Happiness- Pursuit or Side Effect
I've found myself referencing this painting titled "Choices" many times in the past few weeks. I wondered 'why' until now. It's a beautiful gift from a now deceased Vietnam Combat Veteran. He put his life in harms way for a freedom he believed possible and needed, not for his self, but rather for others. His life was meaningful. His duty held meaning, even though the desired end was not found. With freedom, we may choose, decide, act responsibly, be constructive, or not. Freedom, however, does not really mean doing whatever we want, whenever we want and then becoming happy and fulfilled. No, freedom, like it or not, necessitates responsibility and mature action. On December 7, 1967, Viktor Frankl, the founder of Logotherapy and a Holocaust Survivor, gave a speech at Providence College. This was the anniversary of our "Day of Infamy" and a time of great turmoil in our country. There was protest against war, so-called "free love," drug use, and a generational attack against conformity, authoritarianism and the status quo. Within months there would be horribly assasinations and riots in the streets, a complex national trauma beyond belief. The country, it seemed, was struggling to find meaning and stability. Dr. Frankl was asked to address what was perceived as an underlying problem of the time, "Youth in Search of Meaning." Instead, he chose to address the universal human need for meaning. He spoke of the present tendecy to seek pleasure as an escape from the responsible pursuit of "true" meaning, of being too much into and for the self. Self-gratification and self-indulgence seemed to be treated as the new norm, the new normal. Surprisingly, Frankl made an argument against the Declaration of Independence's statement of belief in the "pursuit of happiness." Happiness, he said, was not to be an end in itself. He knew from Aushwitz that, when a person chooses happiness or that which is pleasurable as an end in itself, when pleasure becomes "deified," life is over. Those he saw at Aushwitz who chose a cigarette to a piece of bread for survival and a greater good were giving up. Despair has won. The person has given up, chosen a path that leads only to destruction. The search for "true" meaning in life, Frankl argued, is not the pursuit of happiness, pleasure, but rather the responsible and mature act of choosing to connect and commit to someone or something greater than our self. The feeling of happiness is more of a beneficial consequence or "side effect" of having meaning in life. Self-gratification, selfishness and narcissism will not help us find constructive and life-enhancing meaning in life. Finding meaning in life is to reach for something or someone more than us- our partner, a vocation, the good of our country or of another's, a Higher Power, the good of our environment, the health of our pet, a daily job, etc. This gives us something or someone to live for a "true" way to a meaningful life. How can we find a way to have real meaning in life today? Are we willing to admit that we need a greater someone or something than our self to do so? Or, do we think whatever "I" want to feel good is itself our life's end? Is it just whatever makes ME happy? Will we delude our self to believe that by just reaching out to feel happy, we are leading a meaningful life? The world of addiction shows us the sad lived-out experience of a wrong choice. Seems it's a time for each of us to personally reflect and decide which we are choosing or which we wish to choose. Frankl would probably be the first to admit that making our self feel good is the easier choice. He chose more. He chose a meaningful life. What do you choose?
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Bob Fournier Ph.D.