Not the Meaning of Life
June 13, 2012
“What do you want to be in life?”
Long, dramatic pause.
If I had a nickel for every time somebody told me that his or her overarching life goal entailed “happiness,” I’d have enough to confuse and infuriate every cashier whose store I tried to buy anything from.
Age-old question: What’s the meaning of life?
And I don’t just mean life on Earth in general. I’m not asking you, “What’s the meaning of life … for brine shrimp?” No, see, if that were the case, the obvious answer would be: “To eat and reproduce.” Which would be true for lots of organisms, I guess.
But no, I’m asking what the meaning of your life is. What you feel like you were put on this Earth to do in the time allotted to you. Tough question, right?
Actually … apparently not. The other day, I was hanging out with one of my friends. Curious, I asked, “What do you want out of life?” She barely took more than a moment to think about the question before promptly responding with a confident “I just want to be happy.”
Let me just put this out there before I start to sound as if I have a better answer: I do not, nor have ever claimed, to know what the actual “meaning of life” is. I am not God; I’m a little white girl with more freckles than IQ points, and I admittedly probably know a lot less about life than most people do. But in my own personal opinion — as unaccredited as it may be — I don’t think there really is a “meaning” to life at all. And absolutely not one that can be given as a short, simple answer to a philosophical question that profound.
Yet I’ve heard so many people state that they want “to be happy” in life that I’d like to talk about it a little. Because, although I can’t think of a better answer, that one happens to be my least favorite.
As Eleanor Roosevelt once stated, “Happiness is not a goal — it is a by-product.”
People everywhere seem to be getting new cars, impressive jobs, pretty girlfriends, what have you; they seem happy with their lives. It’s very difficult not to see the things that bring other people happiness without feeling inadequate and consequently wanting more. Some of us equate “seeming happy” with “being happy,” but there’s definitely a difference between the two, and some people who excel in the former are truly lacking in the latter. Just as it’s very easy for people with no real problems to act like they have problems, it’s equally easy for miserable people to pretend that they’re happy so that no one asks them what’s wrong. Problems can rarely be seen at surface level. But even so, looking around us at the lives of other people, it’s easy to see what we don’t have and feel as if we’re missing something. We go out in search of things that we could find that would make us feel better, and we turn happiness into a goal.
But “achieving happiness” is an impossible goal, at least when happiness is viewed as something to be achieved. It’s hard to know what it truly means to be “happy.” There’s no scale to measure happiness by, even on a personal scale, and that makes it difficult to determine that we are fully and completely satisfied with life. How can we search for something when we have absolutely no idea what it would mean to actually find it? We simply can’t. This makes “achieving happiness” an impossible goal, and impossible goals are ones that must surely be met with imminent disappointment and failure.
People could talk for millennia about whether or not humans will ever find happiness; they have. So I suppose regardless of whether or not happiness can ever be found, I’d really like to know, above all, what exactly makes happiness so important that we should dedicate our lives to it and want it so badly. In my head, happiness should be avoided. After all, it is actually the absence of happiness that helps us most grow as individuals — adversity strengthens us, and we learn through our mistakes. Personal development would not exist were we all perpetually content with exactly the way we already were.
Do what you love, do what makes you happy. But don’t do anything solely in an attempt to bring yourself happiness. As Eleanor Roosevelt concluded, “The one sure way not to be happy is to deliberately map out a way in life in which one would please oneself completely and exclusively.”