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APsychiatristWhoSurvivedThe

HolocaustExplainsWhy
MeaningfulnessMattersMore
ThanHappiness
EMILYESFAHANISMITH,THEATLANTIC
OCT.22,2014,2:55PM

"Itistheverypursuitof
happinessthatthwarts
happiness."
InSeptember1942,
ViktorFrankl,a
prominentJewish
psychiatristand
neurologistinVienna,
wasarrestedand
transportedtoaNazi
concentrationcampwith
hiswifeandparents.
Threeyearslater,when
hiscampwasliberated,
mostofhisfamily,
includinghispregnant
wife,hadperishedbut
he,prisonernumber
119104,hadlived.

Reuters

ViktorFrankl,therenownedViennesepsychiatrist
andauthorof"Man'sSearchforMeaning."

Inhisbestselling1946
book,Man'sSearchforMeaning,whichhewroteinninedaysabouthisexperiences
inthecamps,Franklconcludedthatthedifferencebetweenthosewhohadlivedand
thosewhohaddiedcamedowntoonething:Meaning,aninsighthecametoearlyin
life.

Whenhewasahighschoolstudent,oneofhisscienceteachersdeclaredtotheclass,
"Lifeisnothingmorethanacombustionprocess,aprocessofoxidation."Frankl
jumpedoutofhischairandresponded,"Sir,ifthisisso,thenwhatcanbethe
meaningoflife?"
Ashesawinthecamps,thosewhofoundmeaningeveninthemosthorrendous
circumstanceswerefarmoreresilienttosufferingthanthosewhodidnot."Everything
canbetakenfromamanbutonething,"FranklwroteinMan'sSearchforMeaning,
"thelastofthehumanfreedomstochooseone'sattitudeinanygivensetof
circumstances,tochooseone'sownway."
Franklworkedasatherapistinthecamps,andinhisbook,hegivestheexampleof
twosuicidalinmatesheencounteredthere.Likemanyothersinthecamps,thesetwo
menwerehopelessandthoughtthattherewasnothingmoretoexpectfromlife,
nothingtolivefor.
"Inbothcases,"Franklwrites,"itwasaquestionofgettingthemtorealizethatlifewas
stillexpectingsomethingfromthemsomethinginthefuturewasexpectedofthem."
Foroneman,itwashisyoungchild,whowasthenlivinginaforeigncountry.Forthe
other,ascientist,itwasaseriesofbooksthatheneededtofinish.Franklwrites:
Thisuniquenessandsinglenesswhichdistinguisheseachindividualandgives
ameaningtohisexistencehasabearingoncreativeworkasmuchasitdoes
onhumanlove.Whentheimpossibilityofreplacingapersonisrealized,it
allowstheresponsibilitywhichamanhasforhisexistenceandits
continuancetoappearinallitsmagnitude.Amanwhobecomesconsciousof
theresponsibilityhebearstowardahumanbeingwhoaffectionatelywaitsfor
him,ortoanunfinishedwork,willneverbeabletothrowawayhislife.He
knowsthe"why"forhisexistence,andwillbeabletobearalmostany"how."
In1991,theLibraryofCongressandBookoftheMonthClublistedMan'sSearchfor
Meaningasoneofthe10mostinfluentialbooksintheUnitedStates.Ithassold
millionsofcopiesworldwide.Now,overtwentyyearslater,thebook'sethosits
emphasisonmeaning,thevalueofsuffering,andresponsibilitytosomethinggreater
thantheselfseemstobeatoddswithourculture,whichismoreinterestedinthe
pursuitofindividualhappinessthaninthesearchformeaning."TotheEuropean,"
Franklwrote,"itisacharacteristicoftheAmericanculturethat,againandagain,one
iscommandedandorderedto'behappy.'Buthappinesscannotbepursueditmust
ensue.Onemusthaveareasonto'behappy.'"

Flickr/ChristianHaughen

EventhoughAmericanhappinesslevelsareatafouryearhigh,4outof10
Americanshavenotdiscoveredasatisfyinglifepurpose.
AccordingtoGallup,thehappinesslevelsofAmericansareatafouryearhighasis,
itseems,thenumberofbestsellingbookswiththeword"happiness"intheirtitles.As
ofJanuary2013,Gallupalsoreportsthatnearly60percentofallAmericanstodayfeel
happy,withoutalotofstressorworry.
Ontheotherhand,accordingtotheCenterforDiseaseControl,about4outof10
Americanshavenotdiscoveredasatisfyinglifepurpose.Fortypercenteitherdonot
thinktheirliveshaveaclearsenseofpurposeorareneutralaboutwhethertheirlives
havepurpose.NearlyaquarterofAmericansfeelneutralordonothaveastrongsense
ofwhatmakestheirlivesmeaningful.
Researchhasshownthathavingpurposeandmeaninginlifeincreasesoverallwell
beingandlifesatisfaction,improvesmentalandphysicalhealth,enhancesresiliency,
enhancesselfesteem,anddecreasesthechancesofdepression.Ontopofthat,the
singlemindedpursuitofhappinessisironicallyleavingpeoplelesshappy,according
torecentresearch."Itistheverypursuitofhappiness,"Franklknew,"thatthwarts
happiness."
***
Thisiswhysomeresearchersarecautioningagainstthepursuitofmerehappiness.In
anewstudy,whichwillbepublishedthisyearinaforthcomingissueoftheJournalof
PositivePsychology,psychologicalscientistsaskednearly400Americansaged18to
78whethertheythoughttheirlivesweremeaningfuland/orhappy.
Examiningtheirselfreportedattitudestowardmeaning,happiness,andmanyother
variableslikestresslevels,spendingpatterns,andhavingchildrenoveramonth

longperiod,theresearchersfoundthatameaningfullifeandhappylifeoverlapin
certainways,butareultimatelyverydifferent.Leadingahappylife,thepsychologists
found,isassociatedwithbeinga"taker"whileleadingameaningfullifecorresponds
withbeinga"giver."
"Happinesswithoutmeaningcharacterizesarelativelyshallow,selfabsorbedoreven
selfishlife,inwhichthingsgowell,needsanddesireareeasilysatisfied,anddifficult
ortaxingentanglementsareavoided,"theauthorswrite.
Howdothehappylifeandthemeaningfullifediffer?Happiness,theyfound,isabout
feelinggood.Specifically,theresearchersfoundthatpeoplewhoarehappytendto
thinkthatlifeiseasy,theyareingoodphysicalhealth,andtheyareabletobuythe
thingsthattheyneedandwant.Whilenothavingenoughmoneydecreaseshowhappy
andmeaningfulyouconsideryourlifetobe,ithasamuchgreaterimpacton
happiness.Thehappylifeisalsodefinedbyalackofstressorworry.
Mostimportantlyfromasocialperspective,thepursuitofhappinessisassociatedwith
selfishbehaviorbeing,asmentioned,a"taker"ratherthana"giver."
Thepursuitofhappinessisassociatedwithselfishbehaviorbeing,as
mentioned,a"taker"ratherthana"giver."
Thepsychologistsgiveanevolutionaryexplanationforthis:happinessisaboutdrive
reduction.Ifyouhaveaneedoradesirelikehungeryousatisfyit,andthat
makesyouhappy.Peoplebecomehappy,inotherwords,whentheygetwhatthey
want.Humans,then,arenottheonlyoneswhocanfeelhappy.Animalshaveneeds
anddrives,too,andwhenthosedrivesaresatisfied,animalsalsofeelhappy,the
researcherspointout.
"Happypeoplegetalotofjoyfromreceivingbenefitsfromotherswhilepeopleleading
meaningfullivesgetalotofjoyfromgivingtoothers,"explainedKathleenVohs,one
oftheauthorsofthestudy,inarecentpresentationattheUniversityofPennsylvania.
Inotherwords,meaningtranscendstheselfwhilehappinessisallaboutgivingthe
selfwhatitwants.Peoplewhohavehighmeaningintheirlivesaremorelikelytohelp
othersinneed."Ifanything,purehappinessislinkedtonothelpingothersinneed,"
theresearchers,whichincludeStanfordUniversity'sJenniferAakerandEmily
Garbinsky,write.
Whatsetshumanbeingsapartfromanimalsisnotthepursuitofhappiness,which
occursallacrossthenaturalworld,butthepursuitofmeaning,whichisuniqueto
humans,accordingtoRoyBaumeister,theleadresearcherofthestudyandauthor,
withJohnTierney,oftherecentbookWillpower:RediscoveringtheGreatestHuman
Strength.Baumeister,asocialpsychologistsatFloridaStateUniversity,wasnamedan
ISIhighlycitedscientificresearcherin2003.
Thestudyparticipantsreportedderivingmeaningfromgivingapartofthemselves
awaytoothersandmakingasacrificeonbehalfoftheoverallgroup.Inthewordsof
MartinE.P.Seligman,oneoftheleadingpsychologicalscientistsalivetoday,inthe
meaningfullife"youuseyourhigheststrengthsandtalentstobelongtoandserve
somethingyoubelieveislargerthantheself."
Forinstance,havingmoremeaninginone'slifewasassociatedwithactivitieslike
buyingpresentsforothers,takingcareofkids,andarguing.Peoplewhoseliveshave

highlevelsofmeaningoftenactivelyseekmeaningoutevenwhentheyknowitwill
comeattheexpenseofhappiness.Becausetheyhaveinvestedthemselvesin
somethingbiggerthanthemselves,theyalsoworrymoreandhavehigherlevelsof
stressandanxietyintheirlivesthanhappypeople.
Havingchildren,forexample,isassociatedwiththemeaningfullifeandrequiresself
sacrifice,butithasbeenfamouslyassociatedwithlowhappinessamongparents,
includingtheonesinthisstudy.Infact,accordingtoHarvardpsychologistDaniel
Gilbert,researchshowsthatparentsarelesshappyinteractingwiththeir
childrenthantheyareexercising,eating,andwatchingtelevision.
"Partlywhatwedoashumanbeingsistotakecareofothersandcontributetoothers.
Thismakeslifemeaningfulbutitdoesnotnecessarilymakeushappy,"Baumeister
toldmeinaninterview.
Meaningisnotonlyabouttranscendingtheself,butalsoabouttranscendingthe
presentmomentwhichisperhapsthemostimportantfindingofthestudy,
accordingtotheresearchers.Whilehappinessisanemotionfeltinthehereandnow,
itultimatelyfadesaway,justasallemotionsdopositiveaffectandfeelingsof
pleasurearefleeting.Theamountoftimepeoplereportfeelinggoodorbadcorrelates
withhappinessbutnotatallwithmeaning.
Meaning,ontheotherhand,isenduring.Itconnectsthepasttothepresenttothe
future."Thinkingbeyondthepresentmoment,intothepastorfuture,wasasignof
therelativelymeaningfulbutunhappylife,"theresearcherswrite."Happinessisnot
generallyfoundincontemplatingthepastorfuture."Thatis,peoplewhothought
moreaboutthepresentwerehappier,butpeoplewhospentmoretimethinkingabout
thefutureoraboutpaststrugglesandsufferingsfeltmoremeaningintheirlives,
thoughtheywerelesshappy.
Havingnegativeeventshappentoyou,thestudyfound,decreasesyourhappinessbut
increasestheamountofmeaningyouhaveinlife.
Havingnegativeeventshappentoyou,thestudyfound,decreasesyour
happinessbutincreasestheamountofmeaningyouhaveinlife.
Anotherstudyfrom2011confirmedthis,findingthatpeoplewhohavemeaningin
theirlives,intheformofaclearlydefinedpurpose,ratetheirsatisfactionwithlife
higherevenwhentheywerefeelingbadthanthosewhodidnothaveaclearlydefined
purpose."Ifthereismeaninginlifeatall,"Franklwrote,"thentheremustbemeaning
insuffering."
***
WhichbringsusbacktoFrankl'slifeand,specifically,adecisiveexperiencehehad
beforehewassenttotheconcentrationcamps.Itwasanincidentthatemphasizesthe
differencebetweenthepursuitofmeaningandthepursuitofhappinessinlife.
Inhisearlyadulthood,beforeheandhisfamilyweretakenawaytothecamps,Frankl
hadestablishedhimselfasoneoftheleadingpsychiatristsinViennaandtheworld.As
a16yearoldboy,forexample,hestruckupacorrespondencewithSigmundFreud

andonedaysentFreudatwopagepaperhehadwritten.Freud,impressedby
Frankl'stalent,sentthepapertotheInternationalJournalofPsychoanalysisfor
publication."Ihopeyoudon'tobject,"Freudwrotetheteenager.
Whilehewasinmedicalschool,Frankldistinguishedhimselfevenfurther.Notonly
didheestablishsuicidepreventioncentersforteenagersaprecursortohisworkin
thecampsbuthewasalsodevelopinghissignaturecontributiontothefieldof
clinicalpsychology:logotherapy,whichismeanttohelppeopleovercomedepression
andachievewellbeingbyfindingtheiruniquemeaninginlife.
By1941,histheorieshadreceivedinternationalattentionandhewasworkingasthe
chiefofneurologyatVienna'sRothschildHospital,whereheriskedhislifeandcareer
bymakingfalsediagnosesofmentallyillpatientssothattheywouldnot,perNazi
orders,beeuthanized.
Thatwasthesameyearwhenhehadadecisiontomake,adecisionthatwouldchange
hislife.WithhiscareerontheriseandthethreatoftheNazisloomingoverhim,
FranklhadappliedforavisatoAmerica,whichhewasgrantedin1941.Bythen,the
NazishadalreadystartedroundinguptheJewsandtakingthemawayto
concentrationcamps,focusingontheelderlyfirst.
FranklknewthatitwouldonlybetimebeforetheNaziscametotakehisparents
away.Healsoknewthatoncetheydid,hehadaresponsibilitytobetherewithhis
parentstohelpthemthroughthetraumaofadjustingtocamplife.Ontheotherhand,
asanewlymarriedmanwithhisvisainhand,hewastemptedtoleaveforAmerica
andfleetosafety,wherehecoulddistinguishhimselfevenfurtherinhisfield.
AsAnnaS.RedsandrecountsinherbiographyofFrankl,hewasatalossforwhatto
do,sohesetoutforSt.Stephan'sCathedralinViennatoclearhishead.Listeningto
theorganmusic,herepeatedlyaskedhimself,"ShouldIleavemyparentsbehind?...
ShouldIsaygoodbyeandleavethemtotheirfate?"Wheredidhisresponsibilitylie?
Hewaslookingfora"hintfromheaven."
Whenhereturnedhome,hefoundit.Apieceofmarblewaslyingonthetable.His
fatherexplainedthatitwasfromtherubbleofoneofthenearbysynagoguesthatthe
Nazishaddestroyed.ThemarblecontainedthefragmentofoneoftheTen
Commandmentstheoneabouthonoringyourfatherandyourmother.Withthat,
FrankldecidedtostayinViennaandforgowhateveropportunitiesforsafetyand
careeradvancementawaitedhimintheUnitedStates.Hedecidedtoputasidehis
individualpursuitstoservehisfamilyand,later,otherinmatesinthecamps.
ThewisdomthatFranklderivedfromhisexperiencesthere,inthemiddleof
unimaginablehumansuffering,isjustasrelevantnowasitwasthen:"Beinghuman
alwayspoints,andisdirected,tosomethingorsomeone,otherthanoneselfbeita
meaningtofulfilloranotherhumanbeingtoencounter.Themoreoneforgetshimself
bygivinghimselftoacausetoserveoranotherpersontolovethemorehuman
heis."
Baumeisterandhiscolleagueswouldagreethatthepursuitofmeaningiswhatmakes
humanbeingsuniquelyhuman.Byputtingasideourselfishintereststoserve
someoneorsomethinglargerthanourselvesbydevotingourlivesto"giving"rather
than"taking"wearenotonlyexpressingourfundamentalhumanity,butarealso

acknowledgingthatthatthereismoretothegoodlifethanthepursuitofsimple
happiness.
ReadtheoriginalarticleonTheAtlantic.CheckoutTheAtlantic'sFacebook,
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