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If we look at religions and philosophies over the span of human history, there has been one question that has been either asked directly or alluded to, in all cultures.
This question is:
What is the purpose of life?
Since we as human beings developed the ability to think rationally and analyze our surroundings, we have been curious about why things are the way that they are. This holds true on both a relative level, such as when we want to know how organisms have evolved, and an absolute level, such as when we ask more broad questions about meaning, god, and the nature of the universe.
Sometimes when we ask a question, we need an immediate answer. At other times the most appropriate response is to consider why we are asking the question in the first place. This is particularly relevant for these broad, often subjective questions that have no clear-cut answer.
People come to wonder about the purpose of life for a number of different reasons. Maybe they’re just inherently curious, or they’ve recently experienced a family tragedy, maybe they’re questioning their faith, or they’re going through a depression and are looking for a renewed sense of meaning.
How to find the purpose of your life
To find the purpose of life you’re going to need to do some digging. Because there are so many answers to this question, it’s important that you find the one that resonates with you. It must give you enough of a feeling that it satisfies your need to ask that question. As I touched on, this starts with knowing why you want to know the purpose of life in the first place.
Here’s how you can answer the big question: What’s the purpose of life…
The purpose of life is to be happy
“Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace, and gratitude.” – Denis Waitley
One of the most obvious conclusions we may come to is the need to be happy. Popular psychology will often promote happiness as the highest virtue, and this is reflected in mainstream Buddhist teachings as well, such as those of the Dalai Lama. Unfortunately, we often don’t know exactly what happiness is, and it can therefore, be hard to find. To know how to find happiness, and whether or not it is an adequate purpose to your life, you need to first discover what happiness means to you. Once you have a crystal clear image of whatever that is, you can start to go after it and see if it gives you the sense of purpose that answers the big question.
The purpose of life is to leave a legacy
“All good men and women must take responsibility to create legacies that will take the next generation to a level we could only imagine.” – Jim Rohn
In the hyper-competitive world in which we live, leaving a legacy is often implicitly put forth as the highest virtue. Leaving a legacy is one way that we will feel valued in society and remembered after we have gone. However, this doesn’t need to be achieving something on a grand scale, such as building a business empire or becoming a successful athlete – it could simply mean starting a family and leaving the world a slightly better place than when you came here.
The purpose of life is to love others
“Not only do self-love and love of others go hand in hand but ultimately they are indistinguishable.” – M. Scott Peck
All major philosophies and religions have espoused the importance of love. Love seems to be a healing agent to human suffering and something that connects us across time and culture. When we are able to love others unconditionally, we see our environment naturally become a more stable and fruitful place, and the lens through which we see the world is more positive and productive.
The purpose of life is to create your own meaning
“Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.” – Joseph Campbell
Since Nietzsche proposed the death of god over one hundred years ago, we’ve seen a dramatic decline in the widespread mainstream adoption of world religions. What has followed has varied greatly, however, in secular societies existentialism and humanism are two philosophies which have become relatively popular. These ideologies propose that meaning is something that we create, not something that is given to us by a higher power. The purpose of life therefore according to existentialist philosophy, is to create your own meaning and to bring it to fruition.
The purpose of life is to make a positive difference
“Aim to make a difference in someone’s life every single day, including your own.” Dow Zantamata
Making a positive difference may seem like a cliche and underwhelming purpose, but when we make an effort to do so on a practical level, meaning ensues, because we see the fruits of our labor in real time. Again, it’s necessary to stress that making a positive difference need not be anything huge. We’re conditioned by social media and popular culture to think only a grand scale influence is worthy of pursuing, but the reality is that small, visible changes are often more personally rewarding.
The purpose of life is to have a variety of experiences
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the things you did do.” – Mark Twain
Another way we can find purpose in life is to have a rich and fulfilling array of experiences. As far as we can determine, there is only one life, at least in this particular form. Meaning is therefore created when we celebrate the gift of our human experience through our five senses. Travel, entertainment, love, relationships, good food and novel experiences are all ways in which we may do that. Though not everyone has equal resources to do so, they can still seize opportunities within their own lives if they want to truly live life with no regrets.
The purpose of life is to find something important enough to justify suffering
“If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.” – Viktor Frankl
Suffering is an inevitable part of life, and understandably, it brings a lot of people to question purpose and meaning. There are a number of different approaches to suffering. Eastern philosophies such as Buddhism and Hinduism believe that the meaning of life is to escape the cycle of suffering. This is done through either the Eightfold Path or the philosophy Yoga. On the other hand a western interpretation, such as that of Viktor Frankl and Friedrich Nietzsche is to find something in life that justifies the suffering. Nietzsche encapsulated this in his famous phrase “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
Ultimately there are a number of answers to the question: what is the purpose of life. Fortunately for us, we have access to unlimited books that have been written by people who have committed much more time and energy to the question than we ever could. By reading these books, discussing their ideas and reflecting on the experience, through time we may be able to find an answer that resonates with us.