Human beings have a hard-wired need for meaning, and the meaning of our existence, the answer to why we are here, our answer to the meaning of our lives. Because we (human beings) create things for a purpose, there must be a purpose in our creation, right? So what is our purpose? Why are we here? How can we prove what we believe is true?
Does Religion Provide an Answer?
Religion provides a pillar of purpose for many people, and each religious belief system provides an answer to why we are here. Christianity says God created man and woman in his image because he desired to have fellowship with his creation. Islam says we are here to worship Allah by abiding in Qur’an tenants and one’s success in doing so determines whether one spends their afterlife in paradise or hell.
Taoism says that we are here to exercise self-cultivation and self-realization so that we may rejoin with the Oneness of the Universe. Mormanism says we lived with God our Heavenly Father before being born (incarnated), and he sent us to this earth to grow and learn in a mortal state so we can live with him again. Buddhism says we are here to attain the cessation of suffering (nirvana) by making progress via the Noble Eightfold Path through many lifetimes. Hinduism says we are here to be liberated from the cycle of birth and rebirth by clearing one’s karma.
Each religious belief system offers a different answer to the truth of the purpose for our existence. Belief in any one of them requires some degree of “faith”, or belief without proof, as none of which can be proven with tangible evidence. For many people, having faith in a religious belief system, even in the face of evidence it may not be true is more comfortable than the empirical bottom line: we didn’t choose to be here, we can’t easily choose not to be here, and there’s no provable grandiose reason why we are here.
Pleasure and Pain
Yet, we are here. We are born, we live, and when our physical bodies fail to function, we die. Without “faith”, how do we fulfill our need for purpose beyond perpetuating our DNA? Freud proposed that by nature, humans seek pleasure and avoid pain. Perhaps Freud’s proposition is at the core of a tangible, somewhat provable purpose; to have the most pleasant, the least painful life experience possible.
The word pleasant was explicitly chosen over pleasurable. Pleasant conveys agreeable, a sense of satisfaction, and gratification beyond the immediate. Pleasurable conveys frivolous self-serving enjoyment without any thought of consequences to self or others, the kind that typically results in pain. For example, cheating on your spouse may be pleasurable, but the resulting divorce will be painful. A night of debauchery may be fun, but waking up in the jail cell and the subsequent legal proceedings will be painful.
Conversely, behaviors that result in a sense of satisfaction and gratification beyond the immediate result in a pleasant life experience. Marketers have gone to great lengths to convince us that consuming “stuff” is what gives our lives meaning and provides a sense of satisfaction. In reality, beyond having enough, things don’t make us happy. Things that make us happy are quality relationships, meaningful work, and good health. People get the greatest sense of fulfilment by developing and using their skills, talents and abilities. This means having the most pleasurable life experience means investing time and effort to develop quality relationships, maintaining your health as best you can, investing time and effort to develop your abilities, and engaging in meaningful work that utilizes your gifts and talents.
Granted, pain in life is inevitable. Accidents happen, things beyond our control change, and people we’ve come to love die. However, there are some surprisingly simple guidelines for having the least painful life experience possible. These probably sound familiar: don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal, don’t murder. When you refrain from lying, cheating, stealing, and murdering, you don’t have to worry about getting caught, and it prevents the painful consequences that accompany being caught.
Putting thought into what you do and why you do it, also called “mindfulness”, will help us have a more pleasant, less painful live experience. Being aware of your feelings, and keeping them in check, helps prevent actions and words that may result in great loss. This includes clearing yourself of envy, greed, and anger that can drive actions and words that may result in great loss. It means.
There is undoubtedly more to us than the physical biological machines that house our consciousness. What that is remains a mystery. What makes us conscious, even the definition of consciousness still miffs our most educated, most brilliant minds. Perhaps we will find an answer when our technology is able to measure, thus begin understanding quantum vibrations.
I know I am here and subject to physical laws because I can stub my toe and it hurts. I find humanity in general repugnant, and the fact that I am stuck being human somewhat mortifying. Yet I am here until the biological machine that houses my consciousness ceases to function. Causing the biological machine that houses my consciousness to cease to function (i.e. suicide) deprives me of potentially exceptional life experiences, and perhaps even deprives the world of what good I can contribute. I am stuck here, and I can only make the best of it by striving to have the most pleasant, least painful life experience possible.
For me, this means working each day to be the best I can be and doing what I can to make a positive change in my little corner of the world. I get to sleep on the softest pillow in the world — a clean conscience. I get tremendous personal satisfaction from ongoing mastery of skills and abilities (granted some are better mastered than others). On a good day, I get to feel like I made the world a little bit better of a place. This is my simple and clear meaning in life, my purpose for being, and somehow my obligation until I am freed from my biological prison.