random thoughts: on happiness, gratitude & meaning


The other morning I was sitting in a coffee house having tea (as I do), and I had a small epiphany -- where by "small," I mean "I may have been given a glimpse of the heart of the Universe, where suddenly the meaning of life became crystal clear."

Okay, I exaggerate.  But I did realize something that has got me thinking.  

A few days earlier, I had come across this article from The Atlantic, called "There's More to Life Than Being Happy."   The author of this article discusses the work Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist who spent three unimaginably horrifying years in the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Holocaust.  When he was released, the following year he wrote his seminal work (in 9 days!), Man's Search for Meaning, about his experiences in the concentration camp.  In this book, he posits that more than happiness, we humans search for meaning.  In fact, he is the founder of logotherapy, "which is meant to help people overcome depression and achieve well-being by finding their unique meaning in life."  (This reminded me of my conversation with Arun Gandhi several years ago when he quoted his grandfather's thoughts about "trusteeship":  the Mahatma used to say we don't "own our talents or gifts, but rather, we are called upon to use these talents for the benefits of others.")  

The article was so good (seriously, you should read it) that I ended up downloading the book myself.  I haven't finished it, but there were a few passages that caught my eye.

From the foreword (written by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner): 

"Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning:  in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times.  Suffering in and of itself is meaningless; we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it. "

And then later in the book, in Frankl's words: 

"But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.  One must have a reason to 'be happy.'  Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically.  As we see, a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness, but rather in search of a reason to become happy, last but not least, through actualizing the potential meaning inherent and dormant in a given situation. "

Heavens.  Are you getting this?  In other words, Frankl says forget about the pursuit of happiness -- more rewarding (apparently) is the pursuit of meaning.  

Given that I spend a lot of my writing and my work focused on joy and gratitude, this new data has forced me to rethink and recodify what I believe about all of these things.  And here, then, is what I think I've come up with: 

Happiness, then, while certainly pleasurable, is ephemeral -- sort of like the steam in my jug of tea in the photograph, above -- pretty, but lasting only a moment (although more steam/happiness does follow).  Happiness is an enjoyment of a moment in time.  It's why I'll continue to advocate for Life Lists (or as I've taken to calling them in my Path Finder class, "Life Menus") -- I think it's good to create moments for yourself that are pleasurable, to "curate" moments of bliss and excitement.  And life lists provide a "menu" of sorts for you to choose from, activities that you can dot your day-to-day life with a little sparkle.  But ultimately, these moments of happiness are at the surface -- there is so much more to life.  Happiness is about the present moment.

Gratitude, however, goes a bit deeper.  I've written before about how my gratitude practice has changed my life:  I think the process of noting the good in your life every day is one of the keys to living an overall joyful life.  It is a way of gathering evidence, so that when life is reviewed, on reflection, it becomes very clear that it was, after all, a good life.   It is also, I believe, significant in building resilience -- when faced with a tough situation, having a solid gratitude practice can help you realize that it is possible to get through it, because your history has shown you that you can.  Gratitude can help reframe the past in a more positive (or, at the very least, cope-able) light.

But deepest of all, perhaps, is Meaning.  Finding your own unique meaning in your life -- either through your work or your relationships, as Frankl says -- this is instrumental in setting your intentions for your life, the fuel to ensure you "keep on keeping on."  In his words, "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.'"  Meaning helps frame your future.  And where Happiness is like the steam in my photo, above, Meaning might just be the actual hot tea, itself.

Or something. 

Anyway, obviously, these are just random thoughts I'm having right now -- I haven't even finished the book, and I certainly have absolutely no academic chops that qualify me in any way to speak with authority about any of this.  But I can't help but think that I might have stumbled onto something here.

What do you think?  I'd love if you'd take a look at that article, and share your thoughts in the comments below (and if you are a psychologist or sociologist, please feel free to educate me, as well!)   



Song: Love's in need of love today by Stevie Wonder (from his album "Songs in the Key of Life")