Happiness Vs. Meaning

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Recently, I stumbled upon Viktor Frankl’s review of happiness and meaning in life. Finals week is quickly approaching and it tends to be a sink or swim type of week for college students. You either excel under the pressure of taking six exams in a week on top of writing papers, or you become buried beneath the pressure. I’ve wondered why some people survive under pressure so well while others do not, and Fankl’s point of view is an interesting take on meaning in a person’s life. During his time in high school, Frankl was educated by a teacher who stated, “Life is nothing more than a combustion process, a process of oxidation.” It caused him to contemplate the meaning of human existence if the sole meaning of living as to expire.

There has to be a happy medium between meaning in life and happiness. Without a middle ground, the spectrum can be thrown off balance and cause issues. Frankl believed that it was crucial for people to have an awareness for what their meaning was in life, and that this consciousness would lead to happiness. He believed that without a sense of meaning in life, happiness was essentially detrimental and could cause more injury than pleasure if the individual did not seek out greater meaning from their life.

if you do not know who Viktor Frankl is, here is a little background on Viktor Frankl: he was an acclaimed Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in the 1940s. He was arrested in 1942 and delivered to a Nazi concentration camp with his wife and parents where he was held prisoner for three years. In this period of time Viktor and both of his parents were held captive as well as his expecting wife, who passed away while he survived.

In his book, written in 1946 titled “Man’s Search for Meaning,” he contemplated the difference between those who had perished, and those who had survived in the camps: meaning. Why had he, prisoner 119104, survived while the ones he had loved and adored most wasted away. He wrote the book in nine days and found that the individuals who discovered meaning in the repugnant situation they faced, they were more likely to be irrepressible and remain buoyant through their afflictions. Those who did not hold meaning in their lives and the situation they endured were more likely to drown under the weight. “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,” he wrote.

Frankl’s collection of thoughts allows contemplation over the deeper meaning of life and what “meaning” does for us as humans. While happiness is a beautiful thing, it does not allow strength in the darkest of times. Meaning, on the other hand, allows the human mind to become pliable and contemplate the more complex reason for their existence. For these reasons, “Man’s Search for Meaning” was nominated in 1991 as one of the 10 most influential books in the United States by the Library of Congress. Suffering has specific beneficial qualities that must not be looked past, similar to the importance of having to hold oneself accountable and execute a specific function in society.

The difference between Frankl’s notion of meaning’s significance in life and our society, is that oftentimes we take the easy way out. It is easier to focus on happiness and numbing whatever issue you are facing, than to exude resilience by wading through the issues slowly.

Life throws us all trials and tribulations that we must either endure or overcome in some nature. According to Frankl, “When we are no longer able to change the situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” This can be applied to nearly any aspect of your life in which you are forced to adapt. One example Frankl uses in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” is a comparison of two suicidal captives in the camps. Frankl worked as a psychiatrist in the camps and had the opportunity to examine the two men’s psyches. He found that both men’s issues were comprised of the same type of hopelessness. The men believed they had irremediable problems that were irreparable; one’s stemmed from the separation from his child who was abroad seeking asylum in a foreign country, and the other a pressured scientist who was compelled to complete a set of books. Their loss of optimism caused a lack of desire to live. Frankl wrote, “In both cases, 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.” He continued on to say, “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’.”

So why is this all important? The book was written over 60 years ago in a concentration camp, right? According to a Harris Poll, 1 in 3 Americans say they are very happy. The Gallup Poll states that happiness levels among Americans are reaching an all time high, and that nearly 60 percent of Americans experience happiness without excessive stress or hardship. According to Regina Corso, Senior Vice President of the Harris Poll, “Our happiness index offers insight into what’s on the minds of Americans today and is a reflection of the state of affairs in our country… For certain groups, such as minorities, recent graduates and the disabled, they are actually sub-segments of the American population where ‘happiness’ has trended downward in the last couple years.” For all cohorts, a Gallup Poll reflected that only 67 percent of those surveyed were optimistic about the future. This could be a side effect of the depleted economy or rising college tuition fees. As shared by the Huffington Post, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D. University of California psychology professor and author of “The Myths of Happiness,” states, “It’s often negative experiences that help us grow and learn, which is vital for being happy.”

When it comes to meaning, we have more questions to ask: 4 out of 10 Americans have not established or uncovered a gratifying purpose in life according to the Center for Disease Control. Approximately 1 in 4 of Americans cannot identify a specific meaningful quality that adds value or meaning to their lives.

The reason this is all important is because through all of life’s hardships and adversity, we as a younger generation are developing the skills to be able to live a life of meaning and happiness. Happiness is not an overrated factor in life, but finding meaning in the difficult situations we face allows our generation to persevere and live more contently afterwards. By discovering meaning in our lives, we are able to establish what our purpose is in society, which will ultimately bring happiness and satisfaction.

By solely focusing on happiness, we are neglecting the big picture of immediate gratification. This ultimately leads to a happiness that is rooted primarily in satisfying the immediate situation rather than contemplating what the big picture looks like; it also tends to be a more superficial and inauthentic form of happiness that fades over time. Meaning causes a more pure type of happiness that is longer lasting according to researchers.

Happiness contrasted with meaning reveals that happiness is centered around immediate indulgence to satiate the desire to feel good. It’s also focused on “self” rather than being a contributor and putting the work in. Seeking happiness corresponds to egocentric behavior and lacks a sense of community. In layman’s terms: people are happy when they get what they want.

Rather than focusing on immediate contentment, it is important for us as individuals to take the time to figure out what is important to us. It’s a daunting task to establish meaning in life, but it will lead to a greater recompense in the long run.

I'm the founder and Editor in Chief here at Cosmia Magazine. I'm currently an undergraduate student at SDSU where I am studying Speech Language Pathology. I am part of Pi Beta Phi here in San Diego, have my own photography website called Kaitlyn Photography, and love to write. I am a coffee fanatic, love the beach, adore mom & pop breakfast restaurants, and think a picture is worth a thousand words.