Is Being Happy the Goal of Life?

My 1985 edition of the Pocket Oxford Dictionary defines ‘Happy’ as “feeling or showing pleasure or contentment; fortunate of words or behaviour, apt, pleasing, satisfactory, avoidance of extremes.” The term a ‘happy medium’ points towards a balanced view or outcome. Although the actual meaning of the word happy is more nuanced than the more superficial understanding associated with laughter or being in a good mood, as a concept, it does not have sufficient breadth or depth to be the goal of life.

Being happy - the goal of life

Let us say that a fulfilling life may be a worthwhile aspiration. In an ideal world we would have societal norms that provide us with the possibility of having a fulfilling life experience. These would not be norms that control outcomes as that is an imposition, a restriction of personal freedoms and tyrannical. These would be norms that provide the environment for personal expression without limiting the expressions of others within a balanced whole. This is homeostasis or a state of equilibrium maintained by self-regulating processes. This is how ecosystems and our own bodies function.

What is considered to be fulfilling would differ from one person to another. This notwithstanding, each person would wish to consider their life to be, or have been, worthwhile. In my opinion a worthwhile endeavour is one that provides meaning. This would be a meaning that has value attributed to it that is relevant to the particular person. So what might look like a goal of life for a person would be that which has a valued meaning and that, because of this meaningfulness, is fulfilling and worthwhile.

Having meaning does not necessarily mean that one would have a life without hardship. It is not by any means obvious that a happy life would provide meaning. Quite the opposite could take place when one contemplates the purpose of one’s life at the end of days. ‘Purpose’ is another interesting concept as purpose may give meaning and meaning may give purpose. One might say that purpose is meaning that has been articulated into a goal towards which one intends to focus one’s attention and action. Of course, goals may and perhaps should change during the course of one’s life. I would argue, however, that it would be useful to have an overarching goal for life.

We are born on this earth as social beings. So if one lived a life isolated from other people or outside earth’s life-giving ecosystems, there would be no worthwhile, meaningful goal that would give life purpose, that can be achieved, or even have context.

Humanity is blessed with not being alone on this planet but in the good company of numerous plant and animal species. When one observes life on earth one comes to the conclusion that life thrives through collaboration and compromise, striking a balance between personal and community sacrifice and benefit, with a bias for positive outcomes, including tough lessons learnt through suffering.

Happiness - the goal of life

The elephant in the room when discussing what might be the goal of our life is the fact that the vast majority of people deliberately ignore all matters relating to the origin and destination of human life on earth, lest this lead them to consider the consequences of their actions. The latter consideration must be avoided at all costs as this may inhibit the gratification of their impulses without restraint.

Overwhelming evidence points to a metaphysical origin and destination of all life on earth, including human life. By metaphysical I also mean Heavenly or Godly or supernatural or spiritual. All this to say that no goal would be complete without the spiritual dimension which underpins our very existence.

In Christianity, The Lord’s Prayer says “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven”. As above, so below. We owe an existential debt of gratitude to a higher moral and ethical order of which we are an integral part.

It is never too late to determine a goal for life. One formula for your life’s goal may therefore be a valued meaning articulated into a purposeful course of action, within the context of a higher moral and ethical order, that you would find fulfilling and worthwhile. To each his own.

This article was published in the Senior Times of the Times of Malta in June 2023

If you are interested in a just and sustainable society please read these other articles

Is being happy the goal of life