Happiness vs. Meaning

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I subscribe to a weekly magazine ~ The Week ~ in which there is always a lengthy column labeled The Last Word. In the February 22, 2013 issue (pp. 40-1), the article that appeared was entitled “What is a Good Life?” The article was based on a book written by Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna. He was arrested, along with his pregnant wife and parents and sent to a Nazi concentration camp. After three years, when his camp was liberated, most of his family including his wife had died but he lived. He published his best-selling book in 1946 and he concluded that that the difference between those who had lived and those who died came down to one simple thing: meaning.

He found that those who could find meaning even under the most severe of circumstances were far more resilient to suffering than those who didn’t. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing ~the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances to choose one’s own way.” He gave examples of to suicidal men who felt hopeless with nothing more to expect from life. He attempted to help them realize that life was expecting something from them. For one of the men, it was his young child living in a foreign country and for the other, a scientist, it was a series of books that he needed to finish. He concludes “This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love … A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.’”

He goes on to say “To the European, it is characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’” Research has shown that having a sense of purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem and decreases the chances of depression. Researchers went on to find that although happiness and meaning in life may overlap in certain ways, they ultimately are very different.

In effect, the drive toward happiness tends to be more about gratification … perhaps instant gratification … whereas meaning may involve the ‘giving of oneself’ to others which might include sacrifice in order to accomplish that goal so that happiness has to do more with accomplishing end results that tend to be of a selfish nature (like reducing stress or buying goods that make our life easier) whereas meaning has a more altruistic meaning. In my own practice as a former psychotherapist and now as a consultant, my experience in treating hundreds of people would substantiate those findings. As people presented themselves as wanting personal happiness that might be derived from obtaining something like a new car or a divorce from a nagging spouse, it wasn’t unusual for them to come back years later with complaints of a similar nature in their new surroundings despite having met their needs as originally sought.

As a society, we seem to hold onto the belief that our happiness is a god-given right and that nothing should stand in the way of our attaining it. So often, though, those who rush toward attaining that goal end up “cutting off their noses in order to spite their faces.” However, those who patiently and conscientiously seek meaning in life, despite some dissatisfaction that might be a part of living, possess a healthier and more stable sense of their lives and relationships. Meaning, therefore, needs to become the driving force in our search for happiness and as that formula is exercised, the attainment of their goal is much more assured. This may all be a testament to the adage that sacrifice and suffering build character and that putting off gratification lends itself to maturity.

(11 December 2013)


Both as a consultant and author, Charles Bonasera’s story-telling have motivated people to change patterns and resolve problems in their lives. All of his books contain valuable, practical lessons that people can easily apply to bettering and managing their lifestyles. He has also written a myriad of articles which can be found on his website at www.charlesmbonasera.com.

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