I have been having a number of conversations with friends and co-workers lately which have helped me articulate my present views.
As Mormons we were taught that "Men are that they might have joy" and that happiness was the end of our existence and the purpose for which we were created. Since leaving Mormonism and belief in god altogether, I have familiarized myself with a fair number of philosophies of life that are out there.
One great objective in Budhism is to give up attachment and desire, for by so doing one can eliminate suffering. I believe that that works (if one gives up attachment, one will eliminate the personal experience of suffering), but I fundamentally reject the notion that getting rid of personal suffering is good or should be a goal. I don't want to give up desire or attachment, because they are the only way I can feel true closeness and intimacy. I will gladly suffer the risk of pain and loss so that I can enjoy interpersonal warmth and love. Suffering is not all that bad. I have no phobia for pain. It is not that I want more pain in my life, but I accept it as part of life and am willing to experience it if it leaves me open to truly live.
I also find no appeal in the waves of new age movements that have lately come along such as "The Secret" and the works of Tolle. Tolle could be right in his fundamental approach; there is certainly no way to know for sure (I think there is some benefit in at least occasionally attempting to give up one's sense of self), but fundamentally I believe we are biological creatures, and our mental functions and experiences are born of the hardware of our neural circuits and the "software" we pick up from the environment."The Secret" I find just wrong on the face of it. Thinking good thoughts doesn't metaphysically make things happen.
There are a whole host of other religions and philosophies that tell us that we should make more of ourselves - that we should through meditation transcend ourselves and be more/better than the typical human. There is this emphasis that we should be doing more, accomplishing more, growing more, there is so much personal development that we need to get done before we die, we must prepare for whatever comes after death, etc. UGGGHHH & ICCCKKK!
A co-worker asked me the other day how I might live my life differently if I knew I only had two years left to live. He said that would put an urgency in him and rattled off a number of things he would do or attempt to accomplish and how he would spend his time. I thought for a moment and realized I wouldn't do anything different. I am living exactly how I want to at the present time. My immediate family is my main reason for living and I am spending time with them, and if I die, I die. So what? I don't feel that there is anything for me to accomplish, anything I must do or expectation that I must meet.
As far as the Universe is concerned, nothing is expected of me. In a few hundred years my existence will be completely forgotten (if not before then), and in a few billion years, nothing will be left of the organisms that once inhabited the planet earth. The universe really doesn't care if we exist or not, and certainly doesn't care what we do with our lives.
I am content to be a human being, a homo sapien. I do what homo sapiens do. Birch trees do what birch trees do; robins do what robins do; and I do what homo sapiens do. Nothing at the cosmic level is expected of the birch, the robin, and nothing is expected of me. I don't have to be anything or become anything; and I don't have to be happy or reach some meditative state of being (which I think is just a psychological trick anyway - it is not like we are really transcending our brains - our brains are making the experience).
For me, it is relieving to not have anything I have to strive for at the cosmic level. Now, I know I do have expectations for me locally in space and time. My contemporaries expect me to behave a certain way (pro-socially) and provide for myself and family (physically, emotionally, socially, etc). As a human I have needs and wants that I desire to have fulfilled and I work towards satisfying them. I have dreams and goals, but they are my dreams and goals that come with no external pressure to measure up. They weren't goals that were given to me by a deity, pretentious prophet, cosmic entity, or some new age guru who has a misguided confidence that they have THE powerful answer to the purpose of life.
I don't need to be happy; I am content to just be what I am - a human being. I am happy sometimes. I have given myself permission to feel a wide range of emotions, so sometimes I feel angry, sometimes I feel peace, sometimes I feel discouraged, sometimes I feel hopeful, sometimes I feel frustrated, sometimes I experience flow, and on and on.
Now for a tangent. I think emotions are a natural and normal part of being a homo sapien. I don't feel that it is bad or evil or that one is sinning if one experiences a negative emotion. I believe each of the various emotions serve a purpose and gave our ancestors an evolutionary advantage. Most serve to draw our attention to something that needs to be addressed for our well-being. Sometimes, we get stuck in an emotion (like depression or anger) or experience an emotion when the situation doesn't really call for it (an intense phobia of germs). In these cases the emotions may be causing us problems in our lives, and we need psychological help to work through what needs to be taken care of or retrain our emotions to respond differently. I am a masters level psychologist and I do that kind of work.
The FLDS have a saying that they tell the women and girls among them - "Stay sweet" - meaning keep a smile on your face and a cheery disposition and stuff all negative emotions. To most of us that is obviously unhealthy. But, many religions and movements to a lesser extent promote that same message: happiness is the goal and if you are not happy you are not as developed, matured, strong as, good as, enlightened as, accomplished as you should or could be. The message is you need to become like the Buddha, the saints, the gurus, the masters, the transcendent ones, etc. They say, "these people have reached a level of peace, a spiritual plane, an enlightenment that you need to obtain. They have set the example for all to follow." I reject that. Sure it is enjoyable to reach those altered states, as I have done before and do on occasion. But, those states are just another part of the human experience and do not need to be the standard by which everything else is judged.
Look, I acknowledge that for some people, living their lives with those aspirations works for them. I celebrate their humanity and as a good friend support them. I am just saying that for me, I no longer feel expectations from the cosmos or a god. I no longer use happiness as a milestone to mark whether I am measuring up anymore, or being all that I could or should be. I don't look up to transcendental states of consciousness with any special awe or high regard.