Meaning and Happiness

Which is a more important pursuit in life: meaning or happiness?


Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was transported to a Nazi concentration camp in September 1942. When the camp was liberated three years later, he was his family’s sole survivor. Dr. Frankl used his experiences to write his bestselling book Man’s Search for Meaning in 1946, which he completed in only nine days. Frankl, whom the Nazis used to treat suicidal prisoners in the camps, concluded that the difference between those who lived and died came down to one thing: meaning.

People who find a meaningful purpose to their suffering are far more resilient than those who fail to do so.

“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,” Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning. Two suicidal inmates that Frankl encountered in the concentration camps profoundly shaped his observations and conclusions. One patient had a child in a foreign country. The second patient was a scientist who had unfinished work and writing to complete. Both anticipated something beyond their present circumstance waiting for them to finish and fulfill.

Frankl wrote, “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.'”

A recent Gallup poll showed Americans’ happiness levels peaking at a four-year high. Yet, according the Centers for Disease Control, a full 40% of Americans have not found a meaning or purpose to their lives. Psychologists have found that happiness is associated with personal comfort and ease, while leading a meaningful life corresponds with a generous, outwardly-directed, often sacrificial focus on serving society. A study soon to be published in a future issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology led its primary authors to conclude that “happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.”

In short, happy people derive much satisfaction from receiving, while those that find meaning find intrinsic reward from giving. Serving others and finding meaning in life are uniquely human pursuits which do not necessarily or naturally lead to happiness. Pursuit of individual comfort is not a uniquely human endeavor; animals are capable of pursuing happiness when satisfying their natural drives. Most importantly, according to researchers, is the fact that meaning transcends the present moment. Happiness is a simple, passing emotion that is felt and experienced merely momentarily, whereas meaning transcends emotion and time. Meaning is a chain that connects past, present and future together. A 2011 study confirmed that experiencing negative events decreases one’s happiness but can potentially increase one’s ability to find meaning in life. Further studies have shown that spending large amounts of time contemplating the past or future leads to a relatively meaningful but unhappy life.

Frankl seemed to agree: “If there is meaning in life at all,” he wrote, “then there must be meaning in suffering.” Living and thinking solely in the present might make a person happier, but it will not contribute to a greater purpose. In yet another 2011 study, people who described their lives as having meaning and a clearly defined purpose also rated their life satisfaction higher than those who reported they did not feel they had such purpose, even when experiencing negative feelings and emotions.

Serving others takes many forms. The most obvious and highly valued appear to be those which serve the homeless, battle injustice, or raise up young children. Often overlooked are the contributions of thinkers and creators, though these gifts too provide purpose, as the example of Frankl’s two suicidal inmates in the concentration camp illustrate. One had a commonly recognized, valued role to fulfill as a parent to a child in a different country. The other was a scientist who was tremendously motivated by his unfinished work and writing.

Polymaths have a myriad of choices to pursue, and they often value seeking meaning and purpose in their lives. Academic work and creative efforts can greatly help enlighten and bring beauty to our world. It can be a hard-fought, underappreciated pursuit, but it is certainly important to the creator and ultimately to society and culture as well.

This article was posted with permission on Kristi Seaton’s behalf. It was authored by Kristi Seaton and edited by Kayliana Wesby.

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About Michael Barnathan

Michael Barnathan is a computer scientist, inventor, educator, and semiprofessional photographer. He is also the founder of Project Polymath, something which he left a Senior Software Engineer position at Google to pursue. He holds a Ph. D. in Computer and Information Sciences from Temple University. When he isn't busy with the complexities of starting a university, he enjoys inventing devices such as EEG helmets, raising the survival rate for breast cancer through diagnostic computer algorithms, composing music, and birdwatching.