Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Dr. Viktor Frankl once said: “It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.” His memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, was chosen by a survey of readers in 1991 as one of the ten most influential books in America. (Many readers considered the book “life-changing.”) Dr. Frankl suggested the concept of happiness is an illusory construct unique to our American culture.
Frankl survived the Holocaust. He endured extreme hardship and suffering, including time spent in a Nazi concentration camp (where most of his family perished). Frankl came to believe that even in the midst of suffering, there is purpose. The search for meaning and purpose drives us; happiness is simply a byproduct of choosing to cope and find meaning in our suffering. Frankl posited: A man “who knows the why for his existence … will be able to bear almost any how.”
That quote might lead a person to think Dr. Frankl was a religious man. Wikipedia indicates he was Jewish, not just by birth but religious affiliation. An interesting 1995 article by Matthew Scully in the publication FirstThings offers additional details about Dr. Frankl’s religious views.
Reflecting on Frankl’s insights, I can’t help but recall James 1:2-3 (NASB) which says: “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” In the face of trials, a person has the choice to look at those trials and rejoice (considering or counting it as joy). Whatever the trial, the testing of our faith produces endurance!
Earlier, I mentioned that Frankl considered happiness to be an American construct. I suspect he’s correct. Today more than ever before, people abandon marriages and jobs because they’re “unhappy.” Mothers, bemoaning that their lives are somehow “unfulfilled,” leave their children to the care of strangers and seek fulfillment elsewhere. The axiom for our 21st century American culture seems to be: If you’re not happy, change your circumstances. (Implied, don’t worry about changing yourself.)
In one of my earlier posts, I pointed out people are generally more capable of elucidating what happiness is not, rather than what it actually is. This has something to do, in my view, with acknowledging that happiness is a moving target, often just out of reach. The internal dialogue may go something like this: when thus-and-such happens, I’ll be happy. If I can earn this much money … overcome this obstacle … achieve a particular pinnacle, happiness will finally be within my grasp. We focus our entire lives on similar temporal goals and in doing so, we “thwart happiness” (as Frankl says) and sow discontent instead!
Frankl’s theory of logotherapy posits we need to view “suffering not as an obstacle to happiness but often the necessary means to it.” Sounds like he might have been reading the book of James. (Smart guy!)