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The Purpose of Life

In 2021, the Dalai Lama wrote a short essay in which he argued that the purpose of life is to be happy. In his argument, he reasoned that one achieves that happiness through being kind and compassionate to others. Unfortunately many, many people agree with him that achieving happiness is their purpose, and consequently order their lives toward such a foolish aim. In fact, such a philosophy is the default position of modern American culture regardless of whether or not most people are aware of their own personal adoption of it. And while it is true that being kind and compassionate can help create conditions in which individuals, nations, and populations can experience happiness, the Dalai Lama could not be further from the truth that happiness is the purpose of life.

This is largely because happiness is a fleeting condition derived from sensual experience. Generally defined, happiness means experiencing pleasure or contentment. But pleasure and contentment are too often dependent upon changing external circumstances. Most people will find it impossible to experience pleasure, contentment, or “happiness” in the midst of poverty, trials, tribulations, hunger, strife, pain, death or disease. And these are prominent, commonplace conditions of the world in which we live. Ironically, many people are unable to experience pleasure or contentment on a Monday morning at 8 a.m. when they have to trudge into a dreary, mundane job that they hate, but think they must have in order to buy the things they believe will make them happy.

No, the purpose of life is not to be happy. The purpose of life is to have a purpose. When you have a purpose, you can endure tragedy, find contentment in the midst of miserable conditions, march onward in life through difficulties, orient your life properly in the face of opposition, and experience pleasure in small victories. Even fleeting pleasurable happiness is a byproduct of purpose. Happiness for the sake of happiness, on the other hand, is empty, vacuous, meaningless, and disappointingly ephemeral – which explains why a nation as wealthy as the United States has so many people who are unhappy.

What then, should our purpose be? Well if we are beings created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), then our purpose, partly, is to reflect that image, and to properly bear his status in the world around us. If we are created by a good, holy, transcendent God, then our purpose should be to find out what our creator wants us to do, then do it in a good and holy way while maintaining a transcendent focus. If we really want to be happy, then we must seek out God’s purpose for us, then align ourselves with it. When we do that, we will discover something that is even better than happiness. We will find a fullness of joy loaded with eternal pleasures. This is because we will know that the path we are on – whether difficult or easy – leads to the presence of the one who knows us most, loves us most, and has the greatest purpose for us because he is the one who made us and gave us, for good reasons, the path we walk on (Psalm 16:11)!

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