'Survival of the fittest' has been the theme behind human evolution. Human beings for ages have been striving and struggling to attain their food, title, status, or any other need. It’s only when modern society began to condition us, ‘we must strive today, to become happy one day’, that happiness became an asset that we hoped to obtain, and always keep. But is that the true purpose of life lived through evolution?
There comes a moment in everyone’s life when they wonder whether they are on the right track, or whether they have really decoded the purpose of life. At the same time, everyone wants more happiness in their life. The pursuit of happiness and of purpose, are maybe deeply engraved in a human’s DNA.
Before Coming to the Purpose of Life, Let Us Understand How Happiness Became the Purpose of Life For Many
It was around the 14th century when happiness found its way into the English language. But it wasn’t something that humans actively pursued, it was a belief that one either stumble onto it or doesn’t. It was only in the 17th century that the word ‘happiness’ began to be associated with pleasure or contentment, and the modern notion of happiness as an ‘aim in life’ spread.
Greeks and Romans also had happiness as their aim but it differed from the modern notion since to them happiness wasn’t an event but a state of living – with our nature and at the acceptance of all the suffering. But if you ask any average person today about their aim in life, it is only to be happy, by which they mean to be comfortable, at ease and always feel good without any discomfort. Happiness to them isn’t a state of living but to acquire and once acquired, all of life’s problems are solved. While this may seem innocent, this misguided notion about life is actually the cause of much of our misery.
We didn’t arrive at the misguided notion all by ourselves, every day the world around us convinces us that happiness arrives when you get a new job, home, or life partner or when you get rich, famous, or powerful. We mistakenly begin to believe that all of this would lead to a sense of fulfillment, feeling complete, happy, and finally at ease.
But Given the Human Evolution, Didn’t We Evolve To Struggle, To Strive?
We as humans never evolved to be content hence, by nature we get rewarded only to compete, not for being happy.
Humans as biological algorithms have always been responding to stressors in the environment, either in the form of hunting for food, protecting from the wild, or making a living. Ultimately, these stressors give us an edge, and will to compete, leading to our ability to thrive. As physical reality gave rise to a virtual one, exposure to these stressors was more prevalent. While one can avoid a fight temporarily, at some point, discomfort invites itself.
Human evolution has subconsciously risen a need in a man to be better, to compare with others, to compete, and maybe to even continue to strive. This also means that humans since the beginning have been built to chase ambitions, expose themselves to variations, and take the pain. Without this struggle against something, enough would cease to be enough for us.
When Aristotle says, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence”, you think that happiness is the only goal. But then the question comes, do we perform our every action with happiness as the outcome, or do the actions we perform for their usefulness leads to happiness as a byproduct?
Psychologist Victor Frankl says, “happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy. As we see, a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy”. This is the same ‘man’ of the best-selling book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, who was trapped yet survived a Nazi concentration camp despite losing all of his family members there. He wasn’t seeking happiness in those horrific circumstances, but the true meaning of life, which made him resilient to suffering.
The bigger the obsession with happiness, the lesser we appreciate meaningful aspects of life, more we get away from happiness – the paradox or as the psychologists would call it, the “Dark Side of Happiness”. If only we change our mindset and make happiness a mindset in itself, we could probably get to the real purpose of life, since the very pursuit of happiness thwarts happiness, that we wear throughout our life. It’s the ill-conceived belief of happiness as the only purpose of our life and then its constant search is what the problem is.
If Happiness isn’t the Purpose of Our Life, Then What is?
When Ralph Waldo Emerson says “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”, one thinks, ‘What are we DOING that’s making a difference?’
In a study by Daryl Van Tongeren, it was proven that those who are more altruistic display a greater sense of purpose and meaning in life. Thinking to be at ease, and having pleasure and happiness as goals of life, takes us farther away from the real goal. Pleasure and pain are both teachers, enabling us to get to where we truly belong.
Life doesn’t have a purpose on its own but it’s we who bring meaning to life. And it ain’t something one can have just one day, or know of but it’s an experience on a journey – we find purpose traveling. To have this experience, discover the meaning, and unfold unanswered questions is the real purpose of life. Winston Churchill says, “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.” Being available, helpful, inspiring, and uplifting for others lights the path we get on.
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche says, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost anyhow.” To a painter, it’s the years spent on a canvas and bringing their imagination to life. To an entrepreneur, it’s those sleepless nights and moment-shifting risks that make them go ahead. The one, who strives toward a purpose, does not aim for happiness but happiness follows them.
So here's to choosing -
Sense of striving ‘over’ misguided sense of bliss,
Living in the uncertainty ‘over’ blindly running after pleasure,
Sustained fulfillment ‘over’ aiming for happiness,
Journey ‘over’ a destination.
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