Jewish psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl drew attention to the differences between leading a happy life and leading a meaningful one.
Having experienced the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, Frankl realized the difference between those who perished and those who survived. This same insight dawned on Frankl as a high school student when one of his teachers proclaimed to the class:
“Life is nothing more than a combustion process, a process of oxidation.”
“Sir, if this is so, then what can be the meaning of life?”
During his time in the camps, Frankl noticed that those who found meaning in their lives, even when facing imminent torture and death, were far more resilient than those who did not. In his bestselling 1946 book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” he 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.”
The book, which was listed in 1991 as one of the 10 most influential books in the United States, retells his experiences in the Theresienstadt concentration camp and his search for meaning in life. However, applying his message to American ideals of individual pursuit of happiness seems to be counterintuitive. Frankl, who passed away in 1997, wrote:
“To the European, it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’ Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically. As we see, a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy, last but not least, through actualizing the potential meaning inherent and dormant in a given situation.”
Research indicates that having a sense of purpose and meaning in life heightens overall well-being and contentment. On the other hand, a tunnel vision mindset in the pursuit of happiness leaves people more dissatisfied. According to Frankl:
“It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”
In a social perspective, leading a happy life is synonymous with being a “taker,” while leading a meaningful life is associated with being a “giver.” Happiness is centered around feeling good and selfish behavior directed towards satisfying one’s own wants and desires. On the contrary, people who have heightened meaning in their lives tend to help others in need rather than focusing exclusively on their own needs.
Martin E. P. Seligman, a leading contemporary psychological scientist, offered his opinion on leading a meaningful life in his book “Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life”:
“You use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.”
Leading a meaningful life is something unique to being human. The pursuit of meaning rather than the pursuit to happiness allows human beings to be a part of something bigger than themselves.