(Stock photo) Viktor Frankl says the pursuit of pleasure is not the highest aim of mankind. That leaves us unfulfilled. It is the recognition that our lives have meaning that brings contentment.
Our Search for Meaning
JULY 25, 2007Craig Harris, HappyNews ColumnistWe spend our lives trying to become more comfortable, more free, and seeking more and more pleasure. Isn’t everyone’s goal to be happy, content, and fulfilled? How do we find these things, and especially when life isn’t turning out like we thought it should? What about when tragedy strikes? Can we still be happy? These were the questions asked by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl.Frankl says the pursuit of pleasure is not the highest aim of mankind. That leaves us unfulfilled. It is the recognition that our lives have meaning that brings contentment.Frankl was already a published psychiatrist in Austria in 1942 when he was sent to four different concentration camps by the Nazis. Frankl, a Jew, spent the next three years watching thousands of men die around him. His wife and parents also died in the camps. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning (Pocket Books, 1984), Frankl describes his years in the prison camps and the lessons he learned about the human spirit.He developed a form of psychology he called logotherapy. (Logo from the Greek term for meaning.) He contended that a man can survive almost anything if he feels his life has a purpose. In Auschwitz and the other camps, he spoke to many men who were despondent about their situation. They were starved and cold, laboring daily with no hope in sight. None of them knew if he would live through the day, much less the year. They had had every possession taken from them, and were even separated from their loved ones.But so long as they felt they had a reason to live, they could find the will to exist another day. He said all freedoms can be taken from you except one: the freedom to choose how you are going to react to a situation. In the camps, some chose to live completely selfishly, but some chose to be optimistic, searching for meaning, perhaps even helping those around them.After Frankl was released in 1945, he continued to speak and write, building on his experiences. He found that many of the mental challenges people face are because they do not realize that their lives have purpose. One study showed that a group of drug users began to take drugs because they felt their lives were meaningless. Parents need to realize this and understand how important it is for their children to feel they are here for a reason -- a higher purpose than pursuing their own pleasure. The good news is that any person, of any age, and in any circumstance can find meaning. Frankl says we do so in three places: creating a work or doing a deed; experiencing something or encountering someone (loving someone); and the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering. (Suffering should be avoided, but when it cannot, it can cleanse us and make us stronger. He says facing suffering is itself a noble purpose.)Seeking pleasure, in fact, is almost a guaranteed way not to achieve it. It is when we pursue meaning that we find contentment. When we aim to fulfill the needs of those around us, we will be fulfilled as well. Pleasure will find us when we are not seeking it.If, however, we try to fill our lives with our own pleasures, we will be unsatisfied. The idea, then, is to try to see beyond ourselves and consider those around us. The pleasure we experience will not be something at which we aim, but a result of our attempts to love and care for others. Mankind’s highest pursuit is not pleasure, but meaning.
You can contact Harris at lcraigharris.blogspot.com.