Feelin’ It: The Pursuit of Meaning


Shelves upon shelves at Barnes and Noble stock self-help books on “how to achieve happiness,” but in an article originally published in The Atlantic, Emily Esfahani Smith cites Viktor Frankl (a prominent Jewish psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust) among others to show us that maybe there’s more to life than happiness.

Feelin It: The Pursuit of Meaning

[quote type=”center”] It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.[/quote]

When Viktor Frankl later wrote about his experience at a Nazi concentration camp as prisoner 119104, he found that the difference between those prisoners who lived and those who died came down to one thing: Meaning.

“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.”

More than half a decade later, with the number of best-selling books with the word “happiness” in it reaching an all-time high, Smith feels that it might be time to revisit Frankl’s theory. Indeed, recent research has found that “having life purpose…increases overall well-being, improves metal and physical health and enhances resiliency, while as single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy.”


Why might that be the case? Smith cites the Journal of Positive Psychology for the answer. Apparently, the pursuit of happiness is associated with being a “taker,” where one attempts to satisfy a drive like desire or hunger. People therefore become happy when they get what they want. Meaning, on the other hand, is derived from “using your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self, even if it comes at the expense of happiness.”

The good news is, the studies also found that “people who have meaning in their lives, in the form of a clearly defined purpose, rate their satisfaction with life higher even when they were feeling bad than those who did not have a clearly defined purpose.” So if something’s bogging you down lately, try thinking of something larger (be it a long term goal or your precious child), and perhaps you’ll be able to derive some joy in knowing that you are in pursuit of something greater than happiness.