring. Raising a ‘successful’ family can give great pleasure, but it’s limiting. There’s so much more pleasure to be gained by helping others in society in even more need. There are so many opportunities to do this, by volunteering for any of the thousands of non-profit organisations that do good work. And if you do good work for others, and raise a successful family…then spending time on personal enjoyment will feel great too, because you can only do it part of the time.