Developing A Universal Religion/Purpose And Meaning< Developing A Universal Religion
There is an important difference between asking, “what is life’s purpose?” and asking, “what is life’s meaning?”
The first question is by far the most important, for we seek an answer that must be universally and permanently true. All of life, wherever it is and in whatever form it exists, is expected to be subsumed within the answer to the question about life’s purpose. “To do God’s will” might be the reply of many to this question, giving an answer that, they would claim, applies to all things and all creatures for all time. The point to note is that, although the chosen “life’s purpose” might vary from one person to another, every choice selected must meet the criteria of universality and timelessness.
The second question, asking life’s meaning, is clearly of less significance, because subjective and multiple answers are acceptable and even expected. Everyone is quite willing to accept different replies from the same person for we fully recognize that “life’s meaning” can change from day to day. “Life’s purpose” has no such freedom.
The answer to the question of life’s purpose turns out to be the key that unlocks the puzzle of life’s meaning. We can be sure of this, because whenever someone says that life has meaning for them, we always find that they are expressing a feeling that stems from acting to achieve one or more purposes they deem to be important.
Many do not recognize that they live their daily lives happily striving to attain a multitude of purposes. The desire to live comfortably, to provide for a family, to be without pain, to be emotionally satisfied, to enjoy life; all these and thousands of similar phrases are statements of purpose, all more or less distant from conscious thought, but all significant to our minds as they go about their task of making the decisions that guide our daily activities.
We sometimes consciously chose one or two purposes to have particular significance for us, and their achievement may then take primacy over others. Getting a degree, saving money to buy a house, or helping charitable organizations might be examples, and many of us spend much time and effort supporting the attainment of goals such as these. However, whether or not we recognize the fact, every one of our activities is directed toward the achievement of one purpose or another.
Of course, we often react to emotions and feelings as well. But these actions are taken to satisfy or alleviate the emotions or feelings that prompted them; thus acting to satisfy our emotions is also acting to achieve a purpose. The difference is that these are not purposes directed by conscious thoughts, they are responses to body chemicals. Thus, they are usually more primitive or animal-like in nature (although emotional responses to music probably pertain to relatively recent evolutionary developments).
The happy feeling that we are living a meaningful life, or that life possesses meaning for us, is a by-product of a mind that is doing its job well by directing its support system (the body) to meet a multitude of purposes. The feeling stems from the mind being able to work relatively stress-free, both consciously and subconsciously, because the tasks we perform, the thoughts we arrange, the decisions we make, are directed toward some worthwhile, i.e. purposeful, end.
It is pointless to directly seek the meaning of life. Feeling that life is meaningful is the normal state—a feeling of well-being, when the bloodstream is relatively free of stress-causing chemicals, because the mind is working efficiently and effectively, making purpose-directed decisions. Such a mind has no need to instruct the release of anxiety-causing chemicals.
There is no physical or biological requirement to feel that life has meaning. Living entities can eat, survive and reproduce, without any such feeling, as the daily lives of bacteria, plants and insects presumably affirm. In organisms capable of conscious thought, however, there is a definite requirement for such thought to be purpose-directed. Solving problems and making decisions rationally requires a desire to achieve some purpose—this systematizes conscious thought. Working rationally is the activity that makes the mind valuable to survival, thus ensuring its own survival.
People who lack valued purposes are susceptible to depression, when nothing seems worthwhile and life can feel meaningless. The cure is not to directly seek meaning, but to find a purpose worthy of being valued and sought, then use this purpose to make decisions and guide actions.