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There's More to Life Than Being Happy
Meaning comes from the pursuit of more complex things than happiness
by Emily Esfahani Smith, January 9, 2013, The Atlantic (adapted)
"It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness."
During World War II, in September 1942, Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish
psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was arrested and transported to a Nazi
concentration camp with his wife and parents. Three years later, when his camp was
liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had died -- but he, prisoner
number 119104, had lived. In his bestselling 1946 book, Man's Search for Meaning,
about his experiences during the war, Frankl concluded that the difference between
those who had lived and those who had died came down to one thing: Meaning, an
insight that he came to early in life. When he was a high school student, one of his
science teachers declared to the class, "Life is nothing more than a combustion
process, a process of oxidation." Frankl jumped out of his chair and responded, "Sir,
if this is so, then what can be the meaning of life?"
As he saw in the Nazi concentration camps, those who found meaning even
in the most terrible circumstances were far more resilient to suffering than those
who did not. "Everything can be taken from a man but one thing," Frankl wrote in
Man's Search for Meaning, "[It is] the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's
attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."
Frankl worked as a therapist in the camps, and in his book, he gives the
example of two suicidal inmates he encountered there. Like many others in the
camps, these two men were hopeless and thought that there was nothing more to
expect from life, nothing to live for. "In both cases," Frankl writes, "it was a question
of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them;
something in the future was expected of them." For one man, it was his young child,
who was then living in a foreign country. For the other, a scientist, it was a series of
books that he needed to finish. Frankl writes:
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."
In 1991, the Library of Congress and Book-of-the-Month Club listed Man's
Search for Meaning as one of the 10 most influential books in the United States. It
has sold millions of copies worldwide. Now, over twenty years later, the book's
message -- its emphasis on meaning, the value of suffering, and responsibility to
something greater than the self -- seems to be at odds with our culture, which is
more interested in the pursuit of individual happiness than in the search for
meaning. Frankl writes, "It is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and
again, one is commanded and ordered to 'be happy.' But happiness cannot be chased
after; it must develop. One must have a reason to 'be happy.'"
Wide-spread research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life
increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical
health, increases resiliency and self-esteem, and decreases the chances of
depression. On top of that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically
leaving people less happy, according to recent research. Likewise, in Man’s Search
for Meaning, Frankl asserts, "It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts
This is why some researchers are cautioning against the pursuit of only
happiness. In a new study, which will be published in 2013 in the Journal of Positive
Psychology, psychological scientists asked nearly 400 Americans aged 18 to 78
whether they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy. Examining their
self-reported attitudes toward meaning, happiness, and many other variables -- like
stress levels, spending patterns, and having children -- over a month-long period,
the researchers found that a meaningful life and a happy life overlap in some ways,
but are overall very different. Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is
associated with being a "taker" while leading a meaningful life corresponds with
being a "giver."
The researchers concluded that "happiness without meaning characterizes a
relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, and
one’s needs and desires may be easily satisfied, but difficulties are avoided."
How do the happy life and the meaningful life differ? Happiness, they found,
is about feeling good. Specifically, the researchers found that people who are happy
tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, they are able to buy
the things that they need and want, and they do not suffer from stress or worry.
While not having enough money decreases how happy and meaningful you consider
your life to be, it has a much greater impact on happiness than it does on meaning.
Most importantly from a social perspective, the pursuit of happiness is
associated with selfish behavior -- being, as mentioned, a "taker" rather than a
"giver." The psychologists give an evolutionary explanation for this: happiness is
about drive reduction. If you have a need or a desire -- like hunger -- you satisfy it,
and that makes you happy. People become happy, in other words, when they get
what they want. Humans, then, are not the only ones who can feel happy. Animals
have needs and drives, too, and when those drives are satisfied, animals also feel
happy, the researchers point out.
In sum, what sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of
happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning,
which is unique to humans. By putting aside our selfish interests to serve someone
or something larger than ourselves -- by devoting our lives to "giving" rather than
"taking" -- we are not only expressing our fundamental humanity, but are also
acknowledging that that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple