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Purpose in Life

Updated on November 18, 2014

What is life?

I find this a question rarely to be asked. Perhaps the reason is fear - for not knowing the answer. Reflecting the question in another light, it also means what is our purpose in life. If we know the ultimate goal, then that goal defines the worth and value of our lives.

Why ask this question now?

The answer is because we can. We get to choose or lead a life as how we defined it. This may seem like a foolish answer but it is not if we understand and appreciate the development in the purpose of life.

Development in the Purpose of Life

In the past, it is common that such a question is not asked. The reason is that their goal is simple and they do not have a choice.

The development in the purpose of life can be briefly summarized in five points.

  1. Survival
  2. Building a community
  3. Creating and maintaining social order
  4. Distribution and specialization in jobs and tasks
  5. Living up to expectation
  6. ???

All those five purposes are seen at different times in the human history. At each stage of time, they were all too occupied attempting to achieve that particular purpose.

Point 1 is about surviving alone. Points 2 to 4 are about surviving in a community which hence necessitates features ranging from social order to distribution of tasks. Everyone has a job to do in a community. If you are good at farming, then you be a farmer.

Only when survival is no longer a (real) concern, can individuals start to pursue a more comfortable life which I described in point 5 and will be discussed below.

In living its life, history has probably seen two most apparent distinction in purposes of life. To show how the purpose of life was not a choice to these people, point one and five will be further elaborated. For this discussion, I labelled them to be "The Purge Years" and "Socio-Cultural Identity"


The Purge Years

Dating back to a time without proper social order, where chaos is the general situation rather than exception, the goal of every man (and woman) is to secure basic needs - proper shelter, food, clothes - to survive. This reference is to a time zone where it is difficult to even secure those basic needs. Without social order, the poor may rob or kill the rich for their property. A provoked man might gather a group to teach another person about pain. Therefore, in protecting their own family members and property or home, even the most innocent men would have to stand up and fight back. We are talking about a situation akin to the purge night (a reference to the movie, 'The Purge') except that this is every single day.

Thomas Hobbes described such a life as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Indeed it is. Therefore what is the goal for people at those time is survival. What is life for them is to survive. There was not any option (except death).

Of course what followed was a logical result of people forming a group to protect themselves from harm. For a group to work effectively, there must be (social) order. And this requires a person to set the order and lead. *An interesting reference would be to "Walking Dead".

Sad doctor - chose a job due to social pressure.
Sad doctor - chose a job due to social pressure. | Source

Socio - Cultural Identity

Further down the timeline where social order is established, survival is no longer a focused aim. This is because it has already been secured, freeing the society to pursue other meanings to their lives. At this time, we see people living to the identity provided to them socially or culturally. What this means can be illustrated from a few observations below.

At the time of ancient Greeks, what do men live for? They either live to be a philosopher or a soldier depending on their culture. In Sparta, the culture dictates that every men is to be a soldier. Their meaning of life is to die a beautiful death - to die in honor.

At the time of pre- Martin Luther King, what is the life to black people? They live their lives as slaves to serve the white people. That's because "slaves" was the identity provided to them by the society.

Of course there are also times where women were merely the properties of men because that's the identity given to them.

Analyzing social and cultural identity at a more recent time, children when being raised are fed with impressions that they have to study hard to secure a good job in the future, preferably a doctor or a lawyer. This is especially true in Asian countries. The child may hope to be singer or an escape artist. But they are usually met with rejections from their parents. Compelled by their culture, they eventually succumb to their social identities. Therefore, what was life to people from this time was to strive for that social or cultural identity.


We have seen that people from different time have different meaning to their lives - from securing basic necessities to meeting their social identities. But in all those times, they do not really have a choice. The question "what is life?" was not necessary. They couldn't choose! But now we do. We live in an era where society questions the logic of everything, seeking for underlying reasons. Breaking free from traditions and cultural identities, we ask, "why do I have to be a doctor if I am talented in drawing?" Therefore, this is a time where it is essential and crucial to ask ourselves this ultimate question : what is life?

PS : point 6 marked with ??? was meant for you to fill

What is the purpose of your life?

See results

Post Script

I personally think that it is important that we appreciate the privilege that is given to us. We now have the (limited) freedom to choose what we want in our lives. This is the fruit that earlier generations have sowed. The problem is that most of the times we do not know what we truly want. And this can be scary. Breaking free from the identities provided by society and culture, we do not really have any form of guidelines on what to be.

Would we be contented if we merely live a life of reasonable income with reasonable amount for our loved ones? Or must we earn be filthy rich and be high up the social ladder?

Quotes of Life

This section is added for reading pleasure.

In life, every calling is great when greatly pursued - Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr

Happiness is a way of travel - not a destination - Roy M. Goodman

Life is not about finding yourself, life is about creating yourself - George Bernard Shaw

It is better to live a day as a lion than a lifetime as a sheep.


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    • frozenink profile image

      frozenink 2 years ago

      I agree with you, Larry. Materialism or money should just be a means for us to be more comfortable with people we love and share life experiences together.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      The concept of purpose can be measured so many ways. Personally I put less into material things than being comfortable and with the people I love and having interesting experiences.

    • frozenink profile image

      frozenink 3 years ago

      Travelling is in my list too. Usually i travel to learn and experience their cultures more than their landmarks. Thanks for reading.

    • monia saad profile image

      monia ben saad 3 years ago from In my Dream

      i love travelling so much so i will do the max to travel to many countries


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