Happiness…it’s important to Americans – in fact, the unalienable right to search for happiness is touted in the U.S. Declaration of Independence: “…life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The document that represents the foundation upon which our country was built, calls out the importance of happiness – now that’s something. I won’t deny that being happy is important, and it sure does feel good, but is it all that matters? Is happiness the goal, or is it a byproduct of something more meaningful?
From the time I was an undergraduate, and heard a political science professor talk about his experience as a young child in a Nazi concentration camp, I’ve been fascinated with the stories of Holocaust survivors. Hundreds of books have been penned by these remarkable people, and a recurring theme among them seems to focus on the survivors’ ability to find meaning, even in the most bleak and horrible situations.
Viktor Frankl, a noted neurologist and psychiatrist, wrote in his memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, about his experiences at Auschwitz and Dachau. Frankl examines the importance of finding significance, even in unbearable circumstances. He writes that a person who, “knows the why for his existence, will be able to bear almost any how.” Wow, that’s definitely about more than just feeling happy. But Frankl goes on to say 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.” Maybe his point is not that we should chase happiness, but that we can choose it – that in our pursuit of meaning, we choose an attitude that allows us to be helpful, grateful and kind – an attitude that opens us to happiness – or at least to a more positive emotional state.
It reminds me of a quote I read recently from Pope John XXIII. He said, “Do not walk through time without leaving worthy evidence of your passage.” Perhaps when we find meaning in our lives, by serving, loving, educating, helping, protecting, enlightening, supporting others, we discover that happiness is not the goal of our existence, but it is the consequence of our actions and our intentions. By pursuing and creating purpose in life, we ready our hearts and minds for the joys – both large and small – that we choose to experience along the way. So, although the pursuit of happiness may be a different journey for every person, our common goal may be a desire for each of us to create a more meaningful passage through time.