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Viktor Frankl Urges Us to Stop Pursuing Happiness


Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively superficial life, Frankl said, and that is one of the signs of our times.

Kant had said it as well: the more we worry about being happy, the further we are from true satisfaction. It isn’t a coincidence that during an era when we are forced to consume narcissistic and ultimately meaningless mantras on the imperative of being happy, dozens of studies “on happiness” arise. But now, and as a direct result, one must be even more selective when taking certain advice. One would have to dig among the mass of literature on the topic to find those that go beyond diets, superficial decrees and prefabricated phrases that are quickly forgotten. Escape from the triteness that this pursuit implies.

“Great minds think alike,” goes the phrase, and if we think about the lives of Oliver Sacks, Jung, Kant, Rilke or Frankl, then we understand why this is true. They all were unhappy men. But none was in the pursuit of happiness. Rather, they sought something that would give meaning to their lives, and with that they left an impression that no catastrophe could ever eliminate. “Nobody can lead a life without meaning”, Jung once said.

Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl discovered the same after having been in a concentration camp along with his wife and parents.

People whose lives have high levels of meaning often actively seek meaning out even when they know it will come at the expense of happiness. Because they have invested themselves in something bigger than themselves, they also worry more and have higher levels of stress and anxiety in their lives than happy people.

He asserted that this modern pursuit of happiness is rather a way of converting people and events into mere tools for our own benefit. That happiness —when involving only oneself and not trying to help others— is not only impermanent, but frankly superficial.

Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.

Something truly serious occurs when a human being stops pursuing a greater meaning than himself and devotes himself to receiving pleasure. Needless to say, the pursuit of meaning implies arguments, anxiety, sadness and disappointment. And yet without these mechanisms of doubt, it is difficult to transcend or lead a life that — while not happy — is a little more complete. “If there is meaning in life at all,” Frankl wrote, “then there must be meaning in suffering.”

Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is.

Image: “Solace-so-old-so-new”, Avish Khebrehzadeh 

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