|Page 18||Again, only religion has an answer to the question of the purpose of life. It can hardly be wrong to conclude that the notion that life has a purpose stand or falls with the religious system.
We will therefore turn now to the more modest question of what human beings themselves reveal, through their behaviour, about the aim and purpose of their lives, what they demand of life and wish to achieve in it. The answer can scarcely be in doubt: they strive for happiness, they want to become happy and remain so.
This striving has tow goals, one negative and one positive: on the one hand it aims at an absence of pain and unpleasurable experiences, on the other at strong feelings of pleasure. ‘Happiness’, in the strict sense of the word, relates only to the latter. In conformity with this dichotomy in its aims, human activity develops in two directions, according to whether it seeks to realize – mainly or even exclusively – the one or the other of these aims.
As we see, it is simply the programme of the pleasure principle that determines the purpose of life. This principle governs the functioning of our mental apparatus from the start; there can be no doubt about its efficacy, and yet its programme is at odds with the whole world – with the macrocosm as much s with the microcosm. It is quite incapable of being realised; all the institutions of the universe are opposed to it; one is inclined to say that the intention that man should be ‘happy’ has no part in the plan of ‘creation’. What was call happiness, in the strictest sense of the word, arises from the fairly sudden satisfaction of pent-up needs. By its very nature it can be no more than an episodic phenomenon. Any prolongation of a situation desired by the pleasure principle produces only a feeling of lukewarm comfort;; we are so constituted that we can gain intense pleasure only from the contrast, and only very little from the condition itself. Hence , our prospects of happiness are already restricted by our constitution. Unhappiness is much less difficult to experience. Suffering threatens us from three sides: from our own body, which being doomed to decay and dissolution, cannot dispense with pain and anxiety as warning signals; from the external world, which can unleash overwhelming, implacable, destructive forces against us; and finally from our relations with others. The suffering that arises from the last source perhaps causes us more pain than any other; we are inclined to regard it as a somewhat superfluous extra, though it is probably no less ineluctable than suffering that originates elsewhere.
It is no wonder that, under the pressure of these possibilities if suffering, people are used to tempering their claim to happiness, just as the pleasure principle itself has been transformed, under the influence of the eternal world, into the more modest ‘reality principle’; that one counts oneself lucky to have escaped unhappiness and survive suffering; and that in general the task of avoiding suffering pushes that of obtaining pleasure into the background. Reflection teaches us that we can try to perform this task by following very different paths; all these paths have been recommended by various schools of worldly wisdom and trodden by human beings. Unrestricted satisfaction of all our needs presents itself as the most enticing way to conduct one’s life, but it means putting enjoyment before caution, and that soon brings its own punishments.
Source: Civilization and its discontents. By Sigmund Freud