What Is the Purpose of Life?

Why are we here? Here's a reasonable answer.

Posted Oct 08, 2020

Overearth/iStock
Source: Overearth/iStock

Disclaimer: I don't claim that what I say is totally "true," because the truth is elusive in this complicated world. Rather, I'm offering some ideas to help perceive the world and ourselves in a manner that opens pathways for change and growth.

The Ultimate Question

As far as most of us know, we only have one life to live. The odds against our existence are, quite literally, beyond comprehension. Out of some cosmic miracle that we don’t appreciate enough, we are here. One chance event after another had to occur for each of us to born into this world. This starts with the Big Bang and includes the countless factors that had to line up for life to evolve on this planet to your great grandparents randomly bumping into one another at a country grocery store.

The fact that we are living and breathing on this big blue marble we call Earth is statistically inconceivable. It might not always feel that way, but if we step back, we can see that this is true. We are all the winners of the biggest … lottery … ever!

Given that we defied all odds to exist, that begs the most important question that philosophers, theologians, and countless others have attempted to answer. We might even consider this The Ultimate Question: What’s the purpose of life? On a related note, how are we to live in a way that fulfills our purpose? Another way to think of this is: if we are the winners of the cosmic lottery, how are we supposed to spend our winnings?

An Answer to the Ultimate Question

“Conan, what is good in life?” Conan: “To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of the women.” —Conan, from the movie “Conan the Barbarian”

While everyone is entitled to have an opinion about why we are here and what to do with our lives, I’ll go on the record as disagreeing with Conan’s answer. I, of course, don’t have the answer either. However, I promise that I'm not going to say The Answer to the Ultimate Question is 42.

Your head might be spinning right now, because I just said that I am going to try to answer The Ultimate Question. However, I’m not arrogant enough to claim that I have The Answer. But I don’t think anyone has The Answer for that matter, although many people claim that they do.

Can you agree with me, even partially, that there are many ideas about the purpose of life?  Even if you already believe in One Answer to The Ultimate Question, you still recognize that other people and groups have different answers to the same question. If there were just one, clear, unequivocal answer to The Ultimate Question, wouldn’t we all have the same one without any disagreements? In fact, would there even be an Ultimate Question if we all had the same answer to it? Assuming we can even agree upon the nature and wording of The Ultimate Question, the different answers can’t all be right…or can they? If you disagree with me, you actually agree with me because it proves that finding The Answer to The Ultimate Question is open to debate and different points of view!

I’m going to tell you a little secret about The Ultimate Question: There is no secret, "correct" answer to this question. How could I, or anyone else, have a secret answer to The Ultimate Question that few have stumbled upon? The “right” answer as to the purpose of life there is no single right answer. It would be more accurate to say that there are right “answers.”

Here’s what might really bake your noodle: You already know an answer to The Ultimate Question, but you might not know that you know it. Although I'm telling you what you already know, instead of that being a limitation, consider the possibility that this is where its power resides.

“All secrets are open secrets. Nothing is hidden. Nothing is revealed. People can only be told what they already know. Although they know, they may not be conscious of their knowledge.”—Camden Benares, from “Zen Without Zen Masters”

An Answer to the Purpose of Life

"Why are we here? Because we're here. Roll the bones. Roll the bones."—from the song "Roll the Bones" by Rush

We evolved so that we can live. Thus, we could also say that we live to evolve, so there's a circularity here. Evolution is the process that allowed organisms to survive and thrive. Humans, along with every living animal or plant, owe our existence to it. Our purpose is to "evolve" during our lifetime because that is consistent with our evolutionary purpose. Thus, an answer to The Ultimate Question of "What is the purpose of life?" is that we are here so that we can continue to live, adapt, learn, and grow. A purpose of life, and our purpose, is to continue to evolve. 

We Evolved to Evolve

When we think of "evolution" as meaning as a process of learning, adapting, and growing to be more effective and efficient, we see evolution everywhere. Kids learn more advanced skills and concepts in school and this continues on through college and throughout their careers. Growth, in terms of profitability, is one of the primary goals of any business. Technology is always evolving—offering faster internet speeds, more powerful computers, better productivity tools, and more engaging and entertaining experiences. Athletes strive to improve their skills and performances through better nutrition and training methods. They aim to win more championships and set records. Musicians and artists want to become more technically proficient, creative, and successful. Communities and societies not only grow in number, but they try to serve the needs of the people to enable the citizens to live healthier, happier lives. Even with most religions, we seek to grow in our faith—to be a "better" Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or Jew. 

On the biological level, learning recruits the reward systems in the brain so that the learning is reinforced. We evolved to grow and learn ... to become better than we were the day before so that we might survive and thrive. In general, we feel happy when we learn and grow. One could say that this happiness is a purpose of life as well, yet it could also be said to be the by-product of fulfilling our life purpose of learning and growing. 

The Takeaway?

What is the purpose of life? An answer (as opposed to The Answer) to The Ultimate Question is that we exist to continue to exist. We evolved to evolve. This is fundamental to every living organism. Inherent to our existence is that we learn, adapt, and grow. Health, happiness, and longevity are the payoffs for this. Since our biological evolution is the foundation of our existence, a purpose of our lives is to continue to "evolve" during our lifetime by learning and growing. Each day, our purpose is to strive to be a little bit better than the day before and to continue this evolutionary process throughout our lifetime. 

This purpose in life might sound like a simple, anti-climatic answer to The Ultimate Question, but there's more to this answer than at first glance. Our purpose in life to learn and grow throughout our lifetime also holds the key to how we should live our lives. Please join me next week as I address the question of: How then shall we live?