My friend Nicole shared a thoughtful post called The Purpose Of Life Is Not Happiness: It’s Usefulness. It’s short, and I think it’s worth reading.
If I were going to write one, I’d start with the same premise, that the purpose of life isn’t happiness. Happiness is what you feel when you’re indulging in hedonic activities, reveling in your achievements, and when you’re pursuing something important to you.
The purpose of life, however, isn’t usefulness either, in my opinion. It’s meaning. Meaning is worth perusing. You’ll feel some happiness while you pursue meaning. But at the end of the day, at the end of your life, chasing happiness will leave you feeling empty and wasteful. Pursuing meaning will make you feel fulfilled.
Meaning, in my estimation, isn’t being useful. Spending all day making widgets is useful, if people end up using the widgets. And you may find meaning in that. But you’ll find more meaning in being relied upon by people. By being someone who’s absence isn’t just felt, but mourned.
Humans are built for close community. We are social animals. We feel fear when isolated, because for most of our evolution isolation meant certain death. Loneliness is so antithetical to our species that it literally causes our immune systems to stop working.
So much of our modern plight, from anti-feminism and the alt-right to the alcohol, overdose, and suicide crisis, stems from alienation. Macroeconomic forces and the dissolution of the church have left people without interdependence. Men who were once very much necessary to bring in an income, fix the church roof, coach the little league find themselves adrift without a compelling reason to get up in the morning.
American culture teaches that freedom, autonomy, and yes, usefulness are where we’ll find happiness and meaning. No, that’s where we’ll find wealth, if we’re lucky. And wealth is good! But it’s not meaning. Meaning is found in other people. It’s in interdependence. It’s in knowing that you matter, a lot, to a few other humans.