Victor Frankl was an eminent psychiatrist in 1942 in Vienna. He lost most of his family including his pregnant wife in the Nazi camps. He worked as a therapist in the camps and wrote a book in 1946 “Man’s Search for Meaning” based on his experiences there. It took him 9 days to write the book which went on to be a bestseller.
He often dealt with men who had lost the will to live, given the extreme circumstances. In his opinion “it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them.” It could be anything – a young child or an unfinished book.
“When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”
In today’s culture we are more interested in the pursuit of individual happiness than in the search for meaning. Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resilience and self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression.
“It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”
Researchers have found that a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different. Leading a happy life is associated with being a “taker” while leading a meaningful life means being a “giver.” Having negative events happen to us, a study found, may decrease our happiness but increases the amount of meaning we have in our life.
What sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans. By putting our selfish interests aside to serve something larger than ourselves and devoting our lives to “giving” rather than “taking”, we are not only expressing our fundamental humanity, but are also acknowledging that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness.