In his heartbreaking but utterly captivating book “Mans Search For Meaning” Viktor Frankl describes his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp and concludes that what motivates and sustains us, in even the most desperate and painful experiences, is our ability to maintain our own “freedom” to choose how we perceive our situation and the way that we choose to behave as a result of or in spite of it. Accepting that happiness might not be a realistic option.
Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, wrote of a “dizziness of freedom” holding our endless panoply of choice, and perhaps our desperate search for happiness, responsible as the underlying cause of anxiety, escaped from only through a willingness and ability to take full personal responsibility and stand behind the selections we make, in full awareness that we can have no real idea of how they are to play out in real time, but forging ahead anyway.
Just this week MP Jo Cox was brutally murdered as a consequence of taking a stand and making a difference. Reading through her experience prior to becoming a politician it is clear that she has witnessed much at the horrific end of the scale which measures just how abhorrently human beings can behave towards one another. Her motivation was obviously not to find comfort and happiness for herself but rather to use her influence to create a better equilibrium between those who can sleep at night without fear and those who can’t.
So much of the way we orientate ourselves towards life seems wrapped up in a conscious and unconscious effort to find happiness as if it were a destination, and one in which we could bask for the rest of our days, reclining in a comfortable chair eating grapes peeled for us by willing servants. I suppose it is theoretically possible to construct a life like this but I wonder whether even that would deliver the happiness we believe we want and what would be the point of it anyway? We have a need to connect and to be wholly self serving is not self serving at all.
Talking this week with a client I have worked with for some time it is striking to see how aware he is that all the shiny and brightly coloured trinkets in the world cannot fill any of the space we feel inside of us, a space that we mistakenly think must be soothed with “happiness” rather than something more substantial. Seeing happiness as an objective rather than a beautiful by product is often a big mistake.
The big conceit is that happiness can be created by anything or anyone other than ourselves. Of course we all want to feel happy at least some of the time (the more of the time the better) but we have a tendency to look for it everywhere but the one place that we will ever find it.
We can only feel happiness when we decide that the conditions are right, that the criteria are being met for us to “release the happiness”. We all have a different set of rules and it is these which either facilitate or block the good feeling which is increasingly positioned as the birthright of the modern day first world economy citizen. You might need to look great, have a hot partner, feel “in love”, have your dream job, earn lots of money, live in a palace, need a ride on mower for your extensive grounds, go on wonderful holidays, have the freedom to sit in coffee shops on Wednesday mornings writing about happiness. Whatever it is you will only allow yourself to feel happy when your very specific set of criteria is met. So what can we do about this when there is often a wide gap between what we have and what we want?
Humans have some fundamental needs that must be met in order for us to feel balanced and one of them is the need to know that our lives are about more than just us. Do you know anyone who is wholly self obsessed who appears truly content? I doubt it. Conversely have you ever come across someone who seems to endlessly give yet still appears full of joy and peace? You probably have and there is an important message in here, and the message is “meaning”.
Those who are able to focus away from the pursuit of the snake oil which is happiness and instead realise the value and power of meaning are, ironically, those who appear to enjoy more of the happiness that we’re all looking for than we do. How is this possible?
The answer lies in a truth which feels unlikely but regularly proves itself to be wholly accurate. The more willing we are to relinquish something we value the more likely we are to experience more of it.
Taking part recently in an inspiring and illuminating course on the nature of power in intimate relationships we are discussing the imbalance created when one partner is controlling and the other controlled. It is easy to think of this simply as the dynamic of some couples created from the combination of their two characters and temperaments but its not really true. We can only be controlled when we allow ourselves to be and, in order to wrest back the power which we are encouraged to give up, we must be willing to accept the consequences of reclaiming what is ours, even if that means losing the relationship altogether. It can seem a stark choice but when we consider it is the difference between agreeing to subjugation or freedom it really isn’t so hard, even though at first glance it might require us to give up what we perceive as “happiness”.
So happiness when thought of as a useful by product but not the raison d’être of life becomes less of a demand and more of a desire. Meaning, on the other hand, a search for what we can do while we are here to make some sort of difference however small, is packed with so much power that it can literally make your hair stand on end.
Parents understand this difference already even though they don’t always realise it. Few mothers or fathers who take their roles seriously would think twice about putting their offspring first, about making sure as far as they could, that their children were given opportunity to grow and thrive, ensuring as far as possible that they feel secure and loved. This is not a pursuit of happiness, it is a pursuit of meaning, what it means to be a parent and take care of another life. Happiness almost inevitably results as a sweet and enduring by product but it is far from the original motivation.
In relationships too the pursuit of happiness suggests a “what’s in it for me?” mentality which rarely does anything more than reduce intimacy to a quid pro quo transactional union. On the other hand putting your partner first without the need to receive anything in return feels absolutely amazing and guess what, your partner is more likely than in any other scenario to make sure you feel their gratitude and the way they are likely to do so is to invest themselves in your own happiness. Both of you acting from a position of finding meaning, and both of you reaping the glorious reward of happiness.
It is meaning which matters, it is always meaning. Even in your work your level of satisfaction is going to be unequivocally higher if you are centred on what value you are bringing rather than what value is brought to you. Frankl was spot on, our ability to choose the way in which we perceive any given situation is the pot of gold we all look for but it is not at the end of the rainbow, it is right here in our own hands every single day.