Pursuit of Happiness, Meaning and Joy

Me Walking

By Julia Drendel

The “pursuit of happiness” is guaranteed in the US Constitution. Notice that happiness is not guaranteed, only the pursuit of happiness. Nevertheless, modern American society is colored by this basic guaranty, and much of modern American life can be attributed to the sacrosanct pursuit of happiness. Many also mistake the freedom to pursue happiness with happiness itself.

We live in a world in which our lives tend to be measured by how happy we are. Many among us feel that we have a right to be happy, and many among us are disappointed, angry and even indignant when happiness eludes them. Indeed, happiness is an elusive creature. I have written on this before.

I go to thinking about the subject again as I read about, Viktor Frankl, a Viennese psychiatrist, who says this:

“It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”


The statement comes at a very personal price for Frankl and his family, who were victims of the Holocaust. Only Frankl survived. His views on this subject carry some unusual weight as a result of his experience. His conclusion is that there is something far more powerful, far more important to life, than happiness – and that is meaning.

He learned early on that those who found meaning in life, even in the more horrendous circumstances, were “far more resilient to suffering than those who did not.” “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Frankl goes on to conclude that a meaningful life often leads to a happy life, but happiness pursued for its own sake usually leads to an unhappy, unfulfilled and shallow existence. Meaning, in the end, is what differentiates human being from animals. Happiness is a base feeling that is shared by humans and animals alike. Meaning is what human beings different and what we are meant for.

This is no theoretical exercise for Frankl. He lived it. He was a prodigy. He rose quickly to acclaim, becoming the chief of neurology at Vienna’s Rothschild Hospital as the Nazi threat loomed. Newly married, he obtained a visa to escape the cataclysm he knew was coming. But, he was faced with a dilemma: escape to America or stay and protect his parents. Emily Esfahani Smith describes the choice he made this way in her article in the Atlantic, There’s More to Life than Being Happy:

As Anna S. Redsand recounts in her biography of Frankl, he was at a loss for what to do, so he set out for St. Stephan’s Cathedral in Vienna to clear his head. Listening to the organ music, he repeatedly asked himself, “Should I leave my parents behind?… Should I say goodbye and leave them to their fate?” Where did his responsibility lie? He was looking for a “hint from heaven.”

When he returned home, he found it. A piece of marble was lying on the table. His father explained that it was from the rubble of one of the nearby synagogues that the Nazis had destroyed. The marble contained the fragment of one of the Ten Commandments — the one about honoring your father and your mother. With that, Frankl decided to stay in Vienna and forgo whatever opportunities for safety and career advancement awaited him in the United States. He decided to put aside his individual pursuits to serve his family and, later, other inmates in the camps.

The article focuses on the importance of meaning in people’s lives, and the enduring quality of meaning as compared to happiness. Frankl observes that giving is to meaning as taking is to happiness, and  Frankl ultimately exalts living a life of meaning as being human:

“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.”

But I would take it a step further.

For Frankl, the experience that led him to stay by his parents’ side, which led to his own interment in a prison camp, might be described as spiritual, but he came away with a very humanistic conclusion. Whether he made the spiritual connection, I will. The hint from heaven that he sought was provided in the fragment of the broken Ten Commandments. Was it not an answer to prayer from a personal God who heard his cry for an answer?

Maybe it was not the answer he wanted. Looking back, a different “sign” might certainly have portended a more comfortable, happier and less painful path. In fact, I could not imagine a more difficult road to walk. It may seem like some small comfort that God directed it.

But God knows the path that Frankl walked. He experienced a similar path Himself. Humbling Himself to take on human form, He humbled Himself even further – born as a vulnerable child to parents of humble means in a manger made for animals; Jesus lived a life of obedience to the Father, a life dedicated to one thing – the salvation of mankind – and he humbled Himself ultimately to submit to tortuous death at the hands of His own creation from itself.

Along the way, Jesus spoke to all mankind when he said things like, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24); and “he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.” (Matt. 23:11-12) His disciples carried on in the same direction: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” (Phil. 2:3)

The things that Frankl discovered are similar to what Jesus taught.

In my opinion, truth is truth. But there is more. While we are, indeed, something different altogether from the animals, in that we can grasp meaning, and beauty and philosophical thought, there is still something more. These things are not simply human. They are the fingerprint of God.

Indeed, we did not create ourselves. We stand in time and space, specks in the seemingly infinite canvass of time and space, subject to the travails of a Universe that balances on a razor’s edge. The Universe, itself, and all that is in it, and especially mankind, point to an Intelligent Source. Does life really spring from inanimate objects? Do reason and intelligence grow out of random and irrational processes and matter? Does a reaction cause itself?

For me, meaning must be more deeply rooted than human kind. I see in people the image of God. While so many things make so little sense in this world, I see in Christ the ultimate intention of God to lift us out of this existence that we, for whatever reason, find ourselves. In Christ is the hope of glory that is God. In relationship with God, the Intelligent Source of this Universe, is our destiny and the fulfillment of that meaning for which we have been created.

The fact that this God humbled His very Self to become as vulnerable as us, to connect with us, to direct us in the way He planned (love God and love others), to give us hope of that for which we long – eternal life in relationship  with Him in a “place” where there are no more tears, no pain and no death – is all the proof I need to know that I can trust this God. In spite, of the evil that I see, and especially the evil perpetrated by men on men, I can have faith in a God who knows us intimately, knows what it is like to be like us, and has overcome the darkness that we live in.

The happiness that we pursue to today, in this life, is nothing like the joy that awaits us. There is something greater when we tap into something larger than our individual selves. Yes, I believe there is meaning in being human and tapping into humanity, but there is joy unspeakable when we tap into something even greater than our collective selves, something greater than humanity. When we tap into God for whom, by whom, of whom and for whom we were created, we tap into the truest and highest meaning there can be.

Indeed, I believe Frankl is right, that the pursuit of happiness actually pushes off the happiness that we seek. C.S. Lewis came to a similar conclusion in Surprised by Joy, the autobiographical account of his journey from materialist atheism to Christian faith. The more he pursued the “joy” he experienced, the more elusive it became… until he discovered the Source of that Joy.

The Right to Happiness and Gratitude

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Which is more important: happiness or gratitude? I think the answer is clear, but the opposite view seems to get more play and more buy-in. The result is that we live in a world that is often marked by both unhappiness and ingratitude. What do you think?

In the United States, we are promised by the Constitution the right to pursue happiness, and that idea quietly underlies much of what modern society is about in these United States. That phrase was coined over two hundred years ago, and it has undergone a subtle change. We have shortened the phrase to this: a “right to happiness”. Continue reading

The Perspective of Attitude

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[E]everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedom is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances — to choose one’s own way.

The only thing more uplifting for me today than the sun shining, the birds chirping and the realization that the worst of winter is behind us is Kristen Ziman’s article, “Bad Attitudes and Glowworms”, in the Aurora Beacon News on March 25, 2014. Mind you, Kristen is an Aurora Police Commander. She sees the worst of humanity on a daily basis. The quotation at the top of the page is from Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor. Those connections should strike a chord.

If you are like me, you like to be in control. I feel most comfortable when I am in control (even when I have no good reason to feel comfortable based on my past failures). People seem to tolerate even bad situations better when they feel like they have some control. Conversely, feeling that we lack control tends to leave us feeling depressed and out of sorts.

We make decisions and choose to go this way or that way. We make plans and carry out our plans the best that we can. Some of us are better at planning and carrying out plans than others, but even the best planners among us find that things happen that frustrate, change and redirect the paths that we have chosen. Things happen every day, even hourly, that we did not plan or expect when we awoke in the morning. When things do not go as planned, the tendency is to get frustrated, angry, disappointed and even depressed.

It occurs to me that control over our lives ultimately is just an illusion. A parent dies unexpectedly, a person gets laid off, a plane gets hijacked, a mudslide happens, the dream of becoming a professional baseball player does not pan out, the college we want to get into does not accept us, we can not find a job in our field of study. There are a million things in our lives that we do not control.

We did not choose to be born. We did not choose the time we were born or the country or family we were born into. We did not choose our genes, physical attributes or psychological make up.  We do not inevitably control our lives, and we all will die.

When you think about these things, it may seem depressing, but it is all a matter of attitude.

Perhaps, the only thing I do truly control is my attitude, my outlook on life, my world view (whatever you want to call it). As the Frankl quotation suggests, if all control is taken away from me, I still control my attitude. I may not control my circumstances, but I control my response to those circumstances. I can “choose my own way”. Though there is no guaranty I will be able to carry out the way I have chosen, I am able to choose nonetheless.

We all live in the illusion that we control our own lives. For some of us that illusion seems more real than for others, but none of us truly control our lives.

What if that is the way it is designed? What if attitude, including my relationship with people, is the only thing I am meant to control?

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Ironic post script: I was first inspired to write about attitude and outlook on life. I quickly got off track with the idea of control (or the lack thereof). I followed the track and ended up someplace I did not envision when I started. I kind of like that in this instance, though my tendency is to go back and direct my attention back to where I started. I chose to let it go a different direction. Kristen Ziman’s article is good one. I encourage you to go back and read it if you have not done so.

Happiness Factor

Young Girl with Pigtails GrinningPerspective dictates how we see things. Change perspective, and we may see things differently.

Take for example the photo at the top of this blog. If you are reading this after I have replaced the header photo, let me describe it. For anyone reading this with the photo still there, bear with me. The photo shows beautiful blue, green, aqua water that is as inviting as any photo of a great vacation spot on a sandy beach in a tropical paradise. Only, the photo was taken by me at Pictured Rocks State Park in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan along the shores of Lake Superior. Even in the middle of summer, the water is about 55º Fahrenheit.

The water does not look so inviting now, does it?

During the “Thanksgiving season” I see people posting thankful messages on Facebook. After a while, it becomes a little blasé. Big deal. The nonconformist in me shudders at the thought of posting similar thankful thoughts.

At other times of the year, the expressions of thanksgiving are not nearly as free-flowing. People who often express thankfulness are seen as those “shiny happy people” – not like the rest of us. If we are being honest, we would probably assume that these people have not had life nearly as tough as the rest of us. These are people who were probably born into privilege. They probably have not faced tragedies and difficulties in their lives like most other people. Maybe they are just naïve and not smart enough to think about the pain in the world. Maybe they are willfully ignorant of it. They just are not normal.

I am sure that I am oversimplifying and overstating what “we” feel. Perhaps, we just do not think about it. That is good for them; I am not like that.

Maybe these people know something we do not know. Consider what scientists have learned about happiness in the video at the top of this post. What do you think?