The goal

When we say that our goal is to live our lives well, what does that mean?
Think for a moment about different people's lives. I mean that. Take a minute and do think about whole lives: your grandparents, some relatives or acquaintances who've lived long ago but whose lives you know about, historical persons whose biographies you've read, characters in those epic novels that portray the lives of entire families through many generations; think of your friends, your children, your workmates and your boss, your neighbors and each of the people who sit on the same bus every morning, your hairdresser, your local MP — and think over all those people's lives: their childhood, youth, work life, parenthood, their best days and periods of illness, their special moments and dull everyday routines, their dreams and anxieties, wins and losses, triumphs and disappointments; think about what they would count as achieving their goals in live, and how they might rate their overall success or failure in achieving them so far (or having achieved them, if they've already passed away).
Now, after looking at all that diversity, there's one thing with which you surely would agree: it's not an unimportant question we're discussing here. In fact, there could hardly be anything more important for any one of us than finding and achieving the goal of our respective lives, wouldn't you say?
I hope you will also agree that such a goal can't spring simply from a moment's feeling. One can't have one goal of one's life today and a different one tomorrow, just to replace either by something else entirely next week.
(Perhaps the overall goal of our live can change from time to time, in large intervals — I won't rule that out. But if it changes, the new goal will then be the goal of your life; it will take the place of the old one as the overall aim, and should you fail to achieve it, then you've failed to reach the goal of your life, even if that previous goal has meanwhile been fulfilled. You can't simply 'fall back' on some former goal. That is so partly because it was your decision to change your goal; botching a decision as far-reaching as that is in itself a major failure, and that can hardly fit in any success story about the whole of your life.)
What, then, is the goal? What does it mean to live a life well? Of course, a detailed description will have to turn out differently for each of us: such a goal would have to be a guide to do the right thing in all sorts of situations, to being the person we should be, making the best of whatever has been dealt to us. Obviously, much of this will depend on the particular circumstances we'll find ourselves in. But is there perhaps a general description, a generic formula that covers what a goal would have to look like? (Even if that would need some spelling out for the various different circumstances.) Can we find some minimal criteria which a proper goal would have to fit?
In ancient times, there was a formula on which many philosophers agreed: they all found that 'happiness' was the goal in each of our lives. Of course, just as I said, what this would mean specifically might be different for you and for me, and then again different for anyone else. But still, so the ancient view goes, in each of the cases a good life would be one that makes you 'happy'.
Unfortunately, there is a widespread error in many people's understanding today of that ancient formula. The error stems from the fact that 'happiness' has come to mean something different in our modern time from what it meant then — it's come to mean a feeling; to be 'happy' means today to feel happy, and it didn't necessarily mean that in ancient times. And so people misunderstand the ancient formulation (that the goal of a good life would be to be 'happy') to the effect that they should live their lives so as to feel good as often, or as intensely, as possible. But that is not a sensible goal (and neither is it, in fact, what was meant by the ancient formula).
Actually, feelings are not a sensible goal of any achievement, much less a sensible goal for an entire life. To see this, take an example: suppose you want to climb the highest mountain of your country. That's an ambitious long-term project. It requires that you learn new skills, undergo hard training, practice many times by going up smaller mountains; often enough you'll have doubts that you will ever make it, you'll experience tough setbacks in your training excursions, perhaps you'll even get injured and have to endure much physical pain combined with fears of permanent incapacity that leaves you unable to make that ultimate ascent. And yet you go on stubbornly, until you finally face that big challenge. When you take the last few inches and realize that you eventually did it, that you've now mastered the highest peak there is, that all the hard work and determination have not been in vain and you've fulfilled your dream, then you will experience a feeling of deep and intense satisfaction, a feeling that is doubtless incomparable to anything you'll have experienced before.
But it is still a mistake to assume that it is this feeling for which you've lived and worked so long. The feeling isn't the goal; and it never has been. No doubt, it's an experience that is now part of your life, and your emotional memory will be all the richer and deeper for having felt it. And very probably, every successful life will have episodes of that sort of experience along the path, as side-effects of reaching important goals. Yet don't confuse a concomitant emotional coloring of experience with what is really valuable in those achievements.
Think just a little further into the future. For the rest of your life, you will be able to look back upon that great achievement. And when you do so, you will look back at the whole project, not just (not even especially) at that climactic moment. You will remember the moment you first thought about that idea seriously, the moment you decided to actually embark on the path, the enormous amount of energy you put into it, the greatest obstacles you had to overcome, the people who inspired or encouraged you, and much more. You may tell yourself now that you have managed to do something which only few others can claim to have done; you can be honestly proud of your strength of will, your long-term motivation, patience and determinedness, of your wise management of your training process, and much more.
Nothing of this depends in any way on what you felt in those moments on the peak. The strength of character you had to develop, just as the physical fitness you've gained, are still there! They're an achievement themselves in many ways — arguably more useful and even valuable than that fleeting feeling, which was gone after a short while and will never serve you again, save as a distant and shadowy memory.
Furthermore, think about how others may now see you. Imagine people choose to take your achievement as a source of inspiration for their own projects. Do you believe what they think about is primarily that they want to feel what you might have felt? Or isn't it more likely that they would admire your capacity to go a long way, to overcome difficulties and doubts, to follow through and finally make your dream happen? Think of people who've been an inspiration to you. What has made them so? Their qualities of character? Their extraordinary abilities, efforts or achievements? Their unfailing commitment to humanity in adverse circumstances? Whatever it may be, it's unlikely that you have been moved in any way by pondering how they might have felt at some point or other, is it?
It's an illusion, this idea that feelings have what it takes to make a good goal for a life; thus, 'happiness' can't be the goal, if understood in its modern sense of a happy feeling. (And, just to repeat, that was in fact not how it was meant at ancient times, when 'happiness' was used as a formula for what I have called 'the goal'.)
Still, we can take some results with us from our reflections on the goal: if it is to be a worthy one, it would apply to the whole of your life, and definitely so: neither could it be something you can have more or less of, nor could it be something today and something other tomorrow — you either have it in your life, or you haven't — and if you have it, you have it once and for the whole of it. Also, it should be something that can be seen with admiration and approval, with appreciation and applause: reaching the goal makes your life an inspiration and example for others.
Any life that has reached such a goal has some remarkable qualities: it's the best possible life; and this couldn't even be changed if it happens to be longer or shorter. Take a few years off, or add some more as you please, in the end it will be a good life, and not better or worse for that extra time more or less. A good life is marked by a quality, and doesn't depend on anything that can be added to or subtracted from (like more time, money, power, celebrity, or pleasant feelings). These things are just materials, and how much of those we have available is never fully in our control. It's what you make out of them that brings you towards the goal. Just like the goal of sleeping is to be eventually refreshed, awake and full of energy for your next day, and just like that goal is reached for some by sleeping long hours and for others by just a little nap — so is the goal of living a good life reached by some who live many years as well as by others who only have been granted a short lifetime. Nothing that is unable to fulfill that function for you could be an acceptable goal, a candidate for what it means to live your life well. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.