Since the pandemic began, I’ve focused a lot on the pursuit of happiness. I wanted to keep my spirits up. I took the free Science of Well-Being course through Coursera, I listened to happiness podcasts, I kept a wellness journal where I recorded things I was grateful for, exercise, meditation, beauty and excellence I appreciated, and all the other stuff that brings a sense of well-being.
I learned a ton about the psychology of happiness. I became attentive to feelings of wonder and satisfaction, and I acted intentionally to summon a sense of well-being. And it all helped me. I am deeply grateful.
Still, something felt lacking. I recently read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Not far into the book these lines stopped me:
Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue.– Viktor E. Frankl
Happiness cannot be pursued. It must ensue.
Frankl was a neurologist, psychiatrist, and philosopher who survived four Nazi concentration camps. The thesis central to his life and his survival was that humankind’s fundamental driver, our deepest motivational force, is the search for life’s meaning.
Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life.– Viktor E. Frankl
This line tapped a gong in me that still rings in deep, quiet tones. Yes, I want to be happy. But meaning. Meaning has a depth and gravity that quicken my soul. Meaning is purposeful. Meaning is bigger than me. Meaning is bigger than happiness.
I have not felt something this true in a long time, that the search for meaning is a fundamental motivator in my life. I’ve always searched for meaning, for connections, for patterns, for something bigger. I think meaning was what was missing when I pursued only happiness. My happiness is only about me. Meaning is about all of us, and the rocks and the trees and the stars. Meaning encompasses all of life, all of not life, and the seen and the unseen, the known and the unknown.
So of course, when reading this book, my thought was, “YES! I am ready! What are my next steps?” Lucky for me, Frankl tells us.
We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: 1) by creating a work or doing a deed, 2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and 3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.– Viktor E. Frankl
I pay attention to these now. I write them down. I no longer feel like I’ve failed on days I don’t feel happy. I no longer try to force happiness when it’s not there. I continue with gratitude. I continue to create and do, to experience wonder, to appreciate chance encounters, and when I suffer my minor sufferings, I try not to whine too much.