Unless you’re religious (which I am not), the question “what is the meaning of life?” doesn’t make much sense. The word “meaning” implies there’s an unwritten plan by someone or thing. “Purpose” on the other hand is defined as the goal or reason for doing something. Why do you do the things you do or what’s the purpose of life? This has a simple answer: the purpose of life is to survive and reproduce.
Everything is about sex and survival
All living organisms have two rules to live by: survive and reproduce. These two rules are written into our DNA and we’re fine-tuned through natural selection over millions of years to abide. Every activity and decision we make is related to survival and reproduction.
There’s the obvious, like eating, drinking, having sex and using dating apps. We can easily associate hunger and feeling sexually aroused with survival and reproduction but it doesn’t end there. All of our thoughts, emotions and activities have deep-seated roots with survival and reproduction. Here are just a few of the non-obvious:
Using social media
Survival and our reproductive urges are what hooks us to social media. The unpredictable outcome of slot machines and smartphone notifications is known as variable reinforcement (AKA the “Vegas Effect“) and it’s addictive. Knowledge acquisition is a key survival mechanism so our brains reward us with dopamine to learn the unpredictability of social media.
But it’s reproduction that’s the more obvious evolutionary trait at play. Instagram serves as a dating platform for posting perfectly filtered photos of oneself in an effort to attract mates, whereas Facebook is often used for stalking exes and new partners.
The primary function of clothes was to protect us from the cold but has morphed into a form of peacocking. Clothes are now a tool used to increase social and economic status and therefore increase our mate value.
Going to the gym
The gym is a catwalk and an activity driven by reproduction in an effort to look good and attract mates. Although for some with health issues, it’s for health and survival.
Binge-watching a boxset
Storytelling is a unique human survival trait that put us at the top of the food chain. We can live and cooperate together in large numbers because of our ability to understand abstract concepts. Directors of films and tv series use our fascination with fiction to keep us watching.
Play comes in all shapes and forms from football to chess and is prevalent throughout the animal kingdom. Scientists see play as a survival trait with several potential purposes: practice (think of cats play hunting), reducing hostility, enabling cooperation and learning to cope with unexpected events.
Free will is a Christian myth
What’s your favourite food? Your answer will be based on the food you were fed as a child, life experiences and genetics — none of which you control. Everyone has will but the idea that it’s free doesn’t make sense. The historian and author Yuval Noah Harari describes free will as a Christian myth:
Theologians developed the idea of “free will” to explain why God is right to punish sinners for their bad choices and reward saints for their good choices. If our choices aren’t made freely, why should God punish or reward us for them?
What does the illusion of free will have to do with the purpose of life? We have to accept that we have less control — we are driven by our genes. With this realisation it allows us to make more informed and hopefully better decisions.
The law of effect is a psychological principle that says: behaviours leading to satisfaction are likely to be repeated, and behaviours that lead to discomfort are less likely to be repeated. Happiness and stress are neurochemicals that reward and punishment us.
We move in the direction our genes want us to go — like chasing a carrot on a stick.
We once hunted and were hunted and our survival urges were essential in keeping us alive, but now they are mostly redundant. Advertisers, governments and the news media hijack our evolutionary urges to sell us nonsense we don’t need and frighten us to vote, watch adverts and obey.
In the modern-day, our survival urges are working against us with heart disease being the leading cause of death due to overeating, junk food, and addiction. This begs the question — in a modern world where we’re all running out-of-date genetic software, how reliable is our decision making?
Do you want to reproduce?
The desire to want children (“baby fever”) could be a new phenonium. Evolution doesn’t need us to want children when wanting sex works perfectly well. Wanting and having sex is highly effective at producing offspring which is encouraged in new relationships with high levels of the love hormone oxytocin.
Of course, there’s now contraception for evolution to overcome but evolutionary change takes thousands of years so wanting children is more likely a social construct brought on by peer pressure, advertising and the media.
The reason for life
More often than not, our urges and desires are from prehistoric DNA, social pressure and corporations — none of which need us to be happy. And happiness has to be the reason for life.
“Purpose” is defined as the goal and “reason” is defined as the cause of the goal, and the cause to make the effect are neurochemicals. We are steered through life by neurochemical rewards and punishments. Needless to say, we want to reduce punishment from stress and enhance reward from activities that bring long-lasting joy. Whatever activities bring you the most happiness is the reason for life.