Are You Living a Happy Life or a Meaningful Life?
Viktor Frankl and his search for meaning
Ask yourself: Would you rather have a happy life or a meaningful life? Many people find this seemingly simple and straightforward question difficult to answer. More often than not, their first inclination is to choose the “happy” option — a life they would most likely characterize as being pleasurable and stress free, where things, including money, flow easily to them and where events and relationships are always positive. This would be utopia, countless people have told us throughout our many years researching and mentoring in the area of meaning.
But, as we all know, utopia is not reality. In fact, the word utopia is derived from Greek words meaning “not a place” or “no place.” It is most commonly used to describe a nonexistent society or, with a slight modification in the original Greek language, one that is imagined to have highly-desirable, nearly perfect, or ideal qualities. Realistically, however, there is no place, no life where we are immune to challenges. There is no life where we are not introduced to contrasts, to opposites such as joy and sorrow, well-being and sickness, good and evil, and so forth. By definition, life flows and has its ups and downs, much like the image on a heart monitor graph. Whereas the graph of a normal healthy heart displays a natural rhythm depicting the energy of life, a “flatline” refers to the exact opposite — a sign of death!
Living the full life is about embracing contrasts. We need to know one thing in order to know and appreciate the other. When we experience sickness, we appreciate and value health. When we experience hunger, we appreciate and value food. When we experience failure, we appreciate and value success. When we experience loneliness, we appreciate and value friendship.
Life, against this backdrop, is about embracing both the joys and the challenges that we experience. It’s the wholeness of life that needs to be embraced if we expect to learn, grow, and achieve our highest potential as human beings. As the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus taught us, “Difficulties are things that show a person who they are.” Difficulties provide us with the opportunity for self-reflection and improvement. It is in these moments of heightened awareness that the windows of opportunity open and invite us to reach deep inside ourselves to discover the real meaning of our existence. Life gives us the opportunity to find meaning even in the most difficult of circumstances.
For example, Dr. Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist, experienced one of the most difficult and inhumane of circumstances imaginable. While imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camps during World War II, he faced the ultimate of life’s challenges. As a prisoner, many things were taken from him: his wife and family, his identity (replaced with a number), his clothing, his health, and his freedom to come and go. Yet he realized that, no matter what was happening around and to him, he still retained the capacity — what he called “the last of the human freedoms” — to choose his attitude and, by extension, his response. He knew that he was responsible for finding meaning in his circumstances and, importantly, for not becoming a prisoner of his thoughts. In essence, he practiced an active approach to finding meaning, rather than choosing to be a passive victim of his circumstances, which were both horrific and inescapable. Frankl’s personal story of finding a reason to live amidst the horrors of the Nazi death camps has inspired millions of people around the world and it continues to do so.
Urged by Dr. Frankl himself during a visit to his study in Vienna, Austria, Alex Pattakos, Ph.D. wrote the best-selling book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts (now available in a revised and expanded 3rd edition). This book reviews the vast writings and teachings of Viktor Frankl, including his best-selling book, Man’s Search for Meaning, and summarizes his work into seven core principles with guidance on how to practice them in everyday life and work. The freedom to choose our attitude, in all situations, is just one of the seven principles covered both as a concept and as a pathway to meaning.
From Frankl’s life and legacy, including his ageless wisdom, we learned that no matter what challenges you may face in your life, you always have the ultimate freedom to choose your attitude towards, and by extension your response to, the situation. Importantly, you always have the personal responsibility to search for the meaning of the moment or event, as well as to understand, learn, and ideally grow from the experience.
Ultimately, life doesn’t happen to us; rather, we happen to life and we are the ones who can make it meaningful. We can choose to thrive under any condition or event. We can choose to live a full life with all the ups and downs, joys and sorrows, etc., that come with it. Only then, by answering life’s call, will we be living a more complete, more meaningful life!
Elaine Dundon and Alex Pattakos, Ph.D. are co-authors of two international best-selling books on Meaning, Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work and The OPA! Way: Finding Joy & Meaning in Everyday Life & Work, as well as are co-founders of the Global Meaning Institute and co-creators of MEANINGology, the study and practice of meaning in life, work, and society.