Joy Is the Purpose of Life
14 September 2015 (updated 11 September 2020)
Why not gather your family and friends for a group overdose on morphine? Expressed less provocatively, why live? Why maintain life through nourishment? Why extend life through medicine? Why perpetuate life through procreation? Whatever your initial reasons, introspect further. Why do you have those reasons? And, in turn, why do you have those reasons for reasons? At some point, your introspection may become too difficult or circular to continue.
At that point, Aristotle contends, we can practically summarize your answers, mine, and those of everyone else into two categories: non-final and final causes. The non-final causes of life include material, formal, and efficient causes. Expressed in terms of these non-final causes, you live because that’s what human anatomies in human communities on Earth do.
In contrast, expressed in terms of final causes, you live not so much “because” of something but rather “for” something. Whereas non-final causes are backwards looking, final causes are forward looking. Whether it be for yourself or others, for sports or art or service, for feelings or thoughts or experiences, or for “nothing” or “God,” whatever you might live for or suppose yourself to live for is your final cause.
One possibility for your final cause is joy. For example, the Mormon authoritative tradition sets forward joy as the purpose of life. The Book of Mormon teaches it succinctly:
“… men are, that they might have joy.” (2 Nephi 2: 36)
Likewise, founder Joseph Smith wrote,
“Happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it …” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith 255)
Elsewhere, Mormon scripture describes the work of God:
“For behold, this is my work and my glory – to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1: 39)
Joseph Smith construed this, the work of God, as essentially that of enabling joy:
“For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy; And when separated, man cannot receive a fulness of joy.” (Doctrine and Covenants 93: 33-34)
And the Book of Mormon reasons that the work of God would otherwise have no purpose:
“… having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility. Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation.” (2 Nephi 2: 11-12)
Of course, we might understand “joy” to have many different meanings. In some ways, perhaps it has as many meanings as there are persons who use it and its analogs in English (like “happiness”) and in other languages. And, while that’s true of all words, it seems particularly appropriate for this word because its objective usage, if it has one, relies on an appeal to subjectivity. Webster’s dictionary provides these definitions:
1 a : the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires : DELIGHT
b : the expression or exhibition of such emotion : GAIETY
2 : a state of happiness or felicity : BLISS
3 : a source or cause of delight
Definitions 2 and 3 suggest synonyms for “joy”, relating to a particular kind of feeling. Definition 1 proposes that the feeling of joy results from well-being, success, or good fortune, each of which, to be meaningful, must be understood relative to fulfilling desire. Is well-being to be warm? Not if I desire to be cool. Is success that of being an executive? Not if I desire that of being an engineer. Is good fortune a cookie? Not if I desire wealth.
So no simplistic narrowly-conceived joy will do. Amusement, bliss, charm, cheer, comfort, delight, elation, glee, humor, pride, satisfaction, wonder, alleviation, animation, delectation, diversion, ecstasy, exultation, felicity, festivity, frolic, fruition, gaiety, gladness, gratification, hilarity, indulgence, jubilance, liveliness, luxury, merriment, mirth, rapture, ravishment, refreshment, rejoicing, revelry, solace, sport, transport, treasure, treat, regalement: to be joy, it must really be experienced as such, in whatever variety and degree and dynamic is actually desired.
When we understand joy as fulfilling desire, we might observe that the relation between joy and purpose becomes definitional. If I say that fulfilling desire is the purpose of life, I’m not merely saying that I think fulfilling desire should be the purpose of life. Rather, recognizing that “desire” and “purpose” have essentially the same meaning, I’m saying “the purpose of life” is “the desire of life.” I’m saying the purpose of life is fulfilling desire by definition. I’m saying joy, by definition, is the purpose of life.
This is the second in a series of posts in which I model a desire-based ethics by drawing on the Mormon authoritative tradition. In the first post, I introduced the model with the observation that desire entices us to embrace ethics. In my next post, I’ll elaborate further on the idea that joy is fulfillment of desires, and explore a paradox that results – maybe you already feel it.