The Search for Meaning versus Pursuit of Happiness

About a week back I read a very interesting article about man’s search for meaning versus the pursuit of happiness. It had quite a few quotes from Viktor Frankl’s book – Man’s Search for Meaning – which I read a few years back.

It spoke about how Viktor Frankl managed to survive the Nazi camp because of his deep seated belief in a purpose in life. He says in his book that the difference between those who survived and those who did not, boiled down to one thing – meaning. It spoke about how two men with suicidal tendencies were convinced to hold on to life – one to write on matters relating to science and the other to care for his child living in a foreign land. He wrote that when a man knows the “why” for his existence, he will be able to bear almost any “how.” He believed that happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.'” For him, “It is the very pursuit of happiness,that thwarts happiness.”

The article then goes on to cite research finding by psychologists and sociologists to drive home a few telling points which I am quoting verbatim.

  • “Leading a happy life is associated with being a “taker” while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a “giver.”
  • The pursuit of happiness is associated with selfish behavior.
  • Meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants.
  • What sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans.
  • In the meaningful life “you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.” – Martin E. P. Seligman
  • While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive effect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting.
  • Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future.
  • people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.
  • Having negative events happen to you, decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life.
  • “If there is meaning in life at all,” Frankl wrote, “then there must be meaning in suffering.”

The very same search for meaning is conveyed very effectively in Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk on the Power of “Why”. He explains in his talk that organisations that believe in the “Why” of their business tower above the rest in terms of their performance and success. He says that leadership is about an inside-out approach where as, ordinary managers have an outside-in approach. For managers, the “what” and “how” dominate their thinking and actions.

For example, Apple was spearheaded by a man – Steve Job – who was consumed by a passion to challenge the status quo and at the cutting edge of innovation.

The Search for Meaning has always fascinated me. My search for meaning has taken me from a half-religious to a teacher to the world of business.

Right now, I do not know how much I am consumed by the search for meaning. I am often distracted by a tendency to satiate myself. Much of the larger cause to be of some good to others, seems to have vaporized. I have to find myself.

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