Victor Frankl

Victor Frankl

Recently, Emily Esfahani Smith published an article on the Atlantic website titled  “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy.”  In it, she describes the ideas of Victor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist who was sent to a German concentration camp during World War II and later wrote about prisoners’ reactions in Man’s Search for Meaning. The key factor determining whether prisoners survived the experience, said Frankl, was whether they had some purpose or meaning in their lives that required them to survive.  Frankl quoted Nietzsche’s succinct statement of this perspective:  “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”  Smith closes the article by describing why Frankl chose to stay in Vienna and face possible imprisonment by the Nazis rather than leave for America.  Not surprisingly, he did so because he put the welfare of others (his parents) ahead of his own.  For those unfamiliar with Frankl, I recommend Smith’s brief introduction to the man and his thought.

Most of the rest of Smith’s article describes a recent study by Roy Baumeister, social psychologist at Florida State University, and his colleagues concerning the differences between happiness and meaning.  Her summary doesn’t do justice to the researchers’ methodology, but she does provide a helpful link to a paper based on the study that will be published in the Journal of Positive Psychology.  The psychologists paid 397 Americans to take three online surveys over the course of a month.  They measured self-reported happiness (sample item: “In general I consider myself happy, with responses made on a 7-point scale), self-reported meaning (sample item: “In general I consider my life to be meaningful.”), and a variety of other variables.  They found considerable overlap between reports of happiness and of meaning—the correlations between composite measures of meaning and happiness were +.63 when the questions were first asked, and +.70 when they were asked again a month later.  Most of the other questions asked were chosen because the authors thought that those high in happiness and those high in meaning would answer them differently, and indeed quite a few differences were found.  Here’s a sampling—quotes are from the original paper:

  • “Considering life a struggle was negatively correlated with happiness but approached a significant positive relationship with meaningfulness.”
  • “The more often people felt good, the happier they were. The more often they felt bad, the less happy they were. Neither was related to meaning.”
  • “The more time people reported having devoted to thinking about the past and future, the more meaningful their lives were — and the less happy. . . . In contrast, the more time people reported thinking about the present, the happier they were, although this was weak and only marginally significant at p=.07.”
  • “Two key items asked people to rate whether they were givers or takers. Being a giver was positively related to meaningfulness, while being a taker was negatively related to it. Meaning is thus about being a giver rather than a taker. With happiness, the correlation trends were in the opposite direction.”
  • “Another item asked to what extent the participant generally tries to help others in need. More helping was strongly related to meaningfulness, but it had a nonsignificant trend in the opposite direction with happiness.”

The authors conclude that having one’s needs met and having a high frequency of positive emotions are related to happiness but not to meaning.  Meaning, instead, is related to taking a long-term temporal orientation, to doing things for others, and to living a life of purposeful involvement.

I have always been more interested in pursuing the meaningful life than the happy one.  I wonder, though, whether the differences these researchers found between those rating themselves high in happiness and those rating themselves high in meaning have to do largely with the tendency for people in our society to have a shallow sense of what happiness is—one that relies almost entirely on having frequent positive emotional reactions.  This view of the nature of happiness has been decried by writers such as Erik G. Wilson, whose book Against Happiness suggests that we are better off not making vacuous emotional pleasantness a significant life goal.

Maybe happiness and meaning can be reconciled by going back to Aristotle’s concept of eudiamonia (translated as happiness), which he thought was the goal of life.  As I discussed here, eudiamonia consists of living well, which in turn means living according to the proper function of human beings.  A person living this way not only experiences positive emotions, but has a life of purpose that is deeply satisfying.  For Aristotle, a life of happiness is a life of meaning.