In September 1944, Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist in Vienna, was transported to Auschwitz along with his pregnant wife and parents. By the time the camp was liberated, they had been murdered, but he had survived. Soon after being freed, he spent nine days writing an account of his experiences and what he’d learned from them. It was published as Man’s Search for Meaning, which became a bestseller and remains widely read to this day.
Incredibly, while he was in Auschwitz, Frankl was able to use his skills as a therapist to help other prisoners. In his book, he describes two inmates he encountered who were both hopeless and suicidal. “In both cases,” he wrote, “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 another country. For the other, a scientist, it was a series of books that he needed to finish. What Frankl’s experiences taught him was that meaning is essential to human life, and, in some cases, can mean the difference between survival and death. He concluded “Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself – be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is.”
Frankl’s perspective is way out of step with current American culture, which is preoccupied with the individual pursuit of happiness above almost any other value. The irony is that the research clearly shows that — no matter how we define happiness – the more we chase it, the less successful we are at finding it. In one study, people who put the greatest emphasis on being happy reported 50 percent less frequent positive emotions, 35 percent less satisfaction about their life, and 75 percent more depressive symptoms than people whose priorities were elsewhere. It seems that the exclusive pursuit of individual happiness can be dangerous to your mental health.
Why might that be? Most people, when asked to define happiness, say that it’s basically about feeling good. They associate being happy with experiencing pleasure, getting what they need and want, and staying away from entanglements and challenges which might involve too much struggle or pain. The pursuit of happiness, almost by definition, is “me-focused.” Meaning, on the other hand, is about connecting with and contributing to, something outside of, and larger, than oneself. If Frankl is right, we cannot feel fully human if we only focus on our own well-being and neglect the equally important need to contribute to life.
While a meaningful life and a happy life aren’t mutually exclusive, they aren’t the same thing, either. People who only pursue happiness, for example, are often susceptible to a kind of unhappiness that Frankl termed the “Sunday neurosis” – a sense of existential emptiness or pointlessness that arises when they are momentarily free from distraction. Again, it seems that overall sense of life satisfaction isn’t just a function of how much we feel happy – we also need to feel that our lives mean something.
Conversely, when people serve a purpose larger than themselves, that same purpose can lead them into periods of intense unhappiness that they might have avoided if they had only been pursuing happiness. I think, for instance, of Harvey Milk, who struggled through years of unsuccessful political campaigns before finally becoming the first openly gay elected official in California.
Fortunately, a sense of meaning, while it can lead to unhappiness, can also increase our capacity to endure it. Nelson Mandela was able to endure twenty-seven years in prison and emerge free from bitterness and vengefulness, because he never forgot that his suffering served the larger purpose of freeing his country from apartheid. All human beings experience suffering, but if we know why we’re suffering, we’re less susceptible to despair or hopelessness because we understand, as Frankl beautifully put it “What is to give light must endure burning.”