September 8, 2015
Man as the Quintessential Meaning-Craving Being
The Declaration of Independence, adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, begins with the words:
On Happiness (and the pursuit thereof), the Search for Meaning, and Purpose
Last updated September 14, 2015 at
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Although there is some uncertainty as to what inspired Thomas Jefferson to write these words
--whether it was John Locke, the Virginia Declaration of Rights, or some other source--there is no debate that they have had a strong influence on the development of this country's ethos, culture, and even political discourse.
An unhealthy obsession
Ours is a culture striving for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, perhaps epitomized best by F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel the Great Gatsby
, and the more recent (2006) Will Smith movie, The Pursuit of Happyness
We almost take it for granted that we should seek to be happy, even to the point where if we are not
happy, we think something is wrong with us. We tell our crying children to be thankful and happy because they have a roof over their heads and have food to eat, when plenty of other children don't: "Think of the poor starving children in [country X] who have nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep."
Yes, it's true that being mindful of your blessings is important--indeed Thanktime
is partly about that--but we should also be careful to not corrupt children by perpetuating a two-fold lie.
What is this two-fold lie? Well, (1) that seeking happiness is a worthwhile goal to focus on, and (2) that it's ok to base your happiness on the relative unhappiness of others. I would posit to you that both propositions are not only incorrect but actually lead down a treacherous and dangerous path. Instead of searching for happiness, we should be (3) seeking to find meaning and purpose.
1) Why seeking happiness is futile, not worthwhile
In American high schools, many students read, as I did, Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning
. The novel is often used as a tool to explore the horrors of the holocaust, and to discuss the indomitable strength of the human spirit under atypically harsh conditions. Both of these reasons are valid and good.
A third, sometimes overlooked reason, but perhaps as equally if not more
important, is the book's exploration of the quest for meaning. During his suffering in concentration camps, Frankl developed a revolutionary approach to psychotherapy known as logotherapy
, which gave him a reason to live.
At the core of his theory is the belief that humanity's primary motivational force is meaning
, and the work of the therapist centers on helping the patient find personal meaning in life, however dismal the circumstances may be.
Searching for happiness or success is elusive, Frankl writes
, because both are by nature transient and temporary states:
Don't aim at success - the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.
I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run - in the long-run, I say! - success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.
|- Viktor Frankl |
To be clear, I'm not saying that being happy
is futile or in any way wrong--by all means, let's be happy whenever we have reasons to be happy. But if I view trying to be happy
as one of my goals, I will invariably be disappointed and feel like I'm failing, since happiness is soon replaced with unhappiness. Being unhappy is not only inevitable, but is indeed actually useful
exactly because it can lead us to discover meaning
2) Why being happy by comparing ourselves to others is unhealthy
In most law schools, students are graded not by how well they've mastered the subject, but how well they performed on a test relative to
other students. That means that your success and grade are not just based on your efforts, but perhaps actually more on someone else's demise. Is there any pedagogical value in this, i.e. does this zero-sum competition incentivize students to learn more effectively? No: most deans would tell you that law schools do this only as a service to help law firms find "the best" attorneys.
What do children internalize when you tell them to be happy because other children are not? I'm not a child psychologist, but it doesn't take much to realize that inherent in this train of thought are the problematic twin propositions that (1) comparing ourselves to others is a good metric to live by, and (2) being happy because others are not is not only acceptable, but good
The problem with these propositions, of course, is that they perpetuate the misunderstanding that we have to "beat" (and be better-off than) other people in order to be happy. This thinking invariably sets most people up for a profound sense of failure, disappointment, and a depressing void later in life. If happiness depends on how you are doing in relation to others, then of course there are going to be a lot of unhappy people. I reject outright the notion that happiness--or success--is a zero-sum game.
3) How then do we find meaning and purpose?
Frankl suggests three ways to find meaning
, and to focus your energies on:
- Creating a work or doing a deed. This is what I think he means in the quote above regarding working on something that is greater than yourself. Baha'is, for example, believe that work is a form of worship and should be performed with the same level of focus and dedication as prayer. Muslims speak of surrendering to God, as a way toward what Al-Ghazali and the Sufis call "union with God", and away from the self, or nafs. Jews believe in humanity's shared responsibility for making the world a better place through tikkun olam, meaning "repairing the world." Through service and volunteering, countless people have found both meaning and moments of happiness.
- Experiencing something or encountering someone. Through our relationships with others and with the exterior world, and through love, we have the capacity to create meaning. There is something profoundly humanistic about this. This second aspect also addresses the importance of the arts, music, and of course, reading. Through the process of trying to understand others and grasping the beauty of the universe, we create meaning. This reminds me of Erich Fromm and his excellent 1956 work The Art of Loving.
This aspect is also how I see Thanktime helping you to create meaning: by thanking and encouraging others, you create bridges for meaning. This is also why, in addition to blogging on entrepreneurship and leadership, I also write this blog on meaning.
- By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering. The key word here, which is again a remark against the obsession with happiness, is "unavoidable." Buddhists begin with the Four Noble Truths, which center around the proposition that life is suffering. Christians believe that suffering is the process of participating in the mystery of Christ, and of becoming like Christ.
The goal of making sense of our suffering is to give us a reason to get through the difficult times. Frankl, for example, found meaning in the love he had for his wife, and that powered him through the darkest days of his imprisonment. Whenever we face difficult times, there is value in asking ourselves why we need to get through it. But we also need faith to know, and accept, that we will get through it.
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Meaning
In terms of goals, finding happiness is easier to achieve, occasionally, than finding meaning. That's because finding meaning is a process
, while being happy is a state
. I know some people have had a "eureka" day when, as in the Mark Twain quote above, they discovered their life's meaning, and have since pursued it vigorously--but I certainly haven't yet. My life's meaning (and purpose) has changed over time, just like I've changed and grown over time. Noted, I haven't physically
grown--I'm still about as tall as I was in the 8th grade--but I've grown in ways that actually matter. (Chairs are wonderful tools).
The process of finding meaning is usually difficult, because it leads us to confront the most profound and perhaps scary part of our life--what Friedrich Nietzsche calls, "the abyss." Occasionally facing the abyss while not letting it swallow you
is a delicate balance to constantly strike, but an important
I know that seeking happiness is like the Sisyphean task
of pushing a rock up a cliff, only to have the rock fall back again: I know, that after every moment of happiness, I will have a moment of unhappiness. And, since I'm still regularly reassessing the ways in which my life has meaning, even the process of finding meaning sometimes also feels marked by setbacks: I still occasionally find some aspect of my life to be meaningless.
But, having the former as my goal makes me interpret my fate as bound to some circular and binary routine, like a light switch moved on and off indiscriminately and circuitously, while adopting the latter makes me find value in the routine itself, makes me focus on what I see when the light is on and to imagine what things could be like when the light is off, and makes me appreciate the diversity of answers I discover along the way.