On having a purpose or goal in life

Cheshire Puss,' she began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name: however, it only grinned a little wider. 'Come, it's pleased so far,' thought Alice, and she went on. 'Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?' 'That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,' said the Cat. 'I don't much care where—' said Alice. 'Then it doesn't matter which way you go,' said the Cat. '—so long as I get SOMEWHERE,' Alice added as an explanation. 'Oh, you're sure to do that,' said the Cat, 'if you only walk long enough.

Lewis Caroll - "Alice in Wonderland"

Purpose is the guiding star for living well. This wonderful quote from Alice in Wonderland says it well. If you don’t know where you are going, it doesn’t matter what you do. All choices are equal. Developing an overriding purpose is necessary to avoid wandering aimlessly at the mercy of random events and instinctual reactions.

I have always believed in goals. Perhaps it is simply my nature. I like getting goals and getting things done. The logic of goals for guiding action is compelling. “Start with the end in mind,” one of Steven Covey’s 7 habits of successful people always made sense to me.

But not just any goal will do. It needs to be an overriding goal in life for which other goals are subordinate. Interim goals are important. A focus on graduating from school, getting a job, and buying a car all help us get along in life. But these small, practical goals should be in pursuit of a greater purpose.

Having a purpose for living doesn’t just happen. It didn’t for me. The need to attend to daily survival and immediate needs often leads to missing the big picture. And the big picture is not readily evident. There are many different perspectives on what the big picture is. We must learn and think carefully about it before something meaningful and practical emerges.

Without thinking we can set goals that don’t work in the long run. We see the people who successfully pursued wealth, fame, and power only to find not peace, but misery. It is not that wealth, fame, and power are inherently bad. They just don’t work well as ends in themselves.

We can, of course, just wing it. Make it up as we go along. Go with our gut. Hope it all turns out alright. That is what most people do in practice. But I believe we can do better being more thoughtful and systematic. A philosophy of life, focused by an overriding purpose us the structure and guidance for making life’s important choices. A philosophy of life makes living a meaningful life more likely. It increases the chances we will fewer regrets in life and, given the chance, would choose to do it all again.

For some, religious faith provides the answer. I envy them. I know people where religious teachings have been the guiding star for living life. I am aware of my (and human’s) severe limitations in perceiving and understanding the complexity of the world. It is entirely plausible that purpose of living taught by the major religions is right. But for many reasons, that approach does not work for me. Instead, I’ve looked for answers through reason and thought, aided by the insights of many who pondered the same questions and written about it.

A life’s purpose needs to be actionable. The desired ends need to be clear enough to allow a logical and plausible connection between actions and results. The challenge of living is often knowing the likely result of our actions. If the overriding goal or purpose is too vague, it can be impossible to make the connection between it and the choices I have today. It is best to base life decisions on more than feelings at the moment. I seek a purpose that I can explain clearly to myself or others.

I struggle with the purpose question. My views have evolved. There have been times where my primary goal was simply getting through school, making a living, finding a life partner, and staying healthy. That was all fine and worked. But they seemed to narrow for an entire life. And what happens when those goals get checked off the list?

I found many enticing ideas about purpose as I thought and read more. Often the ideas conflicted. Achieving cosmic consciousness, preserving the wilderness, and climbing the highest peaks on each continent seem like reasonable goals at some point in my life. But none had the power and the breadth I needed for a life I hoped would be long and satisfying. Being happy has appeal but then happiness seemed shallow amid all the world’s problems and suffering.

In time, through learning and experiences, I have been able to arrive at a purpose that works for me. Vague concepts I adopted as a young adult evolved into something richer, more nuanced, and practical.

Humility was learned along the way as I recognized there is no definitive answer. Anyone who is certain they know what life is all about simply hasn’t thought about it enough. The world is complex beyond imagination and our ability to understand it is limited. Much is simply beyond us.

In the simplest terms, my purpose in life is to thrive as a human being. That may sound vague but the term is rich and can be interpreted in practical ways. Fortunately, it is an idea and term that has been discussed and considered for thousands of years. The Greeks used the term eudaimonia, often translated as happiness, which is perhaps better represented by the term thriving or flourishing. Much has been said and written on the topic so there is a vast body of knowledge to work with. Thinkers from Aristotle to John Stuart Mill to David Seligman have created a great body of work on this subject.

There is more to come on examining what thriving as a human being means. It deserves a  separate essay with a thorough answer. But the basic components provide a workable understanding.

For me, human thriving or flourishing has several components: a) Providing for the basics of life – food, shelter, clothing. You can’t thrive if the basics are not met. b) Contributing to the well being of our community. Humans cannot survive individually. We need to help each other; c) Exhibiting character excellence. Character is the core virtues and principles we express in making choices, and d) Achieving inner peace. This is perhaps the psychological part of living. It is being able to approach each day with serenity.

There is much more to thriving. Any categorization scheme has deficiencies. Each category listed here is complex and deep. Understanding what it means to thrive frames the important decisions we make in life. We can now ask whether what we are doing – the decisions we are making – is helping or hindering us in our goal to thrive or flourish.