Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Pursuit of Happiness: Overrated?

"We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.  They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms-- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."-Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning.

In Man’s Search for Meaning Viktor Frankl drew on the experiences of concentration camp prisoners. He found that those who survived were not the ones who pursued happiness as an end in itself, but the ones who had a goal in life. Meaning, not pleasure was the key. This can be a great comfort if you’re facing hard times. It is much easier to find “meaning” in hard times than “happiness.”

Jay McDaniel, a theologian and author of the book Living from the Center, calls happiness a “byproduct not a goal”: “…many people can live very meaningful lives,” he wrote, “pursuing quite worthy goals, without being particularly happy, if ‘happiness’ means pleasant states of consciousness. Consider the person who is deeply compassionate, sharing in the sorrows of others, and who, precisely through her sharing, cannot sleep well at night. In her empathy for others, she knows the happiness of communion with others, but not the happiness of pleasure.”

Would U.S. culture have been different if the authors of the Declaration of Independence had written, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Meaning?”

It is worth thinking about.