The Happiness Illusion [guest]

Editor’s Note: Naomi Boyer is today’s guest star. She has previously contributed to the blog with her article Things We Thought We Knew. Her most recent entry deals with the cult of happiness, suffering, and Man’s Search for Meaning.

* * * * *

I don’t like the word “happy”. There are a few others, too. “Nice” makes me think of an obedient girl with Bambi eyes who doesn’t ever raise her voice. “Moist” just makes my skin crawl. Same goes for “doily”. But “happy”, that’s something else.

I think it started back when the neighborhood kid got a dog that looked like he had rolled around in his poop for a while and then someone sat on his face. Guess what that kid named it? You guessed it: Happy. He had personality to match his looks, dumb as bricks. Every time I saw that butt-ugly dog on our property and my mom had me yell out the window, “Get outta here, Happy! Happy, GO AWAY!!” I would cringe at the irony. He also threatened my cats on more than one occasion, so it’s really no wonder that I grew up hating the mention of his name. Don’t mess with the cats.

Over the last couple of years, however, I have heard “happy” infused into conversation everywhere. “I’m not happy” has been the stated cause of more relationship fallouts than I can count. Here’s another one: “It makes me happy”. This is apparently reason enough to do pretty much anything–from starting a hobby, to changing your career, to dating your best friend’s dad. And frankly, I just don’t get it. I don’t understand how major life decisions can be based around something like happiness.

See, the real problem I have with the word “happy” doesn’t really have to do with a dumb dog–though I don’t think I have ever hated a creature more in my life–it has more to do with the transient nature of the word. Isn’t “happy” a pretty base-level emotion, one that is easily changed or swayed by a tasty meal or a bad TV show or a single interaction that either did or didn’t go as well as desired? It’s not that I’m advocating living a miserable life, but it seems about as easy to grasp at happiness as it is to grasp a shadow. It constantly shifts and eludes us the more we chase it down, because we are not actually taking hold of the substance from which it comes. But, I’m getting ahead of myself here…

Enter Viktor Frankl, neurologist, psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor, stud.

Viktor Frankl was an established psychologist who had the misfortune to live and work in Vienna in the early 1940s. In 1942, he had put together a draft of his life’s work, intending to set forth a revolutionary theory of human behavior in a book–one that would challenge both Freud and Alfred Adler’s theories–when he was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp near Prague.

Over the course of the next three years, he was moved to four different camps and barely escaped death on several occasions. Suddenly he had no barrier between therapist and patient, the observer and the observed. He was nose-to-nose with humanity on a level of suffering that was unprecedented up to that point. He experienced systematic starvation, mental anguish, and tortuous work conditions, and when he had gotten out half-alive, he found that he had lost everything–parents, siblings, pregnant wife… but you don’t need a reminder of what the Holocaust was. Point is, the book he had halfway written was forged in the black fire of the Holocaust and became the book (one of many) that he wrote not even a year after his liberation, called Man’s Search for Meaning. Trust me when I say that this should go straight to the top of your reading list.

Frankl writes that, contrary to most theories of human behavior of his era, man is driven by a search for meaning in his life, and that this meaning can be discovered through several avenues, specifically, “1) creating a work or doing a deed; 2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and 3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.” Notice that all of these things are outside of man himself, that essentially, a sort of “self-transcendence”  according to Frankl is only attainable as a side effect of searching out the meaning in life apart from self. He writes that “…the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”

It is easy to see that, within this framework, we Americans might have a bit of a problem here. The pursuit of freedom and happiness are standard to the American dream, but nowhere can I recall responsibility being part of our national psyche in our idea of a meaningful life. Frankl anticipates this and addresses what he calls an “existential vacuum”, in which life is characterized by an “inner emptiness” and general meaninglessness. According to Frankl, 60% of American students experienced a more-or-less marked degree of existential vacuum, as compared to 25% of their European counterparts. Keep in mind that this was back around the 1950s. Even back then, Frankl was writing that, in essence, the boredom caused by an existential vacuum was creating more problems for therapists than typical mental health situations. Furthermore, he notes that in place of a will to live, humans tend to either go toward a will to power (most notably, wealth), or the will to pleasure (out of control sexual libido, anyone?), which ultimately are only flimsy substitutes for a concrete meaning to one’s life.

Excuse my sweeping stereotype here, but you can’t get much more American than having either a robust drive to be rich or the sexual impulse of an ape. Sometimes, both. It seems that in our ability to achieve absolute freedom (with the ultimate goal being happiness), we may have completely overlooked the role of responsibility in life. One of Frankl’s most quoted statements from Man’s Search for Meaning is, “Freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.”

An interesting part of this theory of meaning–which Frankl terms “logotherapy”–is that it inherently values tension. Whereas other approaches might seek for a solution to tension, logotherapy seeks to create tension between the right things (such as the tension between freedom and responsibility). He writes, “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.” Most Americans, I would venture to guess, would consider happiness to include some version of utopia with no conflict or agenda, a perfect balance, and the very opposite of what Frankl suggests is necessary for human meaningfulness.

You don’t have to look much farther than the nearest pastel Christian bookstore to see that Christians are in the same boat as other Americans in their happiness illusion. I mean, based solely on the sales records of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, it would seem that American Christians are also feeling a sort of pervasive meaninglessness in their lives. Viktor Frankl undoubtedly approaches his study of human behavior from a scientific point of view, veering into the humanist territory, I would argue. But, as is so often the case, he may still have things to say that are valuable for Christians to hear. Frankl states that a person can find meaning through encountering someone. I believe that person is Jesus. Frankl writes that suffering has meaning. I believe that God has his hand and voice in all things, including suffering. Frankl says that man has the freedom to become whatever he desires, to become a better (or worse) person. I believe that God has granted us the ability to say “yes” to him, and that he is the master of true change, the kind that can take today’s tap water and change it into centuries old wine.

For me, this book raised more questions than it did answers, but they were (are) questions worth pursuing.

  • Is my life marked by boredom or by meaningfulness?
  • Where am I getting my ideas of what “meaning” is, and are they true?
  • Do I believe that I have the freedom and that God has all authority to change me?
  • How do I begin to view the pain of suffering as meaningful? It sure doesn’t feel that way sometimes.
  • How do I buy into the happiness illusion? And ultimately… how do I receive something better.
  • Jesus said that he came that we might have joy. Then he suffered and died.

Where else can I go? You have the words of eternal life.

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6 thoughts on “The Happiness Illusion [guest]

  1. Very nice. And insightful. By the by, my grandfather was called “Hap” (short for happy). Ironically, he was usually grouchy.

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