The meaning of life — it’s a big scary question. There are billions of stars in the galaxy, and billions of galaxies. So what about poor little us, quietly abusing our planet? What matters us, and, more importantly, what matters me? Why am I here?
People have struggled with the meaning of life for thousands of years. One of the best expressions of that struggle is in Ecclesiastes, chapter 3, verses 9-11.:
What advantage has the worker from his toil? I have considered the task that God has appointed for the sons of men to be busied about. He has made everything appropriate to its time, and has put the timeless into their hearts, without man’s ever discovering, from beginning to end, the work which God has done.
The author of Ecclesiastes, crudely summed up, suggested that we should enjoy the pleasures which life offers. Eat, drink, and be merry, to over-simplify, and don’t worry too much. You may recall the song, “Don’t worry, be happy.” That song hit #1 on the charts. It echoes our frustration with answering the big question — what is the meaning of life?
Just being happy is a nice idea, and I spent quite a few years in a fat, drunk, and stupid mode, but that didn’t get me close enough to the big picture. I felt like I was missing something. So in my search for that meaning, I found some suggested upgrades to that approach.
But We’re Human
Being human means we have an amazing one-two punch: self-actualization, and self-determination. We can discover who we are, and we can decide what we shall do. We may pursue whatever we so desire to pursue.
The Pursuit of Happiness — It’s an Inalienable Right
If pursuit of happiness is in the Declaration of Independence, you might think that it’s a fine thing to do. But that phrase, “Pursuit of Happiness”, was a compromise from the original, “Ownership of Property,” which was a euphemism for owning slaves. Pursuit of Happiness was put in its place. So I don’t think the founding fathers wanted us to chase joyful distractions during our waking hours.
A State of Permanent Happiness Cannot be Achieved
Pursuing joyful distractions can not lead you to a place where you will always be happily distracted. The problem with fleeting distractions is that they are fleeting, so we have to keep looking for new distractions. It’s not a lasting happiness.
Lasting happiness requires three things:
- Something to do
- Something to love
- Hope for the future
It works especially well if we care about the something, and our hope involves that same something in the future. For instance, caring for your family or friends gives you plenty to do, involves lots of love, and will develop in the future based on the care you provide.
A job that helps others improve their own lives, or helps the community, can also fulfill the three elements of happiness. But if you don’t have such a job — say, if you work in the insurance industry — you may, at times, be unfulfilled in your work.
The trick about being human is that the self-determination is our gift that allows us to attach meaning to our lives, and to choose activities that support that meaning. For instance, I am a father and husband. I believe part of my purpose here on earth is to help raise my children, and share in their life. I am meant to do that.
Not everything we have to do in life is fun, like changing poopy diapers, unplugging toilets in our home, or fixing things that break around the house, but if we attach the larger meaning of caring for family or loved ones to it, it gets us closer to lasting happiness. The drudgery of work can also be attached to that larger meaning. It can help us be happy in the moment knowing that the nasty part of our jobs is caring for our family.
You May Not Know the One, But You Get to Choose the Other
Like the author of Ecclesiastes, you may not ever understand God’s reason for giving you life. That may be frustrating, or baffling, or even discouraging. But we were given that one gift — free will — for good reason: that we may decide a meaning of our own.
If you decide that your life is meant to connect you more closely with your family, friends, or community, you experience a deep and lasting happiness from the good work you accomplished, and from the gratitude and favor returned by those you have helped.