“It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”
Viktor E. Frankl
I clip articles that grab my attention that I come across in my reading, and I throw them into a file that I keep on my desk. Then I go through that file later to pick topics the topics on which I intend to write in my weekly blog. For months now there has been an article in that file about a high profile celebrity who got romantically involved with another high profile celebrity who had just gotten married. Their affair resulted in the breakup of that marriage just a year after the wedding, and now those two celebrities are together.
It was the last line in that article that reached out and grabbed me. “They seem to be happy now,” it concluded, “and that’s really what matters the most.”
Now, I know that’s how we think, that being happy is “what matters most.” But is it true? Is the great goal of the universe my personal happiness? Did God create the grand cosmos and put me in it just so that I could be happy? Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve been happy, I’ve been unhappy, and I’d rather be happy. Happy has always been a better experience for me, every single time. But should being happy be my life’s focus? Is it really “what matters most”?
When my journey through this world is over, and I stand before God, is God’s ultimate concern in that moment going to be my happiness? Is God going to want to know – “Doug, did you have a good time?” Is God going to ask – “Doug, did you have fun?” Again, hear me, I’m not anti-fun, nor am I happiness-adverse. I’d rather be happy than not. My concern is the pursuit of happiness at any cost as “what matters most” as that article I clipped suggested that it is. Is it really “what matters most”? Is my happiness at your expense a good thing? Is my happiness in contradiction to my faith’s convictions and values a worthy goal? Is happiness our “summum bonum” – our “highest good” – as human beings?
Frankly, I think we get pulled off-sides in this conversation by a familiar cultural phrase.
Last week in my “Soundings” post I referenced the belief in the existence of truths that are self-evident and rights that are unalienable. This idea is rooted and grounded in the belief that the universe has a God-given moral structure and that human beings have a God-given moral constitution. Of course, the devil is in the details of this affirmation. To say that a sense of “ought” has been hardwired into us and all of creation by God is one thing, but to start detailing the specific content of that universal sense of “ought” starts to muddle as you cross cultures and go back through time. What has always and everywhere been right for everyone? What has always and everywhere been wrong for everyone?
Our national Founders named three things that they believed were “self-evident” and “unalienable” –
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
And there it is – that hard count that pulls us off-sides – “the pursuit of happiness.”
Understanding “happiness” to be “a state of transitory physical or emotional pleasure,” many people believe that they are free “to pursue whatever provides them with pleasure, however misguided or immoral that pleasure might be” (Bradley Abramson). I have a God-given right to do or to have whatever it takes to make me happy. What I find in the Bible is an entirely different standard. “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). This verse would seem to suggest that there is something even more fundamental to life than my personal happiness. So does Matthew 6:33 – “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.” There’s something here that’s more important than me getting my way, and having my share.
I had a high school teacher who assigned Victor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning as a required text for a class that I was taking. Reading this book when I was 16 years old was like getting hit by a bolt of lightning. I’ve read thousands of books since reading this one in 1969, but only rarely have I had an experience comparable to the experience I had when I read this book. I felt a gravitational pull as I turned its pages. A path began to open up before with its words. Suddenly there was something more important than making the team, having a car, getting a date, or going to the right college. Life had a purpose, a meaning, and I knew that I was here for only a short time to find it. Later I would read Paul Tillich call this our human concern for “ultimacy,” and appreciate his insight that it is “the state of being ultimately concerned” that is the essence of the spiritual life. But at 16 all I knew was that something in the universe mattered more than my feelings, and that I had been put here to try to figure out what it was.
In January 2013 issue of The Atlantic published an article about Victor Frankl and his book Man’s Search for Meaning (https://www.theatlantic.com). In “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy” Emily Esfahan Smith wrote –
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.'”
From his experiences in the Concentration Camps of Nazi Germany during WW II, Victor Frankl said that he learned that –
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…. By putting aside our selfish interests to serve someone or something larger than ourselves — by devoting our lives to “giving” rather than just “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.
The search for meaning that Victor Frankl alerted me to when I read Man’s Search for Meaning when I was 16 brought me more fully to Jesus. When the church I serve now says that our mission is to share Jesus Christ with those seeking meaning and purpose, I know what it is offering because I have found it in my own experience. In my first year of Christian College when Dr. Ward Rice of blessed memory told us that the most frequently repeated phrase from the lips of Jesus in the Gospels was –
If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. (Matthew 16:24)
It was an offer of meaning that was being made.
For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:25-26)
And here, almost 50 years later, I know the power of the truth that the article in The Atlantic proclaimed – “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.” Being happy is not what matters most. Finding meaning is, and for me, my meaning is Jesus. DBS +