Forget Happiness, America–Pursue Dignity and Purpose

“Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.”

Posted May 23, 2020

Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychologist who survived a concentration camp during the Holocaust, wrote in his autobiographical book Man’s Search for Meaning how he was surprised at how some had lived with dignity and purpose amidst very poor, torturous conditions. He wrestled to understand how they did so and came to believe that life has meaning in all circumstances, even the most miserable ones, that we have an innate drive to find meaning in life, and that we have freedom to find meaning in what we do and experience or, in the least, have freedom to take a stand when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering.

Frances Gunn/Unsplash
Source: Frances Gunn/Unsplash

What is “meaning in life?” In America, stereotypically, it’s some form of happiness, rather than dignity or purpose. Frankl himself was intrigued by this. Years later, in reaction to what he deemed trends of western culture, Frankl wrote, “Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.” He concluded, “'One must have a reason to ‘be happy…’ A human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy…” He offered an analogy: “The need for a reason [to be happy] is similar in another specifically human phenomenon—laughter. If you want anyone to laugh you have to provide him with a reason.” Experiencing happiness requires first discovering, creating, realizing, or remembering meaning worth its weight in it.

In the best of cases, trying times shift focus in meaningful ways from pursuits of happiness to pursuits of dignity and purpose. It would be inane to make any further comparison between the Holocaust and the COVID-19 pandemic. I won’t. Here is, perhaps, a more apt anecdote.

Years ago, a Marine—I'll call him Alfredo—sat contemplatively in my office while recovering from a car accident. Alfredo had been driving on a highway when several cars swerved and braked. As he swerved, his car rose into the air and then tumbled down an embankment, slamming into a concrete wall.

Alfredo mentioned that service members, including himself, frequently talked about a particular Master Sergeant’s face, about how mean he always looks. Alfredo said that many Marines are afraid of him. As his Master Sergeant spoke with him about his accident, he recognized, "He's just like all of us."

One day when he and some fellow Marines were walking past the Master Sergeant in a hallway, Alfredo spontaneously said something witty yet warm-hearted, hoping the Master Sergeant would react. He stopped and looked back at Alfredo, paused, and started laughing. Alfredo said, "That was the first time they had ever seen the Master Sergeant laugh," then added, “Everyone’s been asking me, ‘How are you so calm around him?' I told them, 'You have to make people feel comfortable around you. It's your responsibility, no matter who they are.'”

Christian Buehner/Unsplash
Source: Christian Buehner/Unsplash

He said the patrol officer had asked how he got out of the car, and he didn't know. He told him he was very lucky and seemed shocked. He said he is left to assume God intervened and got him out of the car safely. A nurse told him a nerve was pulled in his back that is connected to his legs and that it is a miracle he can even walk.

For a few days after the accident, he was shaken up. Weeks later he reported a greater sense of meaning in life. “Ever since, I notice things differently, like when people say nice things to me, even trivial things I wouldn't have noticed before. I am grateful and respond." I told him that was a beautiful effect of a bad thing that had happened and that it reflects well on his capacity for resilience.

He said, "People complain a lot about this base. One Marine came to me and complained about his situation. I see things much bigger now. I told him, ‘It's what you make of it.’”

There is much beyond the bounds of our control. In spite of that, we have important, dignified, purposeful roles to play. What will you make of it?

In accord with ethical standards of practice, client identity has been protected through alteration of names and unique identifying details. Adapted case anecdote originally appeared in "Clap Along if You Know What Happiness is to You" at GoodMenProject.com.