By CHARLENE PAUL
I’ve spent the better part of my life searching for happiness. I looked everywhere and assured myself I would finally be happy when I lose weight, when I master a particular piano piece, when I find the perfect purse, when my yard is finished, when my bad perm grows out, when I write that book – when.
The interesting thing was that I enjoyed the happiness the accomplishment of those things brought, but it wasn’t long before my pursuit of happiness began again as a new list of whens was created.
Strange as it sounds, the pursuit of happiness isn’t really a happy pursuit. It is a very self-centered occupation fraught with frustration and fear, exhaustion and depression. Happiness is elusive – here one moment, gone the next. So, what’s the secret? Or are we destined to chase the elusion for the duration of our lives?
Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist from Vienna, spent three years in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. By the time his camp was liberated, his pregnant wife and most of the rest of his family had perished. In 1946, he wrote Man’s Search for Meaning about his experiences in the camps.
Dr. Frankl noticed that although none of his fellow prisoners were particularly happy, those who found their meaning, their purpose in life, even in the most horrific circumstances were more resilient to suffering than those who had not. Frankl wrote, “. . . it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them. . . . [They] know the why for [their] existence and will be able to bear almost any how.”
Today’s culture puts a heavy emphasis on fulfilling one’s own wants and needs in the pursuit of that ever-elusive happiness above almost everything else. It seems to be all about the whens. But the pursuit of happiness seems to be leaving people less happy, without understanding their lives have meaning beyond any particular circumstance. “It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness,” wrote Frankl.
Setting aside the pursuit of happiness and seeking, instead, to learn the meaning of our lives offers hope and shuns despair. It changes attitudes and strengthens relationships. Frankl and some of the men in that concentration camp figured that out. And although they didn’t find happiness while they were there, they found something far more valuable and eternal in nature. They couldn’t change their circumstances, but they could change their thinking. They had in their power the ability to believe their lives had meaning which offered even a small slice of hope. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way,” explained Frankl.
Whether I lose the weight, master the piano, find the perfect purse, finish my yard, write that book, or never have a bad hair day, my life has meaning. And understanding that concept allows me to be happy even when lemons are served, bad cards are dealt, and the stars refuse to perfectly align. When I remember that my life has meaning far above the pursuit of happiness, the why of my life comes sharply into focus. The magic is that once the why is in focus, the whens lose their power, and happiness follows. Outward focus rather than inward interests is key.