Ouch. That’s a bit of a rough title. I won’t depress you though. I just think we are asking the wrong question. My apologies if the title came across as somewhat clickbaity, but while you’re here, perhaps this post is worth a read.
In his book The Conquest of Happiness, British philosopher Bertrand Russell got me thinking differently about the question “what is the purpose of life?” Instead of finding A purpose, he proposed that we should look for purposes (plural) that incorporate a broad range of interests and identities. Maybe this doesn’t sound profound to you, but it surely does to me. Let me explain why.
For so long, I’ve heard people ask questions about the meaning/purpose/point (often used interchangeably) of life as if there is just one answer. This imbedded assumption is terribly limiting, which is probably a consequence of the human mind demanding simple clarity and false certainty when reality actually indicates otherwise. You know how these traps work: one lover, one best friend, one career, one forever home, one favorite [fill in the blank], one true opinion, and on it goes to where eventually we arrive at the need for one purpose of life (interestingly, with no specificity as to whose life, implying a one size fits all model).
A quick side tangent. I used to be a house painter, which sounds like a pretty straight forward job– put the paint on the house, got it. However, through the years of working on different crews, I developed what I call “painter’s mind.” This has nothing to do with the fumes. Instead, it is recognizing that the seemingly obvious, natural method is often not the best method. And although the best methods take a while to develop, they’ll save you time and prevent countless messes in the long run.
That’s kind of how I see the question “what is the purpose of life?” It seems like an obviously important and natural question to ask. But it sets us up for wasted time and existential messes. So, let’s use our painters mind here and come up with a better approach. Rather than trying to find our why, the point of life, and our one, sole purpose, we should be trying to find our whys, points of life, and our purposes (again, plural).
Where do we start? It often helps if there are philosophical, social, and behavioral components. No, it’s not too complicated. Avoid the simplicity trap. For example, people often think about philosophical concepts like love, freedom, and wisdom; social dimensions like friendship, marriage, and family; and behavioral aspects like doing hobbies, communication, and fitness. These are all whys, points, and purposes. Identify yours and work to incorporate them all.
If adopted, this paradigm shift will help you be less dependent on one thing or person. You will feel less pressure in your life. It will help you develop a diversified set of identities, which will make you more resilient if you have to shed a purpose that is no longer working for you. You will bounce back quicker from loss and setback. You will be more flexible in the various roles you occupy. Your sense of self-worth will grow.
That’s why I think this insight is profound.
How we ask questions impacts our answers, which can then evolve into deeply held beliefs. Therefore, it follows that if we ask better questions, we will arrive at better answers, which will lead to better deeply held beliefs. Okay then, I’ll end with this question, and I must say it sounds a little funny because new things take a while to get used to, but here it goes: what are the purposes of YOUR life?