“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for a newer and richer experience.” ~Eleanor Roosevelt
“What is the purpose of life?” This is a question that keeps many awake at night, philosophers and deep thinkers alike. Depending on who you ask, you might get a series of responses that intend on answering that question. Ask a ‘motivational speaker’, and they might say that the purpose of life is to “realise the best version of yourself and embrace it with confidence,” or something along those lines. Ask your parents, and they might say that the purpose is to get a job, buy a house, have kids and ‘get settled’. Ask a friend, and they might say the purpose is to ‘be happy’, ‘get rich’, or ‘find love’. Ask a barista, and they might say the purpose is to get through a busy Monday morning without spilling coffee on themselves.
One might approach this question from an exploratory perspective, hoping to have a discussion; or one might be looking for a definitive answer, to find out what it is that they are ‘meant’ to do. Philosophy is filled to the brim with dichotomies, trichotomies, dilemmas, and paradoxes that can make for entertaining conversation. This particular question: “What is the purpose of life?” is another such example because the question itself…is invalid.
The Answer Lies in the Question
‘Purpose’ can be defined as the reason for which something is done. It’s why we do whatever we do. Upon closer examination, we can see that it essentially is that simple, and even simpler if we take it literally. For example, your ‘purpose’ at this moment in time is to read this blog post, because you chose to open it. If you like whatever I've written so far, you will continue to do so. If you don’t, you’ll close this page and do something else. A few moments later, you might get hungry, and then your purpose will be to eat something to satiate yourself. Zoom in a little, and we can get even more granular. If you’re eating something crunchy, your ‘purpose’ will be to bite it multiple times to make it easy to swallow. If you spill something on your clothes, your purpose will be to clean it up…..assuming you don’t like stains, and so on. Similarly, when you feel sleepy, your purpose may change to wanting to fall asleep, or if you’re a night owl, have a red bull and power through some work. You get the idea.
When put this way, a natural reaction may be: “Well, yes but this is not what I’m referring to when I say ‘purpose’. I mean something more than this, something better than this, more meaningful, etc.”
If that’s the case, here’s another example to illustrate the point with two ideas of purposes, a ‘long’ purpose, and a ‘short’ purpose.
Let’s say P is an average employee doing a 9-5 job that he doesn’t enjoy. He has friends and a decent social life, nothing exorbitant. He feels compelled to do the work he does to make a living but believes that he isn’t meant for this. He feels that he is ‘meant’ to do something more. Then, P suffers a tragic death of a loved one due to cancer, and after grieving and reflecting, tells himself that his ‘purpose’ is to help with cancer treatment, and sets out to become an oncologist. He believes that this is what he is ‘meant’ to do, this is his ‘long’ purpose.
Of course, no hospital is going to hire P just on this belief alone, he needs to acquire the education, skills, and experience to become an oncologist. Depending on where P is located, the steps may slightly differ, but the overarching process will be the same. P’s short purpose will be to get a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field, which will include further short purposes to attend class, study and pass his exams. After that, P’s short purpose will change to attending medical school, followed by licensing, internal medicine residency, an oncology fellowship, board certification, optional specialisation, and obtaining a license to meet state requirements. Each of these has its own individual short purposes to ensure he achieves them. Let’s say P gets through it all and after many years of hard work and study, finally becomes an oncologist, assuming his ‘long’ purpose doesn’t change.
As a practising oncologist, P now believes he can finally do what he set out to do by helping diagnose and treat cancer. P works at a hospital and meets patients and does what he wanted to do, but for how long? P realises that he can’t work 24/7 as a doctor, treating and diagnosing patients. Patients have to go home, he has to go home. He has to eat, sleep, look after his family, meet with friends, everything he had before he decided to become a doctor.
If P believed his ‘purpose’ was to become a doctor and help people, and as a doctor, he is able to work for 9 hours a day, then how would we classify P’s activities in the remaining 15 hours of the day? Every moment spent eating, drinking, socialising, and sleeping is full of short and immediate purposes that he needs to do to live his life. He cannot live a satisfied, happy life without food, water, shelter and company, so would we say that he’s not fulfilling his purpose in those moments because he isn’t helping people?
This mere play of words is a common way in which we trick our minds into believing we are ‘meant’ to do something else when in reality, the truth is that we just don’t like part of what we’re currently doing.
The Self-fulling prophecy
One way of explaining why the question arises is with a Self-fulfilling prophecy or self-reinforcing loop. For example, a person experiences social anxiety, which leads them to avoid social interactions where they might encounter others as they fear judgment or embarrassment. As a result, they miss out on opportunities for possible positive social experiences and feedback, leading to a lack of social skills development and increasing feelings of isolation, further reinforcing their social anxiety. A cycle like this can be perpetual and difficult to get out of.
This leads to the reason the question: “What is the purpose of life?” is asked in the first place - due to a state of present dissatisfaction or discontent with how one’s life is going. We’re going to a job that we don’t like to do. We’re fulfilling responsibilities that we never explicitly signed up for. We’re in a relationship where we don’t feel loved. We’re in a place where we feel we don’t belong. When placed in one or more of such situations, the question arises because we feel as though whatever we’re currently doing, is not what we’re meant to do. We feel that we’re ‘meant to do’ something bigger, better, more special. Naturally, because we feel as though there is something else that we’re meant to do, we feel all the more dissatisfied and discontent with everything that we are in fact doing, or all the people we are surrounded by, because we’re constantly living in this idealistic world, glorifying a sense of purpose that doesn’t exist. “I’m not enjoying this, because this is not what I’m meant to do.”
Granted, there are some tasks we do throughout the day that may appear to be menial or undesirable. Household chores like vacuuming or cleaning the dishes, or finding a parking spot on a busy Sunday afternoon can feel tedious, but these are all momentary and do not reflect the state of our lives as a whole, as I will get to in a bit.
Social media, particularly LinkedIn has played an important role in this, and not for the better. The feeds of platforms like Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, and now Threads are filled with countless examples of individuals claiming that they’ve finally ‘found their higher purpose’, they’re finally doing ‘what they were meant to do’, they “left their toxic job and started their own business”, etc. The falsity of this belief, however, is that they didn’t really find any purpose. All that happened was that they started more satisfied and content with their life, job, relationship, and so on, and so they think as though that is their purpose. Of course, that is only until they encounter another crisis where something doesn’t work out as planned and things go south. Then, the belief will arise yet again: “There is something more to do”.
We can lie to ourselves all we want. We can resent what we’re doing and adopt a ‘grass is greener on the other side’s approach all we want. We can continue to idealise a future that can be, rather than accept how we don't have any control over what will happen. We can think like P, that we’re meant to do something else, but all that’ll do is lead to more resentment of what we’re currently doing.
Or, we can accept that the present is all there is, and all we’ll ever have. What else can there be? If each moment of our life consists of us fulfilling short and individual purposes, moment to moment, how is it any different to just ‘living’? This doesn’t mean we let go of dreams, ambitions and aspirations. We still have things we want to do, places we want to visit, and people we want to meet, but that’s where the story starts and ends, without it becoming an idealised sense of achievement, an end that requires a particular means to make us happy.
The moment we do that is when we free ourselves from this belief. It’s only then that we really embrace what is, rather than what can be or should be.
After all, what choice do we have?