What’s Deeper than Happiness?

I’ve been reading Victor Frankl, a renowned psychiatrist, lately. As a man who survived a holocaust concentration camp, where his parents and wife died, he seems, to me, more philosopher than psychiatrist. To me, what Frankl has to say speaks to Americans in a big way.

He tells us that the pursuit of happiness isn’t what many of us think it is. Happiness is something that is fleeting, and measured by the degree of pleasure of the moment. That’s why pursuing “happiness” often makes people unhappy. What makes people truly happy is pursuing meaning in life and feeling that one’s life has a purpose.

So, when you see people under stress and pressure from their jobs and family lives, and they seem so “unhappy,” think again. These people might be unhappy in the moment, but if their stress comes from the diligent pursuit of a life filled with meaning, they are happier than any man or woman who avoids responsibility and simply lives for the pleasure of the moment.

Frankl counseled prisoners in the concentration camps and brought some of them out of depression and suicidal tendencies by helping them see that a good life, and a pleasurable life, comes from having a sense that one has a purpose. Whether that purpose is raising children, writing books, or being the best auto mechanic around, finding that sense of purpose drives people forward in a way that simple physical pleasure, or fleeting happiness, does not.

He reminded these men that they had family members who depended upon them, readers who needed to see their ideas in print, and community members who could use their help. Frankl found that reminding people they still had a lot to give made them want to live, when their ability to take pleasure had vanished. It was the anticipation of giving, not taking, that made people want to live again.

Whether I’m ghostwriting memoirs or working on a fantasy novel, I find that writing is the very act of seeking meaning from life. Working on memoirs, I help others look at their lives and find meaning there, which brings them deep contentment and satisfaction. Writing can be hard work, but that’s part of the pleasure of it. Writing makes meaning from life.

Even when I’m working on a book that’s total fiction, I’m using fictional characters to find meaning in what is our shared reality, as humans. So, as a writer, yes, I have to agree with Frankl that our American “pursuit of happiness” ideal is not what it seems at all. In fact, I’ve seen the sheer pursuit of happiness make people very unhappy, whereas the pursuit of purpose brings a satisfaction with longevity, one that drives you forward with a stronger engine.

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