The meaning of life: is happiness overrated?

Religious folk have it easy when it comes to the meaning of life: we are here to please God, and in return we get to go on the heavenly welfare system, take up the harp, and master denser-than-air flotation techniques. End of story, no more thought or speculation required. But for the atheist, the question of why we are here is far more complicated.

Let’s first get past the obvious fact that, given our generally materialist outlook, we are not exactly here for anything. We are here solely because of past events, and not because there is any reason for us to affect future events. And therefore we have no objective purpose.

While this line of thinking is both depressing and philosophically unsatisfying, it does at least lead to the conclusion that, because of the mind-boggling futility of a human life irrespective of how it is spent, that it really does not matter if we decide to just go ahead and think up our own reasons for living. So that’s exactly what we do. We take stock, decide what is important and what we can influence, and what not, and eventually come to some conclusion as to what our most grand purpose is, preferably in the most general terms possible.

A resoundingly popular response is that we are here to maximize happiness. This is a clever answer, and mostly so because it ties in with morality, and our responsibilities towards each other. But it assumes a homogeneously, rational society. What makes a sociopath happy, for example, is not nesesarily ideal for the rest in his ward.

Several famous books and movies warn us not to chase the “shallow stuff” … money, sex, fame, looks, better girlfriends. The movies will have us believe that an unsuccessful pursuit of such things will cause heartbreak, and a successful pursuit will cause a craving for more. A loose-loose situation. Guess it makes sense … who am I to argue?

But then: if we strive towards happiness, paradoxically, it may cause misery. If an unsuccessful pursuit of happiness can leave us unfulfilled, perhaps an even higher purpose to life would be to have no need for happiness. To transcend and forego happiness. Not to pursue anything.


Your last paragraph encapsulates pretty much the core of what Buddhists and some Taoists have been advocating for centuries, but with different reasoning behind it. (BTW, you might want to consider that Tibet is not exactly a haven of individual bliss either, which has much more to do with how Tibetans treat one another than with the Chinese occupation.)

In any case, there is no universal standard for the actual contents of contentment. All one can say, really, is, “To each his own — as long as it harms no other.”


I don’t think they do have it easier at all.

While this line of thinking is both depressing and philosophically unsatisfying,
I disagree. I find it liberating and uplifting.
it does at least lead to the conclusion that, because of the mind-boggling futility of a human life irrespective of how it is spent, that it really does not matter if we decide to just go ahead and think up our own reasons for living.
The religious person thinks his religion and faith gives him or her their reasons. They are in the same boat as I who create my own reasons. (ie it is a created purpose) I just recognise it while they don't.

According to Genesis and (at least) the three desert dogma, God explicitly made us for his entertainment. The purpose of the faithful is then just that: please God. Straight forward. After that, it’s just a matter of imagining what God wants me to do, which is activities secondary to the Big Purpose.

There you go again … ruining a perfectly good discussion by the premature interjection of sense! :stuck_out_tongue: :wink:


“happiness” is a human construct, 'coz we can! But is it so simple? If so, why are religionists always praying for forgiveness, wringing their hands in anguish and moping around irritating others with their beliefs? Obviously a totally subjective construct and as some would say “whatever floats your boat”

Brian, in my experience, “to be happy and to cause to be happy” is more of a secular purpose than a religious one. The purpose of “pleasing God”, to the religionist, is overridingly paramount, and I suppose it is possible that the extremely devout may even make themselves pretty miserable in the process.


The concept of everything having a purpose is teleological. (Remember Telly?) It may be closer to the truth to say that there may be several functions associated with objects, including life forms. To say that the purpose of an acorn is to grow into an oak tree, implies that it would be in conflict with some great design for a squirrel to eat the acorn. The search for purpose of life presupposes some great design. If we want to seek happiness by being useful, there are many ways in which we can help our fellow beings and nature - there need not be one great purpose.

Hermes, yes I remember Teleological, though I don’t recall quite what his purpose was. :P. I don’t see much reason to suppose an objective purpose linked to a great design either. But also, you may agree (while cyghost may not) that the inevitable outcome of the materialist’s view (our ostensibly wasteful cosmic purposelessness) is hardly sufficient reason to get us out of bed in the mornings. Or even to inspire us to build a bed in the first place! Far more interesting, is our subjectively (individually made up) purposes, reduced to only one big idea.

For a good chunk of guys and galls I’ve met, their subjective purpose in life is all about experiencing and spreading happiness, a notion that I’m increasingly starting to mistrust.


Voltaire concludes a philosophical debate in Candide with the closing remark:

"Excellently observed," answered Candide; "but we must cultivate our garden."
Which makes me wonder if it was your purpose to cut down that tree, Rigil ... >:D

I hope so, 'cause then I can go back to bed. :slight_smile:

I fear your desire to go back to bed may be related to a “loose-loose” situation which could cause heartbreak or craving. :frowning:

Not if I sleep “tight-tight”. :slight_smile: Ai, my boere-ingils darm ::).


To convince the world that a purely materialist philosophy is in principle incapable of explaining certain observable features such as life, mind, consciousness, intentionality, etc., and therefore that a supernatural element is required for a complete explication of the world. If one accepts the aforesaid argument, this requirement then warrants the magical long-distance leap to the Christian god.

I’m afraid I don’t see how that necessarily follows. As a matter of fact, that’s a common argument of the religious — and empirically, a profoundly flawed one at that — to maintain that without their god, life is evidently without purpose and people must then fall inexorably into despondency. What prevents the biological survival imperative (and other motivators à la Maslow and Herzberg) from being the wellspring to most if not all our actions, however deeply that underlying impetus may be buried under other rationales?

Humans derive feelings of safety and security from within circumstances they are familiar with and which are regular and predictable. Sudden and unanticipated changes tend to disconcert us strongly by shaking our feelings of security, and so we have reason not only to avoid such changes but also to institute measures for preventing similar occurrences.


In a naturalistic view you could argue we have a purpose. Our genes built us to ensure their survival. They drive us, via instinct or hormones etc…, to do stuff that makes that possible. So, if you have to ask “what is our objective purpose”, I think that’s a fair ansnwer.

It’s definitely not “satisfying” to the human to learn he’s merely an instrument of propagation for mindless chemistry, but I mean that is the fact, isn’t it?

Maybe it’s because I’m young or maybe it’s because I have no resolve, maybe I’ve done too much too quickly, but I have no big “goal” in my life. Nor can I really decide what exactly it is that I want. I could say “I want kids” but I realise as above that I didn’t choose that, nature did. Sorry to be a wet blanky but all I really want to do right now is keep myself generally happy and comfortable for as long as possible. I’ve considered that maybe working a bit less and having a bit less stress could be worthwhile,but I like to have “experiences” to break the day-to-day monotony, and that costs money, and that really does end up determining everything else… Some people claim they do this (acquire experiences) for the “memories” but let’s face it they’re only of use until you die. Mostly they break the monotony, and keep you comfortable, and reasonably upbeat about life.

Some claim a longer-than-their-lifetime type goal: they want to make a better world for their children, etc… See my first paragraph.

Survival of the species is imho our only purpose: the rest is details.
What I want out of my term on this planet is an entirely different matter altogether.

Like I said, completely made up bullshit no better than any reason or purpose I hold for myself.

Happiness is to be free of want & anxiety. Most religionists are terrified of death and the bad things they fear God will do to them because they have been miserable sinners, which is a great source of anxiety to them. Materialists are unhappy because they don’t have a car quite as fancy as some other guy, or they have a smaller yacht, or a slower executive jet; this unquenchable want causes them unhappiness. Therefore stop worrying about what is going to happen to you; learn to be satisfied with less, and you will be happier. Thus spake Epicurus.

Then I have no purpose.

As another said, that shouldn’t make us sad. It just means we all get to pick what we want.

Hey Superman … long time no hear! :slight_smile: What say you on the pursuit of happiness as a subjective purpose?