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The Goal of Life is Not Happiness

November 20, 2018



Hello, good people!

I apologize for neglecting this blog for so long. My attention has been elsewhere, I'm afraid. It's been on good, interesting, expansive things, I'm happy to report, but there's been little room for writing. At long last I am in a position, I hope, to begin posting again on a regular basis. Thank you for your patience.


To jump-start the blog I thought I'd begin with something that's been on my mind these past weeks. I've been puzzling over this thing we call "happiness". It's regularly stated in various ways that the goal of life is happiness, that happiness is our natural state, and that we will experience happiness if we are doing everything right and being the person we are supposed to be. What if that's not so?


Well, for one thing we would be way better off. It seems obvious to me that holding happiness up as our aim in life produces anything but happiness. The "pursuit of happiness" consistently results in misery and all sorts of trouble. So let's look into this "happiness" thing and see what it's all about, and ask ourselves, "If the goal of life is not happiness, then what in the world may it be?"


It was an article that appeared on my computer that sparked this line of questioning for me. I didn't read the article, only the title, but the title was enough. It went like this: "The Point of Life is not to be Happy, It's to be Useful". It was a bit startling to see such a thing asserted so boldly. It made immediate sense to me, however: usefulness seems a much better end to shoot for, being less self-centered, and more sensible. "Happiness" is a vague and slippery thing, hard to pin down, whereas I can generally tell if I'm being useful or not. Upon reflection, however, I began to feel that the point of life isn't particularly to be useful, either. It's an excellent thing to be useful, but that seems a mighty thin slice of this double-layered cake we call "life". If the point is not happiness and it's not usefulness, then what is it? A good argument could be made that the point is to learn, but that also seems a bit narrow, even as excellent as learning is, and how essential it must be towards whatever goal we're working on. I poked around a bit and this is the best I could come up with as an alternative: the point of life, let us say, is to experience deeply whatever comes our way. Being happy happens sometimes, being useful happens sometimes, and learning happens whenever we are willing for it, but each of these is an aspect of something deeper and ever-present, which is our amazing human capacity to experience with awareness.


Most of the time, I would say, "happy" is what we call the feeling we have when we're getting what we want. Said differently, "happiness" is the effect of dopamine: the chemical released in our brains when things are going our way. Our system is constructed such that when we're getting what we need in order to survive upon this earth, or when we're near getting it, we receive a hit of dopamine to keep us motivated and heading towards the target. Once we have obtained the desired thing our brains discontinue the dopamine, because at that point we no longer need to be motivated. Instead, we need to settle down and consume whatever the thing is that we've acquired. Looking at things on this level, a human being is little more than a need-meeting machine, driven by chemistry to perform correctly in order to survive. This doesn't fit the prejudice we have towards a more exalted self-image, of course, but when you really look at our behavior it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that we largely are animals driven to satisfy animal appetites, and that when we are not aware then this is all that we are.


From a design perspective, then, it would be counter-productive for us to feel "happy" and to have dopamine running through our system all the time. In order for the system to work we need to have periods of dopamine then periods without. If the physical system were continually flooded with dopamine then we wouldn't do anything: we would just sitting around being "happy" until we starved. We might say, then, that we are designed to live in a state of neutrality with occasional rushes of dopamine "happiness".


Isn't that interesting to consider? No matter how well things are going in general and how we have progressed over time; no matter the challenges we have faced and overcome, as well as the many good things that have happened in the past, the default experience will be neutrality. This explains a lot, including a curious bit of human behavior that has always perplexed me. It is often the case that people who are wealthy continue to work long hours to accumulate even more wealth, sometimes making themselves miserable and ruining their health in the process, even though they have everything they need and can provide for themselves everything they can conceivably need in the future. This can't be explained if our natural state is "happiness". In that case, once a person had whatever s/he needed then s/he would stop efforting and just be happy. It can be explained, however, if our natural state is neutrality. No matter what I have I will feel neutral about it, and I'll look for opportunities to access hits of dopamine by acquiring more.


Seen from this point of view, the whole cultural idea we have that we're supposed to feel happy all the time looks an awful lot like a trap and a scam. It sets up expectations that biologically can't be met. "Happiness" is a means to a practical, tangible end, not an end in itself.


Much better, I think, is to work towards being at ease and at peace with whatever just is. Here is a much deeper and more satisfying and lasting sort of happiness. More about that, and about an orientation to life that has us embracing experience as deeply as we can, no matter what the quality of that experience may be, in the next blog.

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