Happiness Versus Meaning

When I was in high school, I read Vicktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, presumably because it was on a book list. I don’t remember specifics, but his name has been coming up for me as I think about what I want to say in this Skillshare class next week.

If you’re not familiar with Frankl’s work, he was a psychotherapist who practiced as an inmate at Auschwitz. He found that people were able to survive best when they felt they had purpose.

In pursuing happiness, it’s easy to overlook the pursuit of meaning. So I ordered another copy of the book, and I’m thinking more about responsibility as I look over my Life List in preparation for this class. There’s still space, if you’d like to join in.

In the meantime, is this something you think about too? Do you feel like you’ve found your “thing?”

14 thoughts on “Happiness Versus Meaning

  1. Yes – I am the type who thinks about questions like this a lot. Isn’t happiness without meaning really just pleasure? And pleasure is temporary, a meaningful life is profound.

    Frankl’s book was an important one for me, too. I’m looking forward to the class – just signed up. As a personal development coach I’ve been grappling a bit with the concept of life lists so I’m eager to look at them through your eyes.

    (And I know this is sorta tacky – I promise this is not something I do – but I have had a lot of good feedback on this post I wrote about ambition vs. actualization that is related to this discussion: http://lianneraymond.com/weblog/2012/6/5/are-you-swimming-in-ambition-or-are-you-drowning-in-it.html )


  2. I think about this constantly, and I do not think I’ve found my “thing.” I waver between fighting for a cause, then becoming overwhelmed, and simple pursuit of daily pleasure, which doesn’t net me much in the long run.

    About the time I decide on a job that nets meaning, I realize that lifestyle won’t afford me much happiness. So I decide on a job that allows for ample pleasurable activities, and then I have a crisis of conscience- what good does this do for the community?

    So I’m on alert for my “thing.” If it drops by your place, let me know, will you?


  3. ove this post. Love Frankl. This is something I’ve had a lot of Big Feelings about this year. I’ve pursued a life of purpose and I love that . . . but I feel like that pursuit has squished out happiness a bit. I’m striving to balance that out.


  4. I loved seeing the happiness v. meaning question, because it’s been a defining distinction for me. I think of happiness as something you reflect back on—notice it, and it’s gone, because you’re out of the state that produced it—and meaning as that fulfilling, though sometimes painful, sense of the rightness, richness, or oneness of experience. My thing is writing, so meaning is something I continue to have as I feel my way into it and think about it and write about it. Happiness disappears the minute I think, “I’m happy.” Meaning is remembering that my existence matters, as part of a reality that matters. Happiness is forgetting my existence and simply existing. I go after meaning, because going after it helps shape a sense of purpose. Going after happiness is like trying to get an airplane off the ground by straining at your seatbelt. You have to know yourself, at least a little, to have meaning. You have to lose yourself to be happy.


  5. “Joy is what happens to us when we allow ourselves to recognize how good things really are.” ~ Marianne Williamson

    I’m turning 50 this year, and I can honestly say I’ve spent a lifetime thinking about these things. I don’t know if I’ve found my “thing,” but I’m finally willing to acknowledge that I have most assuredly found my joy.


  6. I’ve been thinking about what my “thing” is in the last couple of years as my husband has been working through his doctorate. It’s hard to watch someone be in the zone where their passions and gifts and interests all intersect and result in a paycheck without being jealous. What I’ve realized is that I don’t know how to do that in one lifetime profession, but I CAN make it happen if I open myself up to risk and let my life’s work come from a few streams instead of one.

    I can’t make all the good things happen at once all by myself. So I’ve been finding mentors in a couple of key areas, learning new skills, finding friends to partner with on pieces of the journey, and finding ways to enable myself to transition out of my current job and into these new areas over the next year.

    I feel filled with hope and happiness and a deep resonance that this work is a reflection of my authentic self, even though it’s not anything profound or humanitarian.


  7. I’d say I’ve found my thing–I’ve found a whole number of things, in fact. I think it makes my life meaningful to be a good mom, to try to do good science, to try and share my enthusiasm for that science with as many people as I can, to try to put pretty things into the world in as many ways as I can…
    For me, the harder part is not finding the meaning, but avoiding impostor syndrome. I believe truly and deeply that all of those things I’ve listed above are good ways to make the world better, but I find it really hard not to question my ability to focus on them to the degree they deserve. What if I’m just convincing myself I have meaning because the alternative is too terrifying? How do I know I’m even competent at any of the things I find meaningful? The fact that my focus on these questions and my answers to them are generally unrelated to external stimuli makes me think they’re from an unfriendly and unrealistic part of my subconscious, so I try to mostly ignore these questions. Still, I find it difficult to specialize on just one or two of those meanings for my life, and while I think it’s legitimate to have a lot of different things in life that make me happy and make me feel like I have put good into the world, I also have the nagging suspicion that if I were choosier about the things that brought me joy I might be able to find greater meaning…And then i see things like this: http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2722#comic
    That’s the point at which I tell my brain to shut up and get on with it.


  8. One of the things that always stuck with me from that book was this: “Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.” I always found it sort of a comforting reassurance that no matter how many mistakes you learn from you’re always going to be making new ones, and so the adventure is there, in the trying and learning. It’s curious how happiness isn’t always meaning but meaning so frequently leads–at least eventually–to happiness.

    He also says that the salvation of man is through love, which I always found particularly special given the circumstances of the book.


  9. For most of my life, I went where the river took me. I live near the Mississippi so that image was good for me. This motto took me into great adventures including school in India, a wonderful marriage, the completion of a doctorate program. But lately (in the last 5 years or so) I have been in stagnant water and looking at those things around me that I’ve always loved doing but never took the courage to pursue.

    I did a life list years ago, prompted by you of course, and had great fun making the list and checking off list items. Now, i think I’m ready to put this list in a larger context that will (hopefully) eventually lead to purpose. I’ve signed up for your course. I like what samantha has quoted about living life for the second time. I’m ready!


  10. Goodness gracious! I feel a little bit like you may be my long-lost, red-haired sister. I had this quote from the book on my classroom wall last year (now it hangs next to my desk at home): “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.”


  11. I read Frankl’s book a few years ago and was profoundly moved by it. It’s on my “re-read” list. While my 20s was spent searching for happiness and love, in my 30s I began to shift (I was lucky enough to find happiness and love) toward finding more meaning. Now that I’m 41 and no longer work in an office, but am home with my brood, meaning has become all-consuming.

    I haven’t found my “thing” yet, but I feel ridiculously optimistic, as if it’s right around the corner. So, I approach each day excited, as if THIS might be the day I figure out my thing.

    I signed up for your class and can’t wait to start.


  12. On this topic (on almost all topics), I have been really influenced by the writing of Wendell Berry. After reading his novels/essays/poems, I always come away asking myself questions like this:
    * “Am I taking care of my place?”
    * “Am I taking care of my people?”
    * “Am I living in a way that doesn’t trample another person’s place or people?”

    These questions clarify and simplify my understanding of my purpose, because I have to be really careful of the “Purpose With A Capital-P” trap. I read about people who are taking care of *big* places — say, the rain forest — or who are taking care of *big* groups of people — say, the homeless — and I am tempted to think, “Ah, now their lives have Purpose.” And then I look at my life and compare, and it seems to fall short.

    But I am trying hard to take care of my people: my husband, my sons, my friends, my neighbors, myself. And I am trying hard to take care of my place: my house, my backyard, my garden. And I am trying to live with integrity so that my way of taking care of these things doesn’t make it harder for someone else to take care of theirs.

    And I say: that is a life of purpose.

    I am open to my definitions of “my people” and “my place” expanding, but I have to start with what is in front of me.


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