It may sound strange coming from someone who has written dozens of blogs about happiness and taught a lot of seminars on the subject, to hear that happiness isn’t necessarily all that it’s cracked up to be. Or put another way, in terms of one’s overall quality of life, spirit, and degree of personal fulfillment, some things play a much more significant role than feelings of happiness. I’ll get to that in a minute.
In my freshman year of college I read a book that changed my life. It was at the time the most important book that I had ever read, and it continues to be to this day. It’s entitled, Man’s Search for Meaning and it was written in 1946 by the Viennese psychiatrist and neurologist, Viktor Frankl.
Frankl had been recently liberated from a concentration camp in which he had been imprisoned for several years, and shortly after receiving news that the Nazis executed his entire family, including his wife, pregnant with their first child, his brother, and both of his parents, as well as many other relatives.
What Frankl personally witnessed and experienced during his incarceration led him to a conclusion that to this day stands as one of the most succinct and profound statements ever written about the human condition. That is that “everything can be taken from a [person] but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” The circumstances in which Frankl lived during the war years, were beyond horrific. His writings were not simply expressions of a theory, but were grounded in his daily self-reflection on his own experience and his observation of countless other inmates and how they did or did not manage to survive unspeakable conditions.
Frankl discovered that the primary variable that influenced the likelihood of whether his fellow prisoners survived of perished had to do with the degree to which they were identified with a purpose larger than themselves, particularly one in which they saw themselves as contributing in some meaningful way to the enhancement of the quality of others’ lives. He claimed that those prisoners who suffered the physical and mental cruelties of the camps and managed to survive also tended to be the ones who sought and found the wherewithal to share the little they had, a comforting word, a crust of bread, or an act of simple kindness with others. Giving to others was of course not a guarantee of survival, but it was a way of sustaining a sense of purpose and meaning in the face of overwhelmingly brutal conditions. Without purpose of meaning, our life spirit diminishes and we become more vulnerable to physical and mental stressors.
While it’s natural to prefer happiness to suffering, Frankl recognized the paradox that a sense of purpose and meaning often is born out of adversity and pain, and he understood the potentially redemptive value in suffering. The recognition that there can be some good that comes out of our most painful experiences can be the central factor in the process of transforming suffering into purpose.
In the January 2013 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, in her article entitled, There’s More to Life than Being Happy, Emily Esfahani Smith writes, “Research has shown that having meaning and purpose in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency and self esteem, and decreases the chances of depression.” She goes on to state that according to recent research, “the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy.”
Happiness is usually associated or confused with pleasure, which has to do with experiencing enjoyable feelings and sensations. We feel happy when a need or desire is fulfilled, when we get what we want. The researcher, Kathleen Vohs claims that “Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others, while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others.”
A 2011 study concluded that people who have meaning in their lives through a clearly defined purpose, rate their life satisfaction higher even when they were feeling bad, than those without a sense of purpose.
Several years prior to writing his groundbreaking book, Viktor Frankl was already living from a deep sense of purpose that at times required him to forego personal desires in favor of his commitment to fulfill other, purpose-driven intentions. In 1941 Austria had already been occupied by the Germans for three years. Frankl knew that it was just a matter of time before his parents would be taken away. At the time he was already distinguished internationally for his contributions to the field of psychology and had a widespread reputation. He had applied for and was given a visa to America where he and his wife would be safe from the Nazis, but as it became evident that his parents would inevitably be sent to a concentration camp, he recognized that he had to choose between rejecting his visa to America to help his parents make the painful and difficult adjustment to the camps, or to go to America to save himself and his wife and further pursue his career. After considerable deliberation he understood that his deepest purpose was in his loyalty and responsibility to his aging parents. He made the decision to put aside his individual pursuits, stay in Vienna and dedicate his life to being in service to his parents and later, to other inmates in the camps.
Frankl’s experiences during this time served to form the basis of his theoretical and clinical work that has since profoundly impacted on the quality of life for millions of people worldwide.
Viktor Frankl died in 1997 at the age of 92. He spent his post-war years continuing to embody his commitment to serve through his teaching, his writings, and many other forms of contribution to the welfare of humanity. His life served as a stunning example of one man’s extraordinary capacity to find and create meaning in a life that was at times characterized by indescribable physical and emotional suffering. He was literally living proof of the claim that we all have the power to choose our attitude in any given set of conditions, regardless of what the circumstances are, and that the choice that we make is the determining factor in the quality of our life. While there may be times when the ability to choose to feel happy doesn’t seem available to us, there is never a time in which we lack the ability to choose our attitude. Frankl’s life, more so than his written words, affirms that we all possess the power to make and act on this choice. It was, beyond any fragment of a doubt, a life well-lived.
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