Being the most controversial assertion in The Meaning of Life: A guide to finding your life’s purpose, this blog post is probably long overdue. There is a long-standing belief that the meaning of life is to be happy, and much of positive psychology is focused on maximizing happiness as a result.
Now, there is nothing wrong with studying how to make people happier, but it too easily causes confusion to assume or assert that happiness is the point. The biggest risk, of course, is of succumbing to addictions and/or partaking in pleasure-inducing activities only to wonder why it doesn’t fill the emptiness inside. Now, the accurate version of the phrase is, “The meaning of life is to find what makes you happy,” so it’s not totally wrong; let’s break down how happiness relates to feeling meaning in life and how I can objectively, provably assert happiness is, in fact, not the meaning of life.
First of all, if happiness isn’t the meaning of life, then what is and how does happiness fit in? Well, the purpose of all living organisms is growth, and happiness is the indicator (i.e., the feedback mechanism) that you are growing. Now, how can I prove this? Well, let’s go about it logically and then objectively supported by scientific fields such as biology and psychology.
Let me start with a simple exercise using an analogy that will show you that you already know and accept the logic behind the relationship between happiness and growth:
What is the point of going to school?
[Make sure you have an answer before reading on]
This is not a trick question and not a particularly hard one, either: you go to school to learn. That’s the answer that anyone who isn’t being funny (e.g., “To give parents time away from their kids!”) will say. But notice that there is another answer that someone legitimately could say…but let me pose it to you as a question to make you think about it before I explain it:
Why didn’t you answer, “To get an A.”?
[Again, make sure you have an answer before reading on]
The other response to the point of going to school is to get an A. After all, isn’t the point of going to school to get everything right all of the time? What’s funny about this is that when people hear this answer, they instinctively know why they didn’t say that: it’s cynical; you can cheat to get an A and not have actually learned anything; you could have learned but just be a bad test-taker or have taken a bad test; paper tests might not be the right representation of your ability to apply the knowledge in the real world. There are many reasons why people point to getting an A as not the point of going to school.
Instinctively, they know that the A is the measure, the indicator, or the feedback regarding whether students have learned and not the reason that they’re there. Everyone gets this, and if you told someone that you were there just to get an A and didn’t care about learning, they’d call you cynical at best and missing the point at worst.
So, through this logical analogy, you can see the relationship here to the topic at hand: the logical reason why the meaning of life is not to be happy is that happiness is the indicator of growth in your life. The point of going to school is to learn, not get an A; the point of establishing a sports league is to provide a venue through which people can demonstrate their athletic prowess and not to sell millions of dollars of commercials. In life, everyone wants to grow and happiness occurs as a result of either healthy, meaningful growth or as a result of “cheating” (e.g., drugs, addictions) to feel pleasure.
We’ll combine this point with the scientific support in a moment, so let’s cover that real fast:
Biologically, emotions are an indicator of your body’s current state in terms of growth and harm. Emotions evolved as part of the stimulus-response mechanism in living organisms because if there is something harming an organism, it needs to get away. If it encounters something that benefits it, it needs to be able to reap those benefits. In humans, emotions are complex because of the fact that we are a social species. Emotions are still telling you when, how, and why you’re growing or not, which is why you feel happy, sad, etc., but they also provide complexities such as embarrassment, love, etc. that indicate how you might be developing or affecting relationships with others. If you’re bored, it’s a signal to find something that interests you or engages you to continue your growth. If you’re happy, it’s a signal to keep doing what you’re doing. If you’re embarrassed, it’s a signal that you need to stop because you’re affecting your status within the group, which can affect your future safety or growth.
So, scientifically speaking, all living organisms have an internal drive to grow—and, as Darwin pointed out, to survive aka not die—and avoid harm, and emotions are the indicator of that. Therefore, if you were happy all of the time, you’d have no reason to change your behavior and would die of thirst or starvation. You need to feel other emotions to put you on a growth trajectory, and once you are then you will be happy again. It’s that simple.
Now, bringing the logical school analogy and the biological explanation together: because happiness is an indicator, it can be hacked. Drugs, overeating, drinking alcohol, gambling, and other addictive behaviors can give you a dopamine hit of pleasure that makes you feel happy, but they’re not fulfilling activities. In the biological example, it’s triggering the indicator with a “false” or “hack” stimulus; in the logical example, it’s “missing the point” of life by going to maximize the indicator vs. trying to achieve the goal.
Knowing this, it becomes obvious where people go wrong: if they think that happiness is the point, they might keep seeking the next high and wonder why they still feel empty inside. With that misunderstanding of happiness, they don’t seek the fulfillment type of happiness that growth-enabling activities like being with family or friends, volunteering to help people, creating a piece of art, etc. give them. Just like people can cheat to get an A (the indicator) in school without learning (the goal), people can cheat to feel pleasure (the indicator) in life without growing (the goal).
So the point of life is to grow, and by growing you’ll be happy. Hence, “The meaning of life is to be happy,” is an objectively false statement, whereas, “The meaning of life is to find what makes you happy,” is more accurate since it’s the growth-enabling activities that will cause the happiness. People who erroneously think that the point of life is to be happy will shoot straight for pleasurable things and then wonder why they don’t feel meaning, purpose, and fulfillment in those things. It’s because they don’t understand how happiness and growth are related (indicator and goal) but distinct things. If you don’t know the relationship and difference between happiness and growth, you can sacrifice the latter for the former and not understand why you’re feel like you’re still missing something.
With this understanding of the logic and science behind emotions vs. intent/purpose, it becomes perfectly clear: happiness is not the meaning of life, and people should be striving for optimal growth in areas that they care about to be happy and not trying to go straight for happiness and wondering why it doesn’t give them purpose.
One final note on this topic that will really help you along your journey to finding happiness and fulfillment with your life overall: there are many forms of growth. Therefore, you have to be careful sacrificing one form of growth for another, as it might help you be happier with one area of your life but decrease your overall happiness. For example, if you work so much that you miss out on a relationship or alienate your family, that’s an example of growing in one area but at the expense of another. While you might love the progress you’re making in your job, are you going to be worse off overall? If you want to feel good about your life as a whole, make sure that you are balancing all growth areas in your life and not making the wrong trade-offs. It’s up to you to prioritize them and make the right decisions, and you’ll be growing the best you can and feeling as happy and fulfilled as possible. If you still aren’t, all you can do is whatever you can today to increase your life satisfaction in the future.
Feel good about your growth (potential), feel good about your life (situation). It’s that simple. Happiness is important, but it’s a result of meaningful growth and not the cause of your sense of purpose in life.