Is happiness necessary for a good life?

Man's Search for Meaning

Happiness. Feeling good. No stress. No worries.  These are ways that many Americans describe the good life.  But in an article entitled “Against Happiness,” philosopher Carl Elliott doubts the “wisdom of making psychological well-being the sole measure of a successful life.”


Writing from very different vantage point, the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl would agree.  “It’s the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”


“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 penned these words in 1945, immediately after spending three years in Nazi concentration camps.  His own suffering was compounded by the deaths of his pregnant wife, his parents, and his brother—all victims of the gas chamber or the sub-human conditions of the camps.  Yet, in Man’s Search for Meaning, he makes a compelling case for “the self-transcendence of human existence.”


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.” …


Writing recently in The Atlantic, Emily Esfahani Smith uses Viktor Frankl’s life and wisdom as the backdrop for an insightful look at the place of happiness in American culture.


[The ethos of Man’s Search for Meaning]—its emphasis on meaning, the value of suffering, and responsibility to something greater than the self—seems to be at odds with our culture, which is more interested in the pursuit of individual happiness than in the search for meaning.


High levels of happiness are reported, but at the same time, a significant number of Americans have not discovered a meaningful purpose for their lives.


According to Gallop, 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. Gallup also reports that nearly 60 percent all Americans today feel happy, without a lot of stress or worry.


On the other hand, 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 feels neutral or do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful.


Citing a study to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology, Smith gives us valuable insight into the differences between a happy life and a meaningful life.


Researchers found that a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different. …


Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a “taker” while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a “giver.” …


Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.


Happiness, they found, is about feeling good. … The happy life is also defined by a lack of stress or worry. …


“Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others.”  In other words, meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants.


Smith points to two contemporary psychologists who would agree.  She quotes Martin Seligman:


[In the meaningful life], “you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.” For instance, having more meaning in one’s life was associated with activities like buying presents for others, taking care of kids, and arguing. People whose lives have high levels of meaning often actively seek meaning out even when they know it will come at the expense of happiness. Because they have invested themselves in something bigger than themselves, they also worry more and have higher levels of stress and anxiety in their lives than happy people.


Roy Baumeister told Smith, “Partly what we do as human beings is to take care of others and contribute to others. This makes life meaningful but it does not necessarily make us happy.”


Smith also touches on the conception of time, how the search for meaning orients our view of past, present and future differently than the search for happiness.


Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment — which is perhaps the most important finding of the study, according to the researchers. While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning.


Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. “Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life,” the researchers write. “Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future.” That is, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.


One last quote from Viktor Frankl: “If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.”



There’s More to Life Than Being Happy,” by Emily Esfahani Smith, offers valuable insight into the essence of American culture.  It was published in The Atlantic and is available online.  Her article is also a good introduction to the Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning—a book that should be on everyone’s “must read” list.





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One Response to “Is happiness necessary for a good life?”

  1. Great post – thank you!