I came across a quote recently that I felt summed up the answer to this question that I hear so often in therapy. The quote is from
Leo Rosten, who, as far as I can tell, was Jewish and therefore holds a similar but not completely Christian worldview. However, I still find wisdom in his words.

I cannot believe the purpose of life is to be "happy." I think the purpose of life is to be useful, to be responsible, to be compassionate. It is, above all, to matter, to count, to stand for something, to have made some difference that you lived at all.

Let's break down this quote to see what lessons we can learn. First of all, we'll look at the concept of happiness. Many people enter therapy with the goal of being happy. But what does that mean? Will we ever truly be happy? Would we even know if we were?

Webster defines being happy as "enjoying or characterized by well-being or contentment." Does that help? I'm not sure it does. Contentment seems even more elusive. How can I be content when I live in this house and my brother lives in that one? When I am working at this job when I deserve a promotion? When I am single or childless? When I don't wear the right clothes, send my kids to the right schools, or, well, you get the point. The pursuit of happiness is often the pursuit ofstuff or status. Since there is always more and newer stuff and greater prestige to be obtained, how can we be truly happy, much less content, with our lot in life?

I think that is why our author says that the purpose of life cannot be happiness. The pursuit of stuff can never make you happy anyway. So let's look at what he does put forth as a worthwhile goal.

What would life look like if we could honestly describe ourselves as useful and responsible. Not just during a job interview, but to really mean it. We would be people that others could count on. Our word would mean something. When we said it would get done, it would get done. Period. No excuses. When we messed up, as even responsible and useful people must sometimes do, we’d own up to it. Mr. Rosten also lists compassion as one of the purposes of life. So while we apparently will have it all together, and hold ourselves to this pretty high standard, we can still be understanding of others who are struggling to arrive here. This isn’t someone sitting on their high horse looking down on everyone. To have compassion is to have sympathy for others, and to allow that sympathy to move us to make their lives better.

If those things were true of us, I’m guessing the second part of the statement wouldn’t be far behind. This is the kind of person who leaves an impression on others for the better, who leaves the world a little better than they found it. Someone who, when they leave a position, a neighborhood, or this earth, people say they will miss (and they mean it!) This is definitely someone who matters, counts, and stands for something.

As I said, this author was not Christian, so let’s see what the Bible has to say about his standards for the “purpose of life.”

Solomon, the wise man of the bible, actually has quite a bit to say about happiness. He certainly doesn’t seem to be against it. He says such things as, “I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live,” and that when someone is blessed with material goods, that they should “accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God.” However, he does seem to agree that happiness is not the goal in life. First off, note in the quotation above that happiness is included with an action, doing good. It matters not just that you are happy, but what you are doing withand for your happiness. He also goes on to state, “When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other. “ So the notion that God wants us to be merely happy does not seem to apply here. Elsewhere he says that the young should be happy, but admonishes them that they will pay consequences if they, in so doing, make negative choices.

But what of our Leo’s definition of what the purpose of life is: that great person of value who is both task oriented (useful) and people oriented (compassionate), who matters and leaves his mark on the world? Would the Bible agree that we should strive for these things?

The apostle Paul wrote to Timothy about the need to be “instruments for special purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.” So being useful is important, especially being useful to God. The Bible is full of ourresponsibilities toward God and each other, as well as warnings about consequences that will befall us if we do not follow thru with our responsibilities. So it is safe to say that God wants us to be responsible to live our life according to these statutes, as Paul put it, a life “worthy of the calling you have received.” God uses the word compassionate to describe himself when he reveals his name and his nature to Moses. He also charges us with showing compassion to others, in being a good neighbor, in “loving others as ourselves.”

You may have noticed, however, that just being useful isn’t enough, you must be useful to “the Master.” And being responsible isn’t enough. You must be responsible in the things God has laid out for you to do. Our compassion for others stems from our desire to be like our Lord, and out of gratitude for the compassion that he has first bestowed upon us. So, yes, I believe the Bible would agree with Leo Rosten’s assessment as to the purpose of life, with the caveat that you must not just stand for something, but that you must stand for someone, namely God. And you know what? You do all that and, my guess is, you’ll also find that happiness that you were looking for in the first place.

Written by Rachael DeWitt, LCSW