Forget happiness, search for meaning instead
Written by: Rowan Turrall, BSc (Hons), PG Dip, MBACP
A quick glance through newspapers and online shows that search for happiness is top of the news agenda. Whereas questions like: What does life mean? What is my purpose? Am I living according to my values? Often feel like they are reserved for philosophers and priests.
For existentialists considering these questions is essential to living a meaningful life. Happiness is a transitory blessing as fragile as a soap bubble and, despite our best efforts, often prey to things outside of control. Instead if we focus on finding out what we value and living a meaningful life, often happiness will ensue. However, this can be very difficult. In our modern world there is such an external focus on goals, achievements and keeping moving at all costs – it can be easy to lose our way. Over time if we are not careful a gap can develop between the life we envisioned and the one we find ourselves living. Often clients come to therapy feeling lost, apathetic and not knowing how to move forward. This can be seen as a crisis for meaning, and therapy, as Eric Berne said, is the search for value. Identifying what values we prize acts as a compass steering us true even in our darkest times. As Nietzsche said: ‘He who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'.
One man’s search for meaning
No story exemplifies this principle more than that of Viktor Frankl.
Viktor Frankl was Jewish psychiatrist who in the build up to WWII was offered an opportunity to leave Austria to lecture in America. But the visa only allowed him to take his wife, leaving the rest of his family behind to face the Nazi’s alone. Torn as to what to do he went to the synagogue to pray. When he returned home lying practically on his doorstep was the bombed fragments from a local synagogue. Engraved on the stone was part of the Ten Commandments: 'honor thy father and mother'.
He chose to stay in Austria where he was imprisoned in the concentration camps, along with all of his family. Suffering almost unbearable hardship it was here his views of man’s search for meaning were formed.. Suffered almost unbearable hardship it was here his views of man’s search for meaning were formed. In his own words:
‘We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through huts, comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that 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.
‘The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add deeper meaning to his life.’
Frankl survived World War II and emerged from the concentration camp marred, broken but alive. But his wife, father, mother, brothers, everybody except his sister was dead. Afterwards he founded Logotherapy an existential movement focused on finding meaning and purpose in life. Even in the worst circumstances being able to ascribe meaning to events, whether it’s is faith in god, or humanity or our own better natures, allows us to transcend our circumstances.
Homework – what is your purpose?
Try this visualisation at home. After a long and fulfilled life you are lying on your deathbed. Looking back over your life, what did you value? When you go what impact will you leave?
Some of the common values people come up with are:
Altruistic – performing acts to leave this world better than when you've entered it.
Creativity – making something beautiful or useful or both.
Connection – whether it’s to a partner, family or friends; a higher power; or even to nature.
Faith – a belief in a unifying principle that adds meaning to your life.
Your meaning may align closely with one of the values listed above. Or it may be a combination that’s unique to you.
Now think about your life now. Are you actively living these values and creating meaning in your life? What small steps can you take to live a life that better aligns with what you value?
I will leave you with Frankl's words:
‘We can discover the meaning of life in three different ways:
1. By creating work or doing a deed;
2. by experiencing something or encountering someone;
3. by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.
‘To the European, it is characteristic of 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. Whether it is through faith or doing – meaning is everything.’