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Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Pursuit Of Happiness May Make Us Unhappy

One of the most influential books of the 20th Century was Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning (1946), reviewed in The Atlantic by Emily Esfahani Smith (1.19.13). Frankl was a Nazi concentration camp survivor and wrote the book while imprisoned.  He argued that finding meaning life and in one’s own life especially, was the key to survival.  Those who had found meaning lived, and those who did not, died.  Those who felt that life was worth living, had purpose, and subscribed to something larger than themselves, had the will, determination, and fortitude to survive where others succumbed.
As he saw in the camps, those who found meaning even in the most horrendous circumstances were far more resilient to suffering than those who did not. "Everything can be taken from a man but one thing," Frankl wrote in Man's Search for Meaning, "the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."
Smith observes that the search for meaning honored by Frankl has become secondary in a ‘pursuit of happiness’ society which values taking over giving and personal gratification for its own sake.
Frankl’s key idea centered around the individual – once a man realizes that he is unique and indispensable; and that he has a purpose and mission to accomplish, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, his will to survive is strengthened.  Today’s cult of individualism robs the individual of dignity, for it reduces his pursuits to the temporal and the unnecessary.
This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the "why" for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any "how."
When Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers penned the words ‘In Pursuit Of Happiness’, they never meant the self-serving search for personal satisfaction or gratification; but the quest for a happy, coherent, and harmonious community.  Man’s individual venal instincts should be suppressed so that his higher, more moral sentiments could be expressed:
The Founding Fathers were very much concerned with the respecting the rights of the individual but also with the fostering of civic community which would offer protection and benefits.  They sought to achieve a balance between the inviolable rights of the individual to pursue his spiritual needs and to work freely and without encumbrance; and the importance of community to support these and other goals.  When Jefferson wrote about ‘the pursuit of happiness' in the Declaration of Independence he was influenced by the philosophy of John Locke – one did not pursue happiness for personal pleasure or satisfaction, but for the well-being of society – the aggregation of individuals. (Uncle Guido’s Facts http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2012/07/rousseauthe-social-contract-and.html)
At the heart of this Enlightenment philosophy was the concept of the perfectibility of man – the attainment of  the higher goals of universal, collective happiness was not idealistic but real and possible.  Frankl was not thinking on this moral plane of political philosophy.  How could he have been, given the horrors of the camps where survival was not a matter of simply withstanding the rigors of building a new country out of virgin land, but staying alive in the most brutal, evil, and inhumane environment imaginable?

Ironically Frankl was echoing Nietzsche who believed in the supreme power of Will.  The only way to carve meaning out of meaningless universe, said the philosopher, was to to express one’s own personal, individual instincts to the extreme.  Be a Superman and rise above the herd.  Be great, unique, and triumphant.  Reading Frankl’s words cited above, he both mentions connection, community and humanity; but also individual achievement.  ‘The unfinished work’ is meant to mean any personal undertaking in which one has invested character, ambition, and desire.
America had lost its way, Frankl wrote almost 70 years ago:
"To the European it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to 'be happy.' But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to 'be happy’”.
Frankl lived long enough (d.1997) to see this early observation confirmed again and again. We clearly have no reason to be happy other than for happiness itself.  We have strayed far from the understanding of Thomas Jefferson and from the moral precepts of Frankl.  Many of Frankl’s and Jefferson’s followers believe that we have become hedonistic, sybaritic, and endlessly pleasure-seeking.  Materialism rules, and reflection and due consideration are things of the past. We have indeed lost our way.

According to research we Americans are quite happy with our lives:
According to Gallup , the happiness levels of Americans are at a four-year high -- as is, it seems, the number of best-selling books with the word "happiness" in their titles. At this writing, Gallup also reports that nearly 60 percent all Americans today feel happy without a lot of stress or worry.
At the same time, most of us feel that we have not found any meaning in our lives:
According to the Center for Disease Control, about 4 out of 10 Americans have not discovered a satisfying life purpose. Forty percent either do not think their lives have a clear sense of purpose or are neutral about whether their lives have purpose. Nearly a quarter of Americans feel neutral or do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful.
How to explain this apparent contradiction?  One simple answer is found in the way the questions are asked.  Most people will answer that they are satisfied if they have fulfilled basic objectives – a decent job, a reasonably intact family, and some disposable income.  Most polls don’t probe and ask, “Come on now.  Are you really happy?”  The 4-in-10 figure corresponds to the large middle class in America who are content with their modest achievements.  The 20 percent who are in poverty or just above are likely to answer that they are unhappy, given their expectations; and those in the highly educated upper-middle class and above, interpreting the question in a more existential way, may answer, “Not really”. 

In any event according to researchers, all those who say they are happy really are not: 
Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. On top of that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research. "It is the very pursuit of happiness," Frankl knew, "that thwarts happiness."
The only conclusion is that these happy, stress-free 40 percent, will eventually slide into a Black Dog depression, especially as they get older and realize that the Cadillac in the driveway ‘ain’t worth a hill of beans’.

There are two aspects of this happiness-meaning issue that have not been discussed in Smith’s article.  The first is that ‘meaning’ for many does not refer to Frankl’s individualism – i.e. that each individual, once having realized his unique role and contribution to the world, will have found meaning and the will to live.  For determinists who believe that human destiny is a matter of genetic survival, supply and demand, self-preservation and –aggrandizement, the only ‘meaning’ to be found in life is a confirmation of that assumption. 

Unlike Frankl many do not value the individual as anything unique except in the most transitory and superficial way.  We are all propelled by the human nature which is our foundation, our inherited genes, and the environment in which we were born and nurtured. While we may be pianists, plumbers, and poets as individuals; we are tiny moving pieces in what Jan Kott has called The Grand Mechanism of history.  Is there any less ‘true’ happiness in this particular understanding?  Isn’t it the core belief of Buddhists who see life only as a series of inevitable changes, regardless of their perceived variations? And will not this insight lead to peace, tranquility and enlightenment?

The second aspect of this happiness-meaning paradigm which has been ignored is the cyclical nature of insight.  The Age of Enlightenment was not and will not be history’s only intellectually luminescent era.  Out of crass materialism will certainly come another.

Our frenetic consumer culture – our I-Phones, I-Pads, and video games; our wildly diverse cuisines, fashion, and travel; our throw-away products, and our engagement in quick, personalized marketing – masks a revolutionary philosophical trend.  Virtual reality – our progressive and inevitable incorporation into a totally virtual world already begun – will change the very nature of human relationships, the definition of community, the provision of basic needs, and the pursuit of happiness or the search for meaning.  In a future virtual world survival, will, and competition will have shifted to another plane.  Such a disembodied world may enable us to contemplate Being and Nothingness, Oneness, or religious ecstatic fulfillment in ways we cannot even imagine.

In a sense, then, Frankl’s words of wisdom are locked into a very historical time, place, and circumstance.  The only lasting lesson from his work is that will and determination can help in dire, near-extinction scenarios; but we know this already.  An old-fashioned physician who developed a unique rapport with his patients and observed them as human beings as well as patients, once said that he knew when a patient was going to die – they had given up the will to live, and he could see the resignation on their faces.   The physician cited the case of his mother who had been one of the fiercest, willful people he knew.  She was absolutely convinced she would live forever (she made it to just shy of 100), and no one denied that her indomitable will was one of the reasons she just might succeed.
Baumeister [Willpower: Discovering the Greatest Human Strength] and his colleagues would agree that the pursuit of meaning is what makes human beings uniquely human. By putting aside our selfish interests to serve someone or something larger than ourselves -- by devoting our lives to "giving" rather than "taking" -- we are not only expressing our fundamental humanity, but are also acknowledging that that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness.
This is of course not what Frankl meant – an individual was as much Nietzsche’s character as it is of political ‘progressives’.  There is as much value in completing ‘the unfinished work’ as in giving, sharing, cooperating, and building a more complementary world.

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