What is the purpose of life?
This is a question many people have asked throughout human history and have come up with many varied answers. For some, its about achieving inner peace and tranquility, for others its about gaining power and wealth, and for many, its all about pursuing personal happiness and contentment. In the U.S, its apparent that the pursuit of happiness is at the top of most people’s list of how to live life. You need to look further than the advertising industry to see that products are marketed in such a way that they promise a little piece of happiness to the consumer. These products will make you look younger, help you lose weight, whiten your teeth, give you more energy, improve your performance in everything—and the list goes on infinitely. Effective marketing taps into the consumer’s desire for happiness and cleverly presents how a specific product or service fits into achieving that goal. Now, I’m not suggesting that all marketing is wrong or deceptive, but when you consider the staggering amount of consumer debt (credit cards, cars, etc) in this nation its easy to see that something is broken. The marketing and advertising business is doing well, but its the beliefs and goals of the individual that are broken. But there’s a lot more at stake than just money.
When happiness makes you un-happy
When happiness is elevated to the level of being your life’s purpose, it has a tendency to end up making you miserable. Here is what I mean: whenever you chose which job to take or which college to attend or what to study, you probably asked the question “what will make me happy?” Or maybe you just asked “which job pays the most?” or “which college will get me the best job?” or “what area of study interests me the most?” These were good questions to ask, but ultimately they came down to the same question of happiness—they presupposed that the higher paying or “better” job would make you happy, or even studying a specific area would lead to contentment. However, if you have lived life for a while you probably already realize that jobs, money, and college degrees might make you happy but they don’t keep you happy for long. There’s always something wrong, some deficiency, some yearning for more or different. We take jobs like we’re ordering at McDonald’s—we look at the menu, consider what we’re in the mood for and what special deals are being offered and pick something. After all, if we don’t like what we picked we can just get something different next time. In the US people change jobs and even careers more times throughout their working lives than ever before in our history. But it gets worse. We choose friends and even spouses based upon what will make me happy and end up using people for our own benefit over and against meeting their needs. If you need evidence, just look at the divorce rate in our country, domestic abuse, and other relational struggles. There are millions of unhappy people disappointed that someone else doesn’t make them happy all the time. My point is when we live our lives in such a way that our goal of being happy drives everything from our smallest to our biggest decisions, we end up being self-centered, unfulfilled, and unhappy people.
In the film The Pursuit of Happyness, Will Smith portrays the real Chris Gardener, a single dad down on his luck who decides to take an unpaid internship at a stock brokerage firm in 1980s San Francisco. Throughout the movie, Chris struggles to make enough money to buy food for him and his young son, who eventually get evicted from their apartment and spend several nights in homeless shelters and even one in a subway restroom.
If you’ve ever seen the film, you know things turn out well for Chris and his son financially because he excelled in his internship and was rewarded with a well-paying job. Chris gives his commentary at various points while telling his story, talking about the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. He makes the observation that the writer of these words must have known that happiness is not guaranteed and people would merely have the right to pursue it, not necessarily achieve it. As the story unfolds, we see a man who becomes increasingly desperate, visibly stressed and exhausted, and by all definitions unhappy.
My purpose in sharing a little bit about Chris Gardener is to demonstrate how personal sacrifice for the sake of another leads to something more than happiness. Self-giving love is far more important and lasting than any form of happiness. When life got really tough, Chris’ girlfriend left him and their son in pursuit of her own happiness. Regardless of what she may have found, she wasn’t there to experience the joy that came as a result of Chris’ perseverance. The purpose of life isn’t to try to be happy; its to love and be loved. To love God and love others is the greatest purpose to which we can aspire and the only one that will ultimately bring us lasting joy—in addition to plenty of real happiness.
So whenever you feel a sense of happiness or the sting of disappointment, remember the true purpose of your life is found in the love you give to others more than the happiness you may or may not experience in this moment. Whether its in relation to your job, your family relationships, or your stuff, sometimes its OK to be unhappy on your path to serving a greater purpose.
When was a time you were on the receiving end of someone’s self-sacrifice?