Meaning > Happiness

25 Jan

I want to tell you a story about a brilliant young medical student who studied neurology and psychiatry. He was born in Vienna, Austria 1905 and corresponded with Sigmund Freud when he was just a boy. His name was Viktor Frankl.




In 1938, Viktor was working in Vienna, establishing suicide prevention centers for adolescents when the Anschluss happened. The Nazis annexed Austria and declared them part of the Reich.




Viktor, who was Jewish, knew the threat the Nazis posed and he applied for a visa to take his wife to the United States, which he was granted, in 1941. He continued to work, and risked his life and career by purposely misdiagnosing mental patients so they would not face extermination. Eventually, he came to understand that he was in very grave danger and that he would soon have to make a decision.


His choice was stark: flee to the security of America and continue to build his astonishing career or stay and help those who suffered. If he went to America, he and his wife would be safe, but he would have to leave his elderly parents behind. He would have to abandon them, with all the other Jews, to their fates.




Viktor decided to stay. He watched his sister flee to the protection of Australia, but his brother Walter, his parents and his wife all remained together, and were eventually deported to concentration camps. In the camps, Viktor took on task of acclimatizing prisoners to the shock and horror of their new realities. He could not prevent the Nazis from imprisoning the Jews, but he could, and did, do his best to help them survive.


Viktor’s wife, his brother and his parents all died. Viktor survived, and he wrote down his experiences in a book originally called Saying Yes to Life in Spite of Everything: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp, but published in 1959 in english as Man’s Search for Meaning.




The message of the book is this: happiness is a sensation of the moment. You are hungry, you eat. You feel happy. You want something, you get it. You are happy. You desire something, you have your desire. You are happy.


Happiness is also fleeting. It lasts only for the moment, and then you must search for a new desire to fulfill. The pursuit of happiness can never be achieved, because happiness will always linger out of grasp. It’s always one desire away.




Meaning is what gives life purpose. The sense that you exist as part of something greater and more significant than yourself. Viktor endured unbearable hardships in the camps, and he witnessed unspeakable horrors, but always, he had the sense that he had a purpose. That his life had meaning. He was there to help others endure.

“Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is.”


Happiness is about taking. It’s about having. It’s about your own personal desire and fulfilment. Meaning is about giving. It’s about responding. It’s about other people.


Having meaning in your life is what makes the inevitable suffering that life brings bearable. Knowing that you exist as part of something greater than yourself. One of the most meaningful things any person can do is become a parent. Having a child connects you to the past and the present and the future like nothing else. Babies are completely and utterly helpless and require intense care, and the work of guiding a child from infancy through adulthood will not always make parents happy. There is nothing happy about being up at 3 AM with a toddler vomiting on the carpet and the baby crying to be fed. But it doesn’t matter. Happiness is not relevant at moments like that. Those children NEED you. They matter. They are the reason you exist, and in meeting your obligations and responsibilities as a parent, you achieve a sense of fulfillment and meaning that cannot be matched by the mere satisfaction of material desires.


Does having children make you happy? Not really. But happiness isn’t the point.


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.”


Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Western cultures have become fixated on the “happiness” part of that equation, and seem to have forgotten that we need a reason to be happy. There is more to life than happiness.


A life well lived is a life filled with meaning, and a day spent giving to others. Today is one of those days where I’m not particularly happy about the laundry piled up and waiting and the floors needing mopping and the dust bunnies threatening revolution under the bunkbeds, but I have no doubt that my life has a purpose and that ultimately, the daily act of caring for others is what leads to happiness. My life is motivated not by a desire for physical things, but by love.


dust bunnies


I say all this, having decided several hours ago, that I am not doing jack-shit in the house today. Fuck the dust bunnies, the laundry and the dishes. Today I’m reading Viktor Frankl and drinking wine. I’m gonna get that “I’m not happy look” when my husband gets home, and all I have to say to that is “I love you, honey. Order pizza for dinner. And remember that happiness isn’t the only thing in life worth pursuing.”




Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another. Thomas Merton.


Lots of love,






14 Responses to “Meaning > Happiness”

  1. Liz January 25, 2013 at 20:21 #

    Hee hee. I have those days pretty regularly, JB. I just schedule them when my husband is away so he’s none the wiser. At our house it’s called either ‘pizza night’ or ‘breakfast-for-dinner night’. Instead of knowing I’m a lazy clam, they think I’m creating a special event! 🙂


  2. Kai January 25, 2013 at 21:08 #

    I agree that meaning is important in a life.
    I agree that having children is a sure way to feel purpose in your life (assuming you have the capacity to be a remotely capable parent).
    I don’t agree that it is a necessary step to feel meaning in your life.
    There are a number of ways an individual can serve others, give of themselves, and make the world a better place that don’t include child-rearing. And some which are only really possible if an individual forgoes parenthood.
    I don’t think a person is any lesser if they have chosen to make a different contribution.


  3. Teresa Dietzinger January 25, 2013 at 21:49 #

    I’m sure she isn’t implying that having kids is the only avenue to a meaningful life. Her message is for those who automatically push away the thought of parenthood because they feel that if they’re not living a life where they’re free to fulfill their hedonistic desires at will, they can’t possibly be happy.


  4. judgybitch January 25, 2013 at 22:09 #

    I agree, Kai. There are many, many ways to contribute to society and to lead a meaningful life. I’m just feeling crabby today because I had to listen to one of those “you don’t really work” assholes who think my life is meaningless and stupid.


  5. Liz January 25, 2013 at 22:45 #

    Don’t let the assholes grind you down. They’re just miserable imbeciles. But if it really bothers you and you’re tired of the bullshit tell them you are working on writing a book. You write a few pages everyday here.


  6. judgybitch January 25, 2013 at 22:53 #

    I have my laptop on my kitchen counter and I check comments and whatnot as I’m running about doing all the Not-work I do all day.

    Just kidding. I sit on my ass in front of the TV and eat bonbons.

    Oh wait. We don’t have a TV.

    Occasionally, people will ask me “what do you need a computer for?”, so I tell them I’m bidding on some throw cushions or a case of scented candles on EBay.

    I love that everyone believes that.

    I’m updating my Facebook status, people!

    Once people think housewives don’t work, there is pretty much nothing you can do to convince them otherwise. So I generally don’t bother.

    But it still makes me grumpy.


  7. Kai January 26, 2013 at 01:48 #

    That’s understandable. That’s obnoxious.
    I wouldn’t cater to themfolk with an ‘I’m working on a book’ or anything. those sorts deserve an ‘I’m raising the next generation’ with a ‘what makes you think your opinion matters?’ look and nothing more.


  8. Bob January 26, 2013 at 03:34 #

    “Pursuit of happiness” is a mistranslation. The word “happiness” was based on the Greek word “eudaimonia,” which means “human flourishing.” It’s achieved by arete, or “excellence.” Excellence is sometimes translated as “virtue,” which means “powers of man.”

    To achieve a flourishing life, you have to be excellent in your chosen field of endeavor. It has to give you meaning, importance and community. It is a power within everyone, in varying degrees.

    These things were covered thousands of years ago. Frankl didn’t say anything that hadn’t been said in the past.


  9. judgybitch January 26, 2013 at 03:39 #

    Just curious, but what were the Founding Fathers translating when they wrote “pursuit of happiness”?


  10. Kai January 26, 2013 at 05:42 #

    That’s absurd.
    It isn’t a mistranslation.
    Unless you’re pulling ‘pursuit of happiness’ from somewhere other that where everyone else quote.
    When people talk about ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’, they are quoting the Declaration of Independence. Which was written in English, by speakers of english.

    There are suggestions as to where they may have pulled the idea, and that combination of three inalienable rights, and quite possibly it came from an older greek phrase which had different connotations, but the men who wrote ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ used the word ‘happiness’ on purpose. Had they wanted to state that humans have the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of excellence, they could have said so.


  11. Alpha Unit January 26, 2013 at 08:14 #

    I have a foolproof 20 minute house sweep that gives the illusion of a productive day and makes the hubby happy. Not too often, of course. 😛 Now, it IS a luxury to be able to kick back on a harder day, but that just makes me appreciate being a stay-at-home wife and mama more.

    Also, since when are office monkeys actually spending their days 100% usefully, and not goofing off on facebook half the day? Amusingly, genuinely productive men who work hard physical jobs almost never give SAHMs shit.


  12. Liz January 26, 2013 at 15:25 #

    SAHMs that stay in shape never receive shit from men. Their husbands are envied. Wow, your wife had kids AND she still looks great AND you live like a king in your house? Wish I were you…

    Anyway, what about the minions? I’m putting mine to work on dust bunny detail this morning. 🙂


  13. happycrow January 27, 2013 at 06:09 #

    You’re right. Additionally, a key aspect of Dr. Frankl’s work is the realization that, psychologically speaking, **nobody suffers any worse than anybody else does.** Per Frankl’s experience, suffering is a VERB — it’s the same thing, whether it’s a concentration camp, or a cut finger.

    Which, of course, is **obviously bullshit** …..except it’s being said by the guy who lived through the concentration camp. Cue head asplode…..


  14. Nicky March 8, 2013 at 06:13 #

    I think meaning =happiness in the long term anyway. Having kids isn’t about being happy every second of the day – it’s about being happier with your life overall because it has meaning. What can I do today that will make me happiest today? Eating junk food and slobbing about. What can I do today that will make me happiest in the long run? Well NOT slobbing about and getting fatter, that’s for sure. So I should probably step away from the computer and not click ‘previous post’ like I’ve been doing all week. (Damn your compelling writing, JB!)


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