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A Psychiatrist Who Survived The Holocaust Explains Why Meaningfulness Matters More Than Happiness
“It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”
In September 1942, Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was arrested and transported to a Nazi concentration camp with his wife and parents.
Three years later, when his camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had perished — but he, prisoner number 119104, had lived. In his bestselling 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to one thing: Meaning, an insight he came to early in life. When he was a high school student, one of his science teachers declared to the class, “Life is nothing more than a combustion process, a process of oxidation.” Frankl jumped out of his chair and responded, “Sir, if this is so, then what can be the meaning of life?”
As he saw in the camps, those who found meaning even in the most horrendous circumstances were far more resilient to suffering than those who did not. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Frankl worked as a therapist in the camps, and in his book, he gives the example of two suicidal inmates he encountered there. Like many others in the camps, these two men were hopeless and thought that there was nothing more to expect from life, nothing to live for. “In both cases,” Frankl writes, “it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them.” For one man, it was his young child, who was then living in a foreign country. For the other, a scientist, it was a series of books that he needed to finish. Frankl writes:
This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. 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.”
In 1991, the Library of Congress and Book-of-the-Month Club listed Man’s Search for Meaning as one of the 10 most influential books in the United States. It has sold millions of copies worldwide. Now, over twenty years later, the book’s ethos — 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. “To the European,” Frankl wrote, “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.'”
According to Gallup, 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. At this writing, 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 feel neutral or do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful. Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. On top of that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research. “It is the very pursuit of happiness,” Frankl knew, “that thwarts happiness.”
This is why some researchers are cautioning against the pursuit of mere happiness. In a new study, which will be published this year in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology, psychological scientists asked nearly 400 Americans aged 18 to 78 whether they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy. Examining their self-reported attitudes toward meaning, happiness, and many other variables — like stress levels, spending patterns, and having children — over a month-long period, the 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,” the authors write.
How do the happy life and the meaningful life differ? Happiness, they found, is about feeling good. Specifically, the researchers found that people who are happy tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, and they are able to buy the things that they need and want. While not having enough money decreases how happy and meaningful you consider your life to be, it has a much greater impact on happiness. The happy life is also defined by a lack of stress or worry.
Most importantly from a social perspective, the pursuit of happiness is associated with selfish behavior—being, as mentioned, a “taker” rather than a “giver.”
The pursuit of happiness is associated with selfish behavior—being, as mentioned, a “taker” rather than a “giver.”
The psychologists give an evolutionary explanation for this: happiness is about drive reduction. If you have a need or a desire — like hunger — you satisfy it, and that makes you happy. People become happy, in other words, when they get what they want. Humans, then, are not the only ones who can feel happy. Animals have needs and drives, too, and when those drives are satisfied, animals also feel happy, the researchers point out.
“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,” explained Kathleen Vohs, one of the authors of the study, in a recent presentation at the University of Pennsylvania. In other words, meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants. People who have high meaning in their lives are more likely to help others in need. “If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need,” the researchers, which include Stanford University’s Jennifer Aaker and Emily Garbinsky, write.
What sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans, according to Roy Baumeister, the lead researcher of the study and author, with John Tierney, of the recent book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Baumeister, a social psychologists at Florida State University, was named an ISI highly cited scientific researcher in 2003.
The study participants reported deriving meaning from giving a part of themselves away to others and making a sacrifice on behalf of the overall group. In the words of Martin E. P. Seligman, one of the leading psychological scientists alive today, 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. Having children, for example, is associated with the meaningful life and requires self-sacrifice, but it has been famously associated with low happiness among parents, including the ones in this study. In fact, according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, research shows that parents are less happy interacting with their children than they are exercising, eating, and watching television.
“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,” Baumeister told me in an interview.
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.
Having negative events happen to you, the study found, decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life.
Having negative events happen to you, the study found, decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life.
Another study from 2011 confirmed this, finding that people who have meaning in their lives, in the form of a clearly defined purpose, rate their satisfaction with life higher even when they were feeling bad than those who did not have a clearly defined purpose. “If there is meaning in life at all,” Frankl wrote, “then there must be meaning in suffering.”
Which brings us back to Frankl’s life and, specifically, a decisive experience he had before he was sent to the concentration camps. It was an incident that emphasizes the difference between the pursuit of meaning and the pursuit of happiness in life.
In his early adulthood, before he and his family were taken away to the camps, Frankl had established himself as one of the leading psychiatrists in Vienna and the world. As a 16-year-old boy, for example, he struck up a correspondence with Sigmund Freud and one day sent Freud a two-page paper he had written. Freud, impressed by Frankl’s talent, sent the paper to the International Journal of Psychoanalysis for publication. “I hope you don’t object,” Freud wrote the teenager.
While he was in medical school, Frankl distinguished himself even further. Not only did he establish suicide-prevention centers for teenagers — a precursor to his work in the camps — but he was also developing his signature contribution to the field of clinical psychology: logotherapy, which is meant to help people overcome depression and achieve well-being by finding their unique meaning in life. By 1941, his theories had received international attention and he was working as the chief of neurology at Vienna’s Rothschild Hospital, where he risked his life and career by making false diagnoses of mentally ill patients so that they would not, per Nazi orders, be euthanized.
That was the same year when he had a decision to make, a decision that would change his life. With his career on the rise and the threat of the Nazis looming over him, Frankl had applied for a visa to America, which he was granted in 1941. By then, the Nazis had already started rounding up the Jews and taking them away to concentration camps, focusing on the elderly first. Frankl knew that it would only be time before the Nazis came to take his parents away. He also knew that once they did, he had a responsibility to be there with his parents to help them through the trauma of adjusting to camp life. On the other hand, as a newly married man with his visa in hand, he was tempted to leave for America and flee to safety, where he could distinguish himself even further in his field.
As Anna S. Redsand recounts in her biography of Frankl, he was at a loss for what to do, so he set out for St. Stephan’s Cathedral in Vienna to clear his head. Listening to the organ music, he repeatedly asked himself, “Should I leave my parents behind?… Should I say goodbye and leave them to their fate?” Where did his responsibility lie? He was looking for a “hint from heaven.”
When he returned home, he found it. A piece of marble was lying on the table. His father explained that it was from the rubble of one of the nearby synagogues that the Nazis had destroyed. The marble contained the fragment of one of the Ten Commandments — the one about honoring your father and your mother. With that, Frankl decided to stay in Vienna and forgo whatever opportunities for safety and career advancement awaited him in the United States. He decided to put aside his individual pursuits to serve his family and, later, other inmates in the camps.
The wisdom that Frankl derived from his experiences there, in the middle of unimaginable human suffering, is just as relevant now as it was then: “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.”
Baumeister and his colleagues would agree that the pursuit of meaning is what makes human beings uniquely human. By putting aside our selfish interests to serve someone or something larger than ourselves — by devoting our lives to “giving” rather than “taking” — we are not only expressing our fundamental humanity, but are also acknowledging that that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness.
I’ve learned that the more one knows something it seems the more they know they don’t know much.
Rather than suffer from the the Dunning-Kruger effect, I’d like to assume I don’t know much, that I may have a beginner’s mind, such that I can be open to all the data being presented to discover the truth. Understanding other viewpoints only strengthen my own viewpoint if my viewpoint is valid in the first place. I see no purpose in a conversation or debate if the object of the discussion is not about finding the truth i.e. what is valid, what is real. I believe it is one aspect of being humble as humility is about what is true – supernaturally, we are all created in the image of God, each of us has something to contribute as we are unique reflections of God, and before God [who is bigger than the universe], we really don’t know much and the learning process never ends.
If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent. […] the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.—David Dunning
This is why when I am certain I will use the word “is” while when I use the word “seems” it is my postulation and an invitation for feedback while I am in the process of learning.Leave a comment
How to waste time:
- focusing on “what” instead of “why”
- reading but not applying
- not carrying your cross
- not searching for the truth
- being bored
- not being grateful
- doing stupid stuff
- planning too much, not doing
- not being disciplined
- getting sucked into things that you have no control over
How to waste energy:
- being addicted
- worrying about things you cannot control -> pray instead
- emotional connection to people who do not care
- not being at peace
- doing stupid, purposeless stuff
- planning too much, not doing
- doing, but not planning and considering purpose
- planning for something that may not happen
- theory without application, application without theory
- spending energy on things you have little control over
How to get and spend energy:
- focus on “why”, the purpose
- be creative
- sleep well, play well
- love, give
- being healed, grace from God -> prayer, being connected to God, beauty
- being grateful
- learning, trying new things, forgiveness, mercy
- focusing on things that you can control, yet letting go to trust and have fun
- focus on things that will happen, e.g. planning a good death for a good life
Most of what I was going to post on this blog was meant to augment my life manual but I’m thinking I should modify what I should post on this site.
I do have a deep desire in me to give a legacy to you [whoever reads this blog] but I’m reminded again that all of this site is mere words. After attending a friend’s father’s funeral it reminded me that when I die, there probably won’t be much time with words to say all that I would like to say; is my idea leaving people with a website a foolish way to die (“I’ve died now; go look at my website!”)? – how impersonal! Hopefully I would have already affected people’s lives in a very personal and good way long before my death, hopefully I would have already created loving, joyful, peaceful memories for people to remember me by (though I need not necessarily to be remembered except for what is necessary for my salvation). Hopefully through my prayers and actions I would have made their lives better.
The life manual seems more of a template for one to live by. Life should be more about giving [sharing] of oneself than receiving. While the life manual was created through my own life experience it isn’t necessarily who I am; it almost seems an impersonal way to get to know me. Even if I enumerate all of my attributes, beliefs, principles, etc. it cannot fully encapsulate who I am. You cannot really know me without personal contact with me [which is a reminder to me I need to share more of myself with people if they are going to get to know me]
I will share some of my experiences, my progress, my creativity on this blog. It seems if one is growing and connected to God who is love, who is the creator of all things, they will be creative and have more things to share. In that sense I will keep myself accountable, by sharing. At the same time I need to remind myself to participate in the lives of people and attending to eternal things (e.g.: love, prayer, people/family, giving life, truth) i.e. I need to share [on this blog to be accountable] by not sharing [instead of making blog posts for example on love, I should be making love 🙂 ].Leave a comment
Concepts and Methodology:
- Start with Why
- Beauty, Vision, Goals
- Humility to see what God wants you to see; see yourself as God sees you, looking at the bigger picture
- Focusing on the Human Person – 5 Love Languages
- Concepts of completeness/Seeing the big picture – I want to give you the best, I want to give you my all
- Knowing thyself
- Wisdom – seeing God in everything, looking at the bigger picture and the meaning of real education
- The Trinity is in everything
- Since God is Love, the 5 Love Languages are in everything
- Seeing Truth in everything – the value in cross-discipline principles
- Deriving meaning from relationships
- Learn from the experts yet know that since you can’t know everything, they cannot know everything either
- Wheel of life
- GTD – a system that allows you to be more in the present, free of “open loops”
- Atomic transactions
Principles used to create this Manual:
- Supernatural Ideas:
- Faith, Hope, Charity
- Mary – wisdom is seeing everything in Love, should we not see everything in the eyes of Mary? Mary, crown of God’s creation, model of whom we should desire to become
- Time & the present
- Supernatural and Natural Models:
- The Eucharist
- The greatest 2 commandments
- Love and the cross
- Dominican Order:
- Dedication to the Truth
- you cannot give what you don’t have
- I assimilate truth though many sources using the principle “find truth where it exists” so while some sources are secular I consider them as an attempt by natural means do discover truth. I believe the supernatural as described by the Catholic Church trumps systems derived though natural, humanistic means e.g. truths of the Catholic faith trump those attempts to discover truth through psychology. Psychology can be an imperfect means to describe phenomenons. There’s more humility in accepting that mysteries exist but it’s ok to attempt describing it and derive meaning.
- Miles Christi:
- The greater glory of God
- Theology of the Body
- Socratic Method
- The intellect, the passions, and the will
- Leaders keep little promises
- 12 Steps
- Cross Generational Disease
- Theory vs Practice and the value of experience:
- Wisdom vs Knowledge
- My Experiences
- Mathematics and Computer Science:
- Agile methodologies
- Martial Arts:
- Contemporary problems
- Supernatural Means:
- Prayer & Adoration, Meditations, Novenas, Sacramentals:
- the importance of mystery
- The Little Way:
- My personal affirmations:
- Let it be done to me according to your word
- Fiat Voluntas Tua
- Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam
- Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make my heart like unto thine
- St Joseph, Light of Patriarchs, Terror of demons, Guardian of the Holy Family, protect me in all dangers
- Mary, Most Pure, Mother of God, who makes the Love of Jesus real to me, show thyself to be my mother
- All for Jesus, all through Mary, in imitation of you St Joseph
- Jesus we adore you, Mary we implore you, Joseph Most Just, in you we place our trust
- My personal affirmations:
- Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Anne
- Prayer & Adoration, Meditations, Novenas, Sacramentals:
- Since the average human mind can only clearly hold 7 plus or minus 2 ideas in their mind, it seems to effectively apply the information learned, it needs to fit into 9 ideas
- if we focus on each idea each with its own 9 ideas, the core of the information is a magic matrix of 81 points; it’s silly to think all the mystery and greatness of the universe can fit into 81 points but I’d like to think the system of how to live and organize your life can be communicated in 81 points
- to leave room for mystery and engraining in our mind, sub points can be 12 points – a balance of what can be controlled (by cognitively fitting in our mind) and what cannot be controlled (at least in part due to us not being fully able to cognitively fit it in to our mind)
- I’ll use Dunbar’s number to limit the number of references I’ll list so you can be more effective at practicing what I give you. Holiness is not about knowing everything in the encyclopedia, on some level it is about practicing core points well
- Everything should fit on on page that isn’t too long; there can be links but it should not be more than 3 levels deep
- Everything is a gift from God, I’ll use the format of the Trinity to “re-gift” God’s gift: Piety (Heart, recognizing Mystery and Beauty), Study (Mind, diving deeper into why), Action (Body, infusing both into something practical and can touch people)
- For the most part, I’ll avoid mentioning too much of the wisdom I’ve learned (I have my own set of principles, collections of my personal experiences, quotes, lessons I’ve learned, etc). These are very special to me and I don’t want it to take away from my capacity to be intimate with you. (see 7 levels of intimacy). Be with me in person and I can share this with you. These nuggets of wisdom are for you to discover from the foundation I provide. I don’t want to take away from the grace and God’s plan for you
I guess I am blessed [with a cross?!] as somehow in past I learned to think this way naturally.
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Why the Socratic method you ask? The Socratic method was named after the classical Greek philosopher Socrates and introduced in the 4th century BC Socratic dialogue. It has common applications in law school, teaching, psychotherapy, and human management resources and training. People in those industries and the layman alike can use it to:
•Build stronger beliefs in arguments, and eliminate misshapen or broken ones.
•Point out fallacies or flaws in thinking.
•Clarify feelings or insights about personal actions.
•Plan out the main train of thought in lessons.
•Test the logical foundation of any argument out there.
Here are the basics:
1. Locate the main argument in a statement or a statement that sums up an argument. In other words, what is the defining argument that sums up a particular statement? Ask your opponent to sum up their argument if you’re stuck on step 1. Socrates asked fellow people questions like: ”What is justice?” or ”What is knowledge?”. He then let or asked them to make declarative statements like: ”Justice is x because of y.”
2. Investigate the implications of their argument. Assume that there argument is false and find an example or scenario to prove that the argument is flawed in some way. Say someone is trying to prove that a particular car is green. It seems like common sense at first, but then, using the Socratic method, you can come up with a counter argument to prove the limits of the argument like: ”Is the car still green to a blind person?”
•If they say no, then proceed to step 3.
•If they say yes, ask: ”Why isn’t it pink, blue, or purple?” or ”If they can’t see, then what makes the car green?”
The most important thing is to back your counter argument up with scenarios and examples when they try to defend their own argument.
3. Change their initial argument and take the exception into account. Once you have came up with a reasonable argument to disprove theirs, change their argument so it takes the new argument into account. So change the original argument ”The car is green” to an agreeable position like: ”It’s green to those who can see.”
4. Attack the new argument with another question. Ask your opponent: ”If you agree that it’s green to those that can see, then is it green to other animals who can see?” Eventually, you will possibly come to an argument that your opponent agrees with but completely contradicts their initial one. The fun of the Socratic method is you have the potential to generate an infinite amount of questions, and an infinite amount of discussions.
5. Practice. Obviously, you’re probably not going to topple the debate club leader in one go. It should take about 5-10 minutes to learn, but several weeks to months if you want to become a well-versed expert in the field of debate, including the Socratic method. But as Socrates said, “If you want to be a good saddler, saddle the worst horse; for if you can tame one, you can tame all.” So start off small like I did by using the Socratic method in daily life discussions with family and friends, and work your way up to more complex arguments in topics that you’re highly interested in or enjoy.
The Only Way to Become Amazingly Great at Something like the Socratic method, is to know when you’re wrong in a debate, admit it, and constantly keep challenging the logic in your beliefs so that they become stronger standing and longer-lasting. After all, you don’t go from proving that bananas aren’t the tastiest fruit to successfully refuting a famous politicians argument on the war on terror without a little practice, you know?
Here’s a handy example:
Teacher: ”Student, what is goodness?”
Student: ”Teacher, goodness is when you give something to some one else.”
Teacher: ”Is it good to give someone a gun so they can murder someone else?”
”Is it good if you give someones password to someone else without their knowledge?”
”Is it good if you give someone a package containing a wrapped up bomb?”
Student: ”Obviously not.”
Teacher: ”So it’s good to give something to some one else, provided that what they give will not harm themselves, or other people.”
Teacher: ”If you agree that giving someone something to harm themselves or others is not good, then what about giving a poor farmer a tool to harm a chicken for a short time and kill it, in order to benefit his starving family? ?
Student: ”I agree that it’s good for the family but not the chicken.”
Teacher: ”Yes, but you contradicted yourself when you said giving someone something to harm someone else is not good, because you clearly agreed that it’s good in some applications.”
Science is not immoral. It is amoral. Yet there are immoral practices in the field.
Examples of False Science:
- History of modern man unravels as German scholar is exposed as fraud
- Retired Professor turns whistleblower on climate change