Happiness and the Search for Meaning …


British philosopher, historian, mathematician and Nobel Prize winner, Bertrand Russell, once said that an essential part of being happy is not having all the things you want.

So what is happiness? What do we really want? And how do we get it?

The relentless quest for happiness has plagued us mere mortals since the dawn of time and is at the core of philosophical, psychological, spiritual and even scientific questioning. In recent years there has been an explosion of books, studies, academic research, conferences, workshops and even stickpins about the art of happiness.

In a research paper modern day Portugese Philosopher, Robert Carneiro, wrote that,

The creation of meaning is part of the human adventure. To be human – in its inner essence– means seeking to understand and to find meaning in life. Our untiring search for happiness is, without doubt, the search for a lasting meaning for human existence.

Carneiro went on to cite Professor Martin Seligman, a renowned specialist who in his book, ‘Authentic Happiness’ (2002), stated there are three main components of happiness: pleasure, commitment, and meaning. According to Seligman, the first (hedonism) is the least important or lasting, but that ‘the use of personal efforts to serve greater ends or purposes’ is what drives us and essentially makes us happy.

The Dalai Lama says ‘the purpose of our lives is to be happy’. He’s also pointed out that, ‘happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.’

Buddhist philosophy dictates that is not what we have that makes us happy, but what we think about our circumstance that makes the difference. In other words, external factors are inconsequential.

Proof that it is the inner world not external circumstances that creates our sense of happiness is found in ‘Man and the Search for Meaning’ (1946) by neurologist and psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl. The book chronicles Frankl’s experience as a prisoner in a World War II concentration camp and describes his psychotherapeutic method of logotherapy . A kind of existential analysis, logotherapy focuses on man’s “will to meaning” and the basic premises that:

  • Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.
  • Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life.
  • We have freedom to find meaning in what we do, and what we experience, or at least in the stand we take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering.

In his bestselling book ‘Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience’ (1990), Dr Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, explores the concept of “flow”—as in “in the flow” as our experience of optimal fulfillment and engagement. Flow, whether in creative arts, athletic competition, engaging work, or spiritual practice, is a deep and uniquely human motivation to excel, exceed, and triumph over limitation. To Csikszentmihaly, happiness is not simply flow or an emotional state, or even the experience of pleasure but the continual challenge to go beyond ourself as part of something greater than one’s own self-interest.

So perhaps happiness, like beauty, is really in the eyes and heart of the beholder.

This article was first published in dumbo feather … pass it on.

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