January 28, 2013

Meaning Versus Happiness: A Battle Within All Humans

As Americans, we are taught from birth that we have a right to the pursuit of happiness. In fact, sometimes this right becomes a commandment—we must find happiness. However, in happiness we sometimes lack something deeper, something more important: meaning. We often do not feel a sense of meaningfulness, a sense of purpose and use, when we are happy. Why is that?

The online version of the Atlantic magazine had an article about this very battle. It highlighted, explained, and challenged the notion of happiness and meaning in order to better understand quality. The article described a recent study that found people who are happy are usually “takers,” while those who have meaning are “givers.” Moreover, those who were happy might have felt good, but they were more selfish and lacked a greater impact on the world.

The differences between being happy and having meaning started within for many of the participants. Those who were happy felt good, felt life was easy, were in good physical health, and were able to buy what they needed or wanted. Those who had meaning worked to help others more than fulfill their own selfish needs and desires, which meant, in many cases, that they did not have as much financial satisfaction as the happy people, yet they had more drive and a more fulfilled life.

In order to better understand the discussion, these findings made the researchers question what, exactly, separates humans from animals?

Scientists explained that the pursuit of happiness is not what separates humans from animals. All animals pursue happiness in one way or another. The pursuit and understanding of meaning, on the other hand, is a uniquely human quality. In fact, it is something that can help people understand terrible and tragic experiences such as that which many Jews experienced from the Nazis in the 1940s.

The article used psychologist and author Viktor Frankl as a perfect example of the pursuit of meaning versus the pursuit of happiness. Frankl, a concentration camp survivor (the only of his parents and wife), used his psychological training and interests to help other prisoners cope and, frankly, live through the concentration camp by helping them find meaning. For some, that meaning lay in their children and families while others found meaning in their work.

He did not focus on happiness to help these depressed prisoners because in no way would they find happiness in the concentration camps. Rather he focused on helping them find meaning in their lives for their futures—what was to come rather than that which was happening in their present.

Before going to the concentration camps, Frankl had a young, pregnant wife, a rising career, and a visa to America. He and his wife could have avoided the devastation and tragedy of the camps completely; however, he would have had to sacrifice his parents. The Nazis were coming for his parents soon, thus he had to decide whether to take his visa and run with his new family or stay and help his parents (and ultimately other prisoners). Through a series of what he perceived as signs from heaven, Frankl decided to stay.

That decision meant Frankl gave up his happiness and continued his pursuit of it in order to fulfill meaning and purpose in his life by helping others to find meaning in their own. There was no way he was happy in the Nazi concentration camps or could have even pursued happiness. He watched people he loved suffer and die. He watched fellow human beings be treated like less than vermin by other humans. He experienced death, tragedy, destruction, and devastation on levels most of us could not being to understand.

No. He could not have been happy. Yet he found meaning.

I am not sure I believe these two ideals must be mutually exclusive. I think through meaning we can achieve happiness. Regardless, though, the lesson that the Atlantic article share is one I will not soon forget. We must move away from being takers and find happiness in being givers. We must find meaning. I end with a quote from Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning:

“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. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. 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.’”

Image Credit: Photos.com

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Rayshell E. Clapper is an Associate Professor of English at a rural college in Oklahoma where she teaches Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition classes. She has presented her original fiction and non-fiction at several conferences and events including: Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, Howlers and Yawpers Creativity Symposium, Southwest/Texas Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association Regional Conference, and Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference. Her publications include Cybersoleil Journal, Sugar Mule Literary Magazine, Red Dirt Anthology, Originals, and Oklahoma English Journal. Beyond her written works, she successfully created a writer's group in rural Oklahoma to support burgeoning writers. The written word is her passion, and all she experiences inspires that passion. She hopes to help inspire others through her words.

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