By Michael Winters
Part 2: Meaning is available even when happiness is not.
Imagine that you are representing pro bono a 19-year-old client who is seeking asylum. She has fled her home country, a land in which women are considered second-class citizens and corruption is rampant. Her husband has disfigured her in an acid attack and has promised that next time he will succeed in killing her. Her children have been taken from her, and she has no resources. Despite this, she is confident in the American judicial system. After a year in a detention center and despite your best efforts, she is denied asylum as a matter of course and is summarily deported. In this situation, attempting to derive pleasure or happiness would not be appropriate. But seeking meaning from the experience could be beneficial.
As exemplified in this scenario, it is not always possible to experience happiness. However, extracting meaning from experiences is always possible. Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, dedicated his life to helping people identify meaning, even in the most desperate of circumstances. Frankl survived three years in Nazi concentration camps, where he lost most of his family, including his pregnant wife. Yet despite such heart-wrenching loss, he managed to derive meaning from it and, in 1946, published the now classic Man’s Search for Meaning, which has sold more than 10 million copies. His insights remain relevant today.
What is happiness?
Like Justice Potter Stewart’s relationship with pornography, for most of us, happiness falls into the category of we “know it when . . . [we] see it.” Many psychologists describe happiness as “subjective well-being.” Positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky offers a more detailed definition, describing happiness as the experience of “joy, contentment, or positive well-being.”
What is meaning (and why is it a worthy pursuit)?
As with happiness, pinpointing what meaning is can be complicated. Meaning comes from interconnectedness and the perception that we are needed and what we do is valuable and valued. Meaning is derived from a sense of, and a devotion to, accomplishing a particular purpose of which we are proud.
Let’s go back to the scenario above. To be needed, appreciated, and acknowledged, to devote yourself to a worthy cause or for the benefit of a deserving person is a powerful sensation. The outcome does not diminish the experience of doing something so positive and so good as aiding another human being.
Further, this scenario also illustrates that happiness is not always achievable. When we make happiness our primary focus, we don’t engage in relationships and opt out of more noble pursuits. A person primarily motivated by his own happiness would not engage such a client. Yet in declining to do so, he denies himself the experience of feeling the range of emotions of which we, as humans, are capable, and thus denies himself opportunities for richness and the derivative sense of reward.
When we seek happiness at the expense of a life well lived, we limit and devalue the significance of our lives. Pursuing happiness is a worthwhile task, but it is not what defines human beings as moral agents. Happiness is not all that there is.
As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Put another way, a meaningful life provides greater fulfillment than a happy one—so much so, that it can anchor us in the most miserable of circumstances, when happiness evades us and, in its absence, does nothing to sustain us.
Meaning vs. happiness
In a 2013 study,* researchers found support for their hypothesis that, while happiness and meaning share many commonalities, they diverge in very significant ways. “Happiness,” Frankl noted, “cannot be pursued . . . [i]t must ensue,” whereas the search for meaning is completely within our control “to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” is the “last of human freedoms” and can never be taken from us.
This study found that, while stress and worry correlate with lower happiness, they are associated with higher meaning. The authors hypothesize that this is explainable because stress and worry are signs of engagement with life. Happiness is self-focused and thus not related to relationships or derivative interconnectedness. Further, the research underscored that the more people focus on past challenges and struggles, the higher their meaning but the lower their happiness. Helping others was also related to higher meaning but lower happiness.
Acknowledgment of this reality can result in a reorganization of priorities, as well a different measuring stick by which we evaluate ourselves, our successes, and our quality of life. In redirecting our energies in the pursuit of a meaningful life—goals such as living with integrity, prioritizing others, and helping those in need—we may discover a greater sense of fulfillment. And, as Frankl noted, happiness may ensue “as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself.”
* Baumeister, R.; Vohs, K.D., Aaker, J.L. & Garbinsky, E. N. Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life. The Journal of Positive Psychology, Vol. 8(6), Nov., 2013. pp. 505-516.
Michael Winters is a psychologist in Houston. He has cultivated his practice around the concept of meaning-centered living and is a frequent guest on local television and radio programs. For more information, go to DrMWinters.com.