Pursuing Happiness? Take a Step Back

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Max Lata

Professor Deanne Harper

Writing 5

24 January 2017

Pursuing Happiness? Take a Step Back

Tackling a question requires a shared vocabulary for those discussing; scientists would not be able to cooperate on building rockets if not for concepts and words like “acceleration” and “jerk.” Like launching rockets, discussing an abstract concept also requires specialized words, but where physics’ concreteness standardizes terms, a more cross-disciplinary and subjective question brings to the table more mindsets and varied vocabularies. Happiness is one such abstract concept. Every person discussing the matter has slightly different denotations for the words that surround happiness. While one might argue that happiness is bright and passionate, his contemporary may say that it burns slowly but deliberately. This variance also occurs with “meaning.” Though not always explicitly stated, meaning is implied in many arguments. Meaning keeps the individual living, but while base forms of meaning that constitute existence or result from misguided endeavors do not move the individual forward, positive meaning that fulfills the individual can also lead to happiness.

Before arguing, then, it is necessary to define the terms used in this essay. Firstly, “meaning,” in its simplest form, is anything that keeps someone or something going in life in a specific direction. As later argued, meaning can be as simple as simple survival or as complex as developing treatments for psychological afflictions. To clarify, for the average citizen of a first-world country, working solely for money to pay for necessities would not necessarily constitute meaning; simple survival for a first-world citizen is a base goal that is easily met and thus does not give one meaning. The same citizen working for money to raise a loving family, however, would be working with meaning as family is a positive, fulfilling goal. The difference lies in the directional component of the definition. While the first scenario keeps one living, the second has a forward direction that moves the individual from one state to another, from simply being to something more. Secondly, the “specific direction” component of “meaning” includes backwards directions. A man may cheat on his wife in search of lustful pleasure, but while this search may give him a meaning, it is a base one and cannot lead to happiness. Thirdly, happiness can be achieved through a clear view of positive meaning, but as this essay focuses on the importance of meaning, “happiness” will take on a general meaning of something higher than simple existence as a result of positive emotion. Its opposite, “unhappiness,” will serve as a term implying sadness and pain. Lastly, because “meaning” is the main focus, it will only be discussed in so far as its necessity in achieving happiness but not how this relationship works i.e. showing that meaning is necessary, but not why.

Examining unhappiness benefits the discussion of happiness. As such, Dr. Viktor Frankl’s autobiographical “Man’s Search for Meaning” — which details his psychological journey through the infamous Nazi labor camp Auschwitz-Birkenau — presents an interesting starting point.

The Existence of Unhappiness and Meaning

Happiness, as defined above, was impossible in such an environment full of humiliation, pain and fear, especially in conjunction with this first-hand account of camp-life beatings, sickness and omnipresent death. Buddhism, however, believes that suffering is the individual’s fault, that a shift in perspective dispels unhappiness, but unhappiness does not just exist in the mind. Matthieu Ricard’s Zen Buddhism does not address constant pain completely when he talks of “visible suffering.” Additionally freeing oneself of “selfishness and misplaced desires,” by “work[ing] for the good of others” accelerated one’s track to death. This statement is corroborated by Frankl’s experience. Many prisoners tried to live their lives for others. They helped the fallen up even if it meant being beat by guards, and they gave what little food they had to others. In Frankl’s famous words “the best of us did not return.” (20). Buddhists would have espoused such charity, but it killed those who practiced it, often more miserably exacerbating their hunger and pain.

. Despite happiness’s absence in the camp, Frankl’s main argument indicates another driving and sustaining force, the titular “meaning.” Meaning breathes life into people, and happiness can only be achieved if the individual has a positive meaning that drives him or her forward. Happiness was absent from the camp, so it does not keep us moving. This conclusion points to another driving force, the titular “meaning” discussed in Frankl’s book.

Frankl was torn from his home and thrust into Auschwitz, but while other first-hand novels and books are emotional, “Man’s Search for Meaning” stands alone in its objectivity and near clinical writing from a doctor, specifically, a psychiatristsurvived by finding meaning in love, which sustained him.. Though much of the book strikes strong chords, perhaps the most influential concerns Frankl’s and his fellow inmates’ long, icy walk back to the camp from a day of labor. “My mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness … A thought transfixed me … [t]he truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the greatest secret … The salvation of man is through love and in love” (86). As a way to survive, Frankl found meaning in love, which sustained him. Other survivors of Auschwitz found meaning similarly by feeling they were responsible to someone who should not be disappointed, a family member, a friend, or even God (67). Both avenues toward meaning, realizing there is more in life, like love, or doing things for fear of judgment, gave prisoners a means to move forward every morning. Without that meaning, they would not have the energy to do the things that kept them functioning like washing their faces or cleaning their shoes (48). These activities gave prisoners a semblance to their old lives, keeping them sane. would have wasted away like those who acquiesced.

Frankl’s Place in Other Arguments

While examining extremes benefits the conversationWhile examining extremes like Auschwitz, gives more insight, such situationsthey do not constitute most of daily life, but Frankl’s experiences have implications outside Auschwitz. Happiness and meaning have an almost pyramidal relationship; to rise to the former, one needs the latter as a base.are a pyramid with meaning as the base and happiness as the top; to rise to the former, the latter is necessary. Though other authors do not explicitly state so, thisThis rule can be applied to their other authors’ arguments. It even binds the seemingly disjointed physiological and philosophical arguments.

Neurobiologist Stefan Klein’s discourse revolves around the mechanics of happiness, what is happening in the brain that we deem “happiness.” By listing the happiness-inducing neurotransmitters to examples of acts that release them, Klein circles his main argument. “Endorphins and enkephalins sweeten responsibility: Reward [sic] and pleasure are always better motivators than force and fear of punishment. It is precisely those things that are most pleasant that are most necessary for the survival of the species” (Klein 205). In essence, Klein believes that happiness is simply an evolutionary adaptation to keep organisms living. This is similar to Frankl’s experiences, but it is incorrect to point out that Klein’s “happiness” is fully equal to Frankl’s “meaning.” To even get to the point of Klein’s “happiness” a species needs a prime directive; for most animals, that is merely survival. Without life’s will toward survival, toward passing on genes to progeny, there would be no such mechanisms to force life to carry out those functions. Happiness comes secondarily, after there is a meaning. Frankl’s logic encapsulates Klein’s argument, and it can fit into philosophical conversations as well.

The popular counterargument here is that if human beings have the same happiness-inducing mechanisms, if simple eating and massage cause a rush of chemicals, they should always be happy. This thinking neglects to acknowledge some truths. Though humans may be animals in the scientific sense, putting people and dogs on the same plane of sentience is wrong. Human beings have grown civilizations and have worked around many of the evolutionary pressures that once made survival the main objective. For example, guns, weapons and walls defend against predators, and modern medicine fixes afflictions that once spelled death. This is not to say that humans have lost those hard-coded happiness-inducing mechanisms, but rather to point out that because they have guaranteed the basic needs, humans can search for happiness in activities such as philosophy that do not just keep blood flowing.

On this other side of the science-philosophy spectrum lies political philosopher Martha Nussbaum, whose beliefs, though running contrary to Klein’s idea that happiness can be brought on by anything, not just positive, meaningful activities, still align with Frankl’s meaning-centric framework. Nussbaum cites philosophers from throughout history to weave together answers to questions about happiness. Her arguments relies heavily on the assumption that happiness is bound to certain virtuous activities, meaning she disagrees with Klein’s assumption that eating and massage lead to happiness. In fact, she states so in her argument. “Pleasure, as I have said, is not identical with happiness, but it usually (not always) accompanies the unimpeded performance of the activities that constitute happiness” (Nussbaum 115). The two disagree on a fundamental level, yet still share implications of meaning that are important to achieving happiness. This is shown by Nussbaum’s word choice further describing those activities, “virtuous activities.” (115). Virtue implies an agreed-upon set of social and societal morals; it implies that certain things are inherently better. Furthermore, “virtuous” has a greater implication. If certain traits or actions are “virtuous,” it is assumed that people are to follow said virtues by trying to live their lives in accordance those traits and actions. To state this more obviously, virtue dictates people’s meaning in life. A real-world example of such logic is the Bible, which lays out virtues through stories like the Ten Commandments to demonstrate that good things come to those who follow said virtues while bad things befall those who stray from them. Such a value system provides a meaning to millions of Christians who attend services regularly and do community service with their church, and from there, by living in accordance with those virtues, they can achieve happiness.

The Mutual (but not Guaranteed) Inclusivity of Happiness and Meaning

Happiness follows meaning. It is an important principle, but one with qualification. Happiness follows positive meaning, not just any meaning. While Nussbaum argues that moral actions lead to happiness from the angle of what things achieve happiness, C.S. Lewis’ essay, “We Have No Right to Happiness,” proves the same point from the negative. Using the pseudonymous couples Mr. and Mrs. A. and Mr. and Mrs. B. as well as the hyperbolic strawman character Clare, Lewis demonstrates that society has come to wrongfully revere sexual pleasure as well as the right to pursue it. The story behind his argument is simple and elegantly woven even if stacked in his favor. Mr. A. “deserts” and divorces his wife to marry Mrs. B., who does the same with her husband because “… he [Mr. B.] got smashed up in the war. It was thought he had lost his virility, and it was known that he had lost his job … She [Mrs. A.] had lost her looks — and all her liveliness” (Lewis 227). As Lewis paints the picture, each left their spouse for base reasons. His discourse continues touching on society’s sanctification of sex before making a few important concluding points. “Everyone (except Mr. A. and Mrs. B.) knows that Mr. A. in a year or so may have the same reason for deserting his new wife as for deserting his old. He will see himself as the great lover, and his pity for himself will exclude all pity for women” (Lewis 231). Mr. A. and Mrs. B.’s romance is founded on “sexual impulses,” and sexual impulses are volatile and fleeting. There is no substantial meaning in a sexual impulse to sustain the individual past its fulfillment; sexual impulse follows sexual impulse cyclically, with each erotic experience seeming to erase the significance of the one before as well as obligation and marriage in the case of Mr. A. and Mrs. B. There is no work to or for anything outside of physical pleasure, and even if sex is seen to be bound with love, the thing that drove Frankl through Auschwitz, it is a part of love, but not an indication of it. As such, Mr. A and Mrs. B live at a base level and will not achieve meaning in their relationships. Negative meaning, such as sexual pleasure, may give the individual motive to move in pursuit of that meaning, but it cannot lead to happiness.

Meaning as a Changing Parameter

And yet, meaning is mutable. Frankl’s life experiences after Auschwitz exemplify this point. Upon liberation, Frankl began to work on logotherapy, a treatment derived from what he had learned in the camp. Logotherapy stems from the idea that lack of meaning causes emotional problems. He wanted to help other people, and he worked feverishly to do so. It became his new reason to live; in fact, he even remarried, showing that his meaning shifted from remembering love in his life to helping others. The change arose from a shift in perspective; while once a camp laborer focused on surviving, Frankl’s transition back to being another member of society was accompanied with changes in outlook that focused on higher objectives. His profession and beliefs explain this shift in meaning. “...I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system” (Frankl 200). Such reasoning explains why Buddhism advocates helping those less fortunate; it allows for that human-to-human connection that makes life meaningful, and from there, the monks can achieve what they describe as happiness. Meaning is central and changes throughout life.


Examining Frankl’s life and theories emphasizes the meaning’s importance as it is the first problem to be tackled in living fuller lives. A clear sense of meaning allowed him to move forward in Auschwitz, and this emphasis on meaning can be applied to other expert’s views, creating a more complete path to pursuing happiness. As is argued by Ricard, Frankl and Nussbaum, external forces, such as helping others or living according to virtues, are necessary to find a positive meaning that will later yield happiness. Additionally, analyzing Frankl’s life after the Holocaust, when his meaning in life changed to curing others via logotherapy, proves that meaning can change. Such a principle is important, especially when synthesized with Lewis’ essay; even though Mr. A. and Mrs. B lead misdirected lives due to a poor sense of meaning, hope is not lost. Meaning can change, and upon finding positive meaning, ­­happiness can be achieved. All of these arguments pieced together can change the way we pursue happiness.

Happiness represents the endgame, but like all endgames, there is no one-step process to it. If one wants to be happy, he or she must reflect on how to find personal meaning, and positive, fulfilling meaning at that. Scientists did not launch rockets to the moon by having muddled concepts and no motivation; they got a man on the moon with clear vision and meaning to discover worlds beyond our own. If people apply the same concepts to their own lives, they too can reach out beyond what they have now for something more.

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