The Great Goal of Life

by Derrick G. Jeter

If asked, “What is the purpose of life?” many would answer, “To be successful.” Others might say, “To have a family and plenty of money.” Still others would respond, “To become famous.” Each of these answers, however, could be reduced to one word: happiness. People want to be happy. But plenty of studies show, and most people know from their own experience, that you can have all these things and still be miserable. So it doesn’t seem quite right that happiness is the purpose of life. What people actually long for, whether they can articulate it or not, is a sense of transcendence, for something greater than happiness.
We in America misunderstand what happiness is, which is unfortunate since it is an essential principle in our Declaration of Independence. Remember the phrase: “the pursuit of happiness”? It’s one of those divine and unalienable rights. We’ve come to think that phrase means we have a right to accumulate more and more stuff, or to pursue any legal pleasure. This makes happiness subjective, turning it into a feeling. If you feel happy, you are happy. Our word “happiness” comes from the Old English word “hap”—meaning chance or luck: it “happens.” For us, happiness depends on what happens to us, from the outside material world, from circumstances, and not what happens within us—within our own souls. Happiness, then, comes and goes—its uncontrollable and transient.
Yet, somehow I doubt this is exactly what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he penned the words “the pursuit of happiness.” The ancient notion of happiness comes from the Greek word eudaimonia, literally meaning good spirit or good soul. We might call it virtue. “We do not hold the common view that a man’s highest good is to survive and simply continue to exist,” Plato wrote. “His highest good is to become as virtuous as possible and to continue to exist in that state as long as life lasts.”1 When Jefferson immortalized the phrase “the pursuit of happiness” he meant that we would have the right to pursue that which would make us good—to pursue truth and righteousness. Put simply, happiness was (and is) goodness. Many years later, in a letter to a friend, Jefferson wrote: “Happiness [is] the aim of life. Virtue [is] the foundation of happiness.”2 The Founders weren’t as concerned with what was happening to them on the outside as much as they were about what they were doing to develop goodness on the inside. Happiness for the Founders was the right of every citizen to govern themselves, to control their own desires and impulses, resulting in fewer laws and government intervention, and thereby producing greater individual liberty to pursue . . . well, whatever they wanted to pursue, but with honesty and integrity.
The purpose of life is goodness—virtue. This is what people really want out of their lives: to have lived for something greater than fame or fortune; to leave a worthy legacy as an admirable individual. Those who founded our country pursued the happiness of goodness and we esteem them. Shouldn’t we emulate them and pursue the same things? After all, it wasn’t just their lives and fortunes that were on the line when our Founders signed the Declaration of Independence, it was also their “sacred Honor.”
1. Plato, “Law,” trans. Trevor J. Saunders, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1997), 1394.
2. Thomas Jefferson to William Short, October 31, 1819, in Writings, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Library of America, 1984), 1433.