The Purpose Of Life Is Not Happiness: It’s Usefulness

For the longest time, I believed that there’s only one purpose of life: And that is to be happy.

Right? Why else go through all the pain and hardship? It’s to achieve happiness in some way.

And I’m not the only person who believed that. In fact, if you look around you, most people are pursuing happiness in their lives.

That’s why we collectively buy shit we don’t need, go to bed with people we don’t love, and try to work hard to get approval of people we don’t like.

Why do we do these things? To be honest, I don’t care what the exact reason is. I’m not a scientist. All I know is that it has something to do with history, culture, media, economy, psychology, politics, the information era, and you name it. The list is endless.

We are who are. 

Let’s just accept that. Most people love to analyze why people are not happy or don’t live fulfilling lives. I don’t necessarily care about the why.

I care more about how we can change.

Just a few short years ago, I did everything to chase happiness.

  • You buy something, and you think that makes you happy.
  • You hook up with people, and think that makes you happy.
  • You get a well-paying job you don’t like, and think that makes you happy.
  • You go on holiday, and you think that makes you happy.

But at the end of the day, you’re lying in your bed (alone or next to your spouse), and you think: “What’s next in this endless pursuit of happiness?”

Well, I can tell you what’s next: You, chasing something random that you believe makes you happy.

It’s all a façade. A hoax. A story that’s been made up.

Did Aristotle lie to us when he said:

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”

I think we have to look at that quote from a different angle. Because when you read it, you think that happiness is the main goal. And that’s kind of what the quote says as well.

But here’s the thing: How do you achieve happiness?

Happiness can’t be a goal in itself. Therefore, it’s not something that’s achievable.

I believe that happiness is merely a byproduct of usefulness.

When I talk about this concept with friends, family, and colleagues, I always find it difficult to put this into words. But I’ll give it a try here.

Most things we do in life are just activities and experiences.

  • You go on holiday.
  • You go to work.
  • You go shopping.
  • You have drinks.
  • You have dinner.
  • You buy a car.

Those things should make you happy, right? But they are not useful. You’re not creating anything. You’re just consuming or doing something. And that’s great.

Don’t get me wrong. I love to go on holiday, or go shopping sometimes. But to be honest, it’s not what gives meaning to life.

What really makes me happy is when I’m useful. When I create something that others can use. Or even when I create something I can use.

For the longest time I foud it difficult to explain the concept of usefulness and happiness. But when I recently ran into a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the dots connected.

Emerson says:

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

And I didn’t get that before I became more conscious of what I’m doing with my life. And that always sounds heavy and all. But it’s actually really simple.

It comes down to this: What are you DOING that’s making a difference?

Did you do useful things in your lifetime? You don’t have to change the world or anything. Just make it a little bit better than you were born.

If you don’t know how, here are some ideas.

  • Help your boss with something that’s not your responsibility.
  • Take your mother to a spa.
  • Create a collage with pictures (not a digital one) for your spouse.
  • Write an article about the stuff you learned in life.
  • Help the pregnant lady who also has a 2-year old with her stroller.
  • Call your friend and ask if you can help with something.
  • Build a standing desk.
  • Start a business and hire an employee and treat them well.

That’s just some stuff I like to do. You can make up your own useful activities.

You see? It’s not anything big. But when you do little useful things every day, it adds up to a life that is well lived. A life that mattered.

The last thing I want is to be on my deathbed and realize there’s zero evidence that I ever existed.

Recently I read Not Fade Away by Laurence Shames and Peter Barton. It’s about Peter Barton, the founder of Liberty Media, who shares his thoughts about dying from cancer.

It’s a very powerful book and it will definitely bring tears to your eyes. In the book, he writes about how he lived his life and how he found his calling. He also went to business school, and this is what he thought of his fellow MBA candidates:

“Bottom line: they were extremely bright people who would never really do anything, would never add much to society, would leave no legacy behind. I found this terribly sad, in the way that wasted potential is always sad.”

You can say that about all of us. And after he realized that in his thirties, he founded a company that turned him into a multi-millionaire.

Another person who always makes himself useful is Casey Neistat. I’ve been following him for a year and a half now, and every time I watch his YouTube show, he’s doing something.

He also talks about how he always wants to do and create something. He even has a tattoo on his forearm that says “Do More.”

Most people would say, “why would you work more?” And then they turn on Netflix and watch back to back episodes of Daredevil.

A different mindset.

Being useful is a mindset. And like with any mindset, it starts with a decision. One day I woke up and thought to myself: What am I doing for this world? The answer was nothing.

And that same day I started writing. For you it can be painting, creating a product, helping elderly, or anything you feel like doing.

Don’t take it too seriously. Don’t overthink it. Just DO something that’s useful. Anything.

 

 

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39 comments

  1. Great read once again.

    “But when you do little useful things every day, it adds up to a life that is well lived. A life that mattered.” Love it!

    And Darius, there’s already much evidence that you’ve existed (and hopefully will do for many more years). So don’t worry 😉

  2. Utilitarianism leaves a great deal to be desired regarding the quality of both personal and larger social life. Productivity, as a governing value is based on circular reasoning: before one can judge if an act is productive or not, one must a priori know what constitutes what is productive. This eliminates the possibility of creative, and unexpected acts, which, I admit are risky, but without that, life would become boring in the extreme.

  3. Hey Darious – I think purpose is another way to put this. I believe it’s more important than anything else. The journey is more important than the destination. This was a nice read to start my Friday – thanks for being useful. 🙂

  4. Hey Darius thanks for this – I totally agree and also with Marcus – it’s about having a purpose. I always go back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and it certainly supports this. The other big deal for me is that BUSINESS needs a PURPOSE. I firmly believe that without this, businesses will die. It’s why i left my job to start a business that puts back into the community 🙂

    1. I didn’t even know that. I don’t really focus on that stuff to be honest. I just write and publish articles. I have to thank all the great people who take the time to share my articles. Because that’s the main way it gets distributed.

  5. In the last 3 -4 years, I was trying to figure out my motivation in life. I came to this exact conclusion.

    I never spent the time to share my personal experience with others, and I totally appreciate that you did.

    Not everyone feels this way (trust me I live with them everyday), but for me, and the few people I’ve met like this – you’re speaking our language.

    It’s nice to be understood.

    It’s nicer that you took the time to share. I’ts made a difference, at least for me.

  6. Let me add, after re-reading again: your writing style is perfection.

    It’s succinct, gets to the heart of the matter, and is formatted in a way that is easy to digest.

    You could have diatribed with meaningless words; but this article is so compactly written, with maximum communication of your ideas, reinforced by examples. No unnecessary words.

    In re-reading, I cannot find anything you said which was not pertinent to communicating your message.

    I’m a Developer, and we strive for code like this.

    I know you’re a writer, but something tells me you would be an excellent Coder as well.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Joe! It means a lot. Especially because it’s my goal to always get down to the matter. So thanks for recognizing that.

      My good friend is a Coder. And you’re right, writing code or writing an article is very similar in terms of effectiveness.

      Also, it’s great to connect. Let me know if you ever need anything my man.

  7. Hey Darius , first of all a very well written article.I had always thought in these lines . To be happy is almost a proverb but in the inner conscience one realises that when I help people or am useful to people whether I know them or not gives a better feeling . It also relates to the Hindu philosophy of KARMA . – Best Wishes .- Varun

  8. Thanks Darius for sharing your life experience. This was also the same realization I had these past few days. You got the bottomline. ❤

  9. FYI: you’ll have to excuse the formatting and typos here. I’m in a foreign country with a non-functioning laptop so I’m typing this on a borderline geriatric 4+ year old Iphone 5.

    Hey man, great article – as others mentioned above great writing style and fantastic job walking the reader through your thought process.

    I would like to offer one amendment though. (Yea I know its back seat driving saying that you should change things, but) I honestly think there should be a “for me” in the title. I understand that you want to write a compelling argument to convince people of this way of living and throwing posessives in there really weakens your message. But, I feel rather passionately about this message, because I used to believe the same thing as what you wrote 100%.

    Up till my Junior year of college I felt that the meaning of life was to be useful and do things. And so I did things. And then a few more things. And by my Junior fall I was not only working on a Biochemistry degree with Literature and Computer Science tacked on as minors, but I was running a part of student administration, hand coding a new website for the radio station, and teaching a credit bearing class to other undergrads about how cars worked (In addition to working as a reseacher for the Chemistry Dept. and writer for the campus satirical newspaper). In the sense of usefulness I was pretty darn useful. I was doing stuff. And not just stuff, but a whole dumptruck of stuff.

    But at some point, I burnt out. I can’t tell you how or why, but every part of my body, besides my prefrontal cortex, did not want to do more work. I would sit down and try to do anything productive and my body would respond with anxiety attacks, distractions and a myriad of other ways to avoid work.

    As a result I wasn’t completing basic tasks, let alone accomplishing things. And that made me feel worse – if the point of life is to be useful and do things, then what the heck was I (not) doing? Eventually after some R&R that took a semester, my personal mantra changed to “help the people around you” – but I want to emphasize that this is what works for me and may not work for others.

    That’s why I think that there should be a “for me” on there. Because it obviously seems like this is really working out for you – your article has a sort of conviction that makes that much clear. But it obviously didn’t work for me.

    And it could be that we’re getting at the same idea here. I agree with many items on your list of small things to make a difference, because they involve taking care of people. But what I don’t agree with is your line “The last thing I want is to be on my deathbed and realize there’s zero evidence I existed.”

    Because every time I worry about leaving a leagacy (or any evidence of existence for that matter) I think of the poem Ozymandus by Percy Shelly. In that piece, an emperor from ages ago tries to secure his fearful legacy only to have time strip it. Time will erase all names and legacies, so rather than worry about evidence of my existence, I worry about taking care of the people around me and building connections with others.

    But that “truth” that drives me, is obviously not the same as the “truth” that drives you. Yet, you’re pretty accomplished, and I think I’ve been atleast moderately successful in life. The fact that the purpose of life can differ, yet result in success is why I think there should be a “for me” in the title.

    But that’s just my 2 cents (or 0.07 Reals according to an optimistic conversion to local currency)

  10. Darius, a quick note on Aristotle: for him, happiness is a result of exercising the virtues. So, compassion, search for knowledge, wisdom, etc., are to be very much a part of one’s life journey.

    1. @Darius Foroux
      Aristoteles developed in his book “Nicomachean Ethics” his own concept called Eudaimonia, for which no translation exists, but is often just translated as happiness, which misses it’s point, especially with todays understanding of happiness.
      So, please read the book, it is sublime! You will be astonished how his concepts resembles more your idea of usefulness then todays understanding of happiness.
      In short he means that Eudaimonia is not a state but a way of living excellent, and the best way to live your life (meaning of life?) is to exercise our uniquely human higher faculties to become excellent and by that fulfilling our innate potential.

  11. My question was “what is the purpose of happiness?”

    I don’t see anyone asking this question.

    Why does happiness exist?

    Here is the answer:

    To encourage beneficial behavior (for the family? the tribe? the species? the earth? .

    That’s why being useful makes us happy.

    When we are useful, the brain rewards us with a shot of joy juice.

    The question then becomes useful to whom?

    The variation in scope, or range of our caring is what defines the political divide between “Left” and “Right.”

  12. A man can live a good life, be honorable, give to charity, but in the end, the number of people who come to his funeral is generally dependent on the weather.

  13. And when it is being useful that really makes you happy, is when you can connect the two variables together. In my case, they are knitted together strongly – my purpose is to be happy, and I know I derive happiness from being useful (no matter the scale)

  14. Such a powerful perspective.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about trying to be better or happier makes you focus on yourself too much. In turn, you end up with less happiness. By focusing more on others (their needs, emotions or just existence), you immediately become more useful -> happy.

  15. Well said, loving your work each and every time i read more energy bro. Thanks for such wonderful work God bless you

  16. Very good article. I depicts my philosophy of life. But being not good at writing I can’t write. I would to get Ur posts and newsletters

  17. @Darius Foroux
    Aristoteles developed in his book “Nicomachean Ethics” his own concept called Eudaimonia, for which no translation exists, but is often just translated as happiness, which misses it’s point, especially with todays understanding of happiness.
    So, please read the book, it is sublime! You will be astonished how his concepts resembles more your idea of usefulness then todays understanding of happiness.
    In short he means that Eudaimonia is not a state but a way of living excellent, and the best way to live your life (meaning of life?) is to exercise our uniquely human higher faculties to become excellent and by that fulfilling our innate potential.

  18. I think usefulness is a word that does not really do justice to the profound meaning of this article. I think an even kinder word is “Service”, in the sense of helping others in a way or another.
    Being a comedian, a professor, a dancer, a singer, a doctor or the scientist who bring us to Mars, it doesn’t really matter as long as you help someone feel better for a moment or a lifetime.
    That’s so close to what they say in this awesome video of The School of Life:

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