Do You Want a Happy Life or a Meaningful Life?

A friend shared an article from Atlantic Monthly which really hit the nail on the head for me because in this current phase of my life, I am pondering what gives me meaning versus what makes me happy.

As I started reading the article, I’m thinking to myself, “Why is Viktor Frankl in an article about being happy?” That’s what good articles do, right? They have a hook that draws you in (but don’t get him mixed up with Victor Frankenstein, the protagonist of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a classic).

viktor frankl

So Viktor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist from Vienna, gets sent to a Nazi concentration camp with his family. Everyone in his family dies, except for him.  Boy, this is just filled with happiness.

Then I read this paragraph…

“In his bestselling 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to one thing: Meaning, an insight he came to early in life. When he was a high school student, one of his science teachers declared to the class, ‘Life is nothing more than a combustion process, a process of oxidation.’ Frankl jumped out of his chair and responded, ‘Sir, if this is so, then what can be the meaning of life?’ “

… and I was hooked.

So the reason Frankl survives is because he found meaning in his life– he was able to counsel his fellow inmates and give them hope. He had something to carry him through the horror of the Holocaust— helping others survive.

I just want to cut and paste whole sections of the article here, but you can just read it for yourself. My main takeaway is this: “Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others.”

Caring for my two young children fulfills me and gives me a purpose, but it is not enough. So many things make me happy, but I notice it doesn’t last the way it lasts when I do something meaningful.  Will I be fully happy then, if I find my purpose, my meaning in life? That is the question.

I love this quote by Martin Seligman, who is one of the leading psychological scientists (I was a psychology major and studied him in college– you can probably tell I go for this stuff–  and I still have his textbook tucked away under mountains of boxes in my garage):

“In the meaningful life ‘you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.’ ” 

As I try to pick which fork of the road to take, this comes to mind and makes me hopeful:

“I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.” 

(Robert Frost- The Road Not Taken)

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3 Responses to Do You Want a Happy Life or a Meaningful Life?

  1. Consuelo says:

    Thank you! I read Man’s Search for Meaning in college, and loved it. So good to be reminded of all these things!

  2. What a beautiful and I inspiring post. Thank you for making my day.

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