I recently read Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl was a psychologist and holocaust survivor. He survived four Nazi death camps, including Auschwitz, and overcame the death of his wife, unborn child, parents, and the loss of his life’s work on Logotherapy. Events that would cripple any man, Frankl rose above. He found meaning and purpose in his suffering to overcome despair.
Man’s Search for Meaning is listed as one of the top 10 most influential books in the United States. Certainly, it has influenced my own life in great ways. And while I have yet to find meaning in my own life, I know what I no longer find meaningful to pursue: happiness. According to Frankl happiness cannot be pursued. It is a futile effort. Rather, happiness must ensue. From what? From the search and practice of a meaningful life.
Meaning, according to Frankl, can be found in one of three places: 1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone, and (3) by the attitude one takes towards unavoidable suffering. This explanation alone makes little sense of Frankl’s work. To simply read these conclusions, which Frankl arrived after a long and prodigious practice and after surviving 3 years of Nazi imprisonment, is like learning the plot twist at the end of a good thriller without having read the book. The full effect of the revelation is lost by not experiencing the journey. It is one thing to know something, quite another to understand it. If you want to understand the meaning in Frankl’s words, I suggest reading Man’s Search for Meaning.
Like all great lessons, the one Frankl teaches has taken time to sink in. This is one reason for writing this post. As Frankl’s lesson begins to dawn on me I realize, just as knowing and understanding are different, so too are understanding and practicing. And pursuing a meaningful and purposeful life in lieu of happiness in a world that pushes happiness on us is quite difficult.
This is especially true in North American culture, where happiness is sold as a commodity and where people are expected to actively pursue happiness. Frankl realized this in the 1980s when he said, “To the European, it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’” But you don‘t need to go far back to see how happiness is pushed on us. The self-help industry is booming in North America, promising us everything from friends to success, to confidence. According to Forbes magazine the industry, which includes books, life coaches, seminars and such, was worth $11 billion in 2008, and was estimated to grow by 6.2% through 2012. Self-help-improvement is one of the fastest growing genres in the publishing industry. Algis Valiunas of The New Atlantis writes an eviscerating critique of North America‘s growing obsession with the genre. William Davies, author of The Happiness Industry (2015), writes that it‘s not only individuals but corporations and governments that are also interested in our happiness for their own nefarious reasons. Here is a list of a hundred blogs from tens of thousands dedicated to happiness through self-improvement (don’t you want to improve yourself?). North America’s most famous slogans include “Just do it!” and “Open Happiness” (come on, what’s wrong with you?!). Whether it’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” “The 4-hour Work Week,” “The Secret,” Life Hacks, or McDonalds (I’m Loving It!), these goods and services all tell us the same thing: that we can – and should – be happy or happier.
Though others may sell happiness, the desire to purchase it comes from within. Frankl uses the Existential Vacuum as a metaphor for the void that forms in us when we lack meaning and purpose. We feel this void like an insistent tug at the edge of our consciousness. We try to fill the void with simple pleasures like food, alcohol, sex, drugs, or more ‘worthy’ callings like work, money, success, and power. But the void is insatiable. Any reprieve we feel from its pull is temporary. This might explain why the self-help-improvement market has one of the highest rates of recidivism, a fact that publishers make good use of.
The Existential Vacuum manifests itself in different ways, including a transient condition Frankl called Sunday Neurosis:
“[…] the kind of depression which afflicts people who become aware of the lack of content in their lives when the rush of the busy week is over and the void within themselves becomes manifest. […] Such widespread phenomena as depression, aggression, and addiction are not understandable unless we recognize the existential vacuum underlying them. This is also true of the crises of pensioners and aging people.”
Boredom is another manifestation of the Existential Vacuum: a lack of things to do, or motivation to do them, when we have the time and means to do most anything we want. “Now we can understand Schopenhauer when he said that mankind was apparently doomed to vacillate eternally between the two extremes of distress and boredom.” We keep ourselves busy – in distress – lest the void rear its ugly head in the shape of boredom.
But whether it’s keeping busy, pursuing power and success, or sex and excess, the Existential Vacuum is occupied only temporarily. Our pursuit of happiness is then a pursuit of temporary pleasures and vocations in an attempt to fill the void or forget its existence.
“But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to “be happy.” […] 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. This need for a reason is similar in another specifically human phenomenon – laughter. If you want anyone to laugh you have to provide him with a reason, e.g., you have to tell him a joke. In no way is it possible to evoke real laughter by urging him, or having him urge himself, to laugh. Doing so would be the same as urging people posed in front of a camera to say “cheese,” only to find that in the finished photographs their faces are frozen in artificial smiles.”
This subtle distinction between pursuing purpose VS pleasure might seem paltry. After all, we all want happiness, yes? Perhaps. But happiness is an outcome, not a method. It is a result of, not a process to. When we focus on the result, we forget about the process. When we focus on happiness, we forget the things that bring about happiness. This is not a Jedi mind trick, where you simply fool your mind into wanting one thing while secretly desiring the other. Happiness can only be the unintended, unsought, and undesirable outcome of a pursuit greater than one’s self. The fact that happiness is a self-orienting concept validates this. When you think of happiness, you put yourself at the centre of your universe. Everything becomes about ‘me.’ Purpose is about putting someone or something else first. It’s about ‘forgetting yourself.’ And we are at our happiest when we forget ourselves. When we’re playing a game of hockey, League of Legends, when we’re laughing with friends, with loved ones, when we’re arguing about the things we believe in, when we’re engrossed in a book, movie, or song, when we’re dancing like no one’s watching and singing like no one’s listening, whatever it is that makes us forget who we are and what we want and focus on someone or something else, that is when we are happiest.
“I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic ‘the self-transcendence of human existence.’ It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself – be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.”
Now comes the crux of the matter: if we are to pursue meaning in lieu of happiness, where does one find meaning? This Frankl has already answered (third paragraph). If this answer feels unsatisfactory or frustrating, that’s okay. The search for meaning is and should be a frustrating one. Frankl only points in the direction. It is our journey to take.
The good news is there is meaning to be found and purpose to pursue. Not some ultimate Purpose, written in the stars or in the books of men or gods. I don’t think there is such a thing, not that we will ever be privy to. The purpose to a man’s life can be as numerous as there are individuals. You decide your purpose. You pick your journey. So ask not what meaning is there to life, but what meaning you choose to give your life. And life does not need to have one, single meaning through its entirety. That’s too much to ask of yourself. Your purpose can – and should – change with the seasons and circumstance. Your purpose today can be different from tomorrow’s. And that’s okay.
Since reading Man’s Search for Meaning I have been searching for my own purpose. Some days I search frantically, other days more leisurely. I no longer worry about finding happiness. Or rather, I have to remind myself not to worry. Old habits die hard. If it comes, I will be grateful. In the meantime, the search continues. I hope I find my purpose soon.
And I hope you find yours.
“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”
All quotes taken from Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl (2006 edition by Beacon Press)