Published on February 13th, 20130
The Meaning of Life and the Search for Happiness
By Joachim Vogt Isaksen
What is the meaning of life? A lot of people would probably reject this as a scientific issue, but rather the topic of a late night discussion over a fine bottle of Burgundy. Even if there are no absolute answers, science actually provides some insight that may help us find meaning to our very existence.
Philosophers have for thousands of years tried to find answers to the meaning of life and existence in general. In today’s modern world with fast societal changes the question becomes even more relevant. Different questions have been asked concerning this subject, such as “How was the universe created?”, “Why do I live?”, and “What is the purpose of existence?”
In everyday life people give all kinds of answers, such as seeking happiness, living out dreams, watching children grow up, travel more, and becoming more knowledgeable. In this article I will foremost focus on the psychological and sociological aspects, not the metaphysical ones. I will show that the meaning of life can be found by applying an increased awareness in how you think around certain questions. Formulated more concrete; you have the possibility to create your own reality, personally constructing meaning to your existence.
Science and the meaning of life
The different sciences focus on different aspects of this topic, and consequently they provide different answers. To give a short summary, researchers in psychology often study factors that lead to life satisfaction, and how people find meaning based on something larger than the self. The terror management theory (TMT) focuses on people’s awareness of the inevitable death. The anxiety caused by mortality is a major motivator behind many human behaviors, such as the search for meaning of life. The fundamental fear of death leads to the development of different values, which allow us to escape from the mental reminder of death.
From an evolutionary perspective the answer is obvious. The motivator behind the human existence is to survive and reproduce, passing on the gene pool to the next generation. The meaning of life is to increase our fitness and develop traits, motivations and emotions that are designed to increase our chances of reproduction and survival. According to Darwin there is no fundamental purpose underlying such mechanisms in the biological world.
Other biological approaches, such as neuroscience, focus on reward, pleasure, and motivation in terms of neurotransmitter activity, especially within areas of the brain that is connected to emotions. From this perspective, the meaning of life stems from basic human instincts, such as maximizing pleasure and seeking out positive personal experiences. Humans also tend to construct value systems, often based on religion, that give directions on how to achieve personal pleasure and general well being.
Sociology is more concerned with values at the societal level. The meaning of life is understood as the construction of social norms, often made to make people adhere to social pressure from society. People will conform to norms that increase the chances of being accepted by society. According to the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, a society may find itself in a state of anomie, or normlessness, when the norms that guide people have broken down, and people do not know what to expect from each other. The ultimate result is a lack of purpose or meaning.
The meaning of suffering
“When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.”
Viktor E. Frankl
Some of the most fascinating lessons from the Second World War were made by the Austrian Jewish psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl (1905-1997). He was deported to Auschwitz and was among the 98 000 prisoners that took part in the march of death in January 1945. Frankl lost his parents, but not his courage, and based on experiences from the camp he created the Logotherapy, which is one of the most interesting new forms of psychotherapy.
As a prisoner Frankl observed that those with the greatest chance to survive, were not the most physically fit. More important than physical fitness, was the strength of a persons´ belief system. The prisoners that found a meaning in their desperate life situation developed a mental force that combated hunger, thirst, physical, and psychological terror. Science has later demonstrated the connection between a person´s psychological state and the immune system’s ability to fight disease.
Personally Frankl found meaning in his ground-breaking therapy, which is based on his experiences in Auschwitz. He used the expression “the meaning of suffering” to describe the ability to create some sort of meaning from a situation that in itself was meaningless. By changing the way one perceives a situation, no matter how hopeless it is, one may reduce emotional suffering.
Frankl argues in his book, The Will to Meaning, that life has no meaning in itself, unless you actively create an existential purpose. He developed specific techniques that helped his patients to deal with life’s “existential vacuum”. Instead of viewing humans as passive, he saw humans as existential, potentially rational beings engaged in the process of active, individual discovery that serves to empower humans by guiding and encouraging their search for meaning in life.
According to Frankl we can actively train ourselves in reinforcing our positive experiences and emotions, while at the same time increase our tolerance for negative feelings. You have probably noticed that it is of little help to simply rationally decide to accept negative feelings. In order to increase your tolerance for negative feelings, you rather need to actively train your ability not only to accept, but also to embrace the inherent meaning of a negative emotion. Some incidents have no meaning whatsoever, but adding meaning to the meaningless may actually help overcoming the negative psychological emotions that are tied to the situation.
Why do you feel bad on Sundays?
The answer to this question may at first glimpse seem obvious; you are partying on Saturdays, being exhausted from the night before. Though, other factors than drinking may lead to bad feelings on Sundays.
Frankl used the term Sunday neurosis to describe a sort of anxiety, resulting from awareness of the emptiness of life once the working week is over. People often complain of a void and a vague feeling of being disconnected. This arises from an existential vacuum, or a feeling of life´s meaninglessness.
These are common feelings and are characterised by a state of boredom and apathy. When people calm down in a hectic life and put on their brakes, they suddenly get time to think about larger issues and different aspects of life.
Finding personal meaning – the key to happiness
Today’s society is characterized by a sudden change in values and norms, with the result being that people often feel disconnected, having no place to search for answers in life’s important questions. Earlier people found meaning and comfort in religion, but since the role of religion today is decreasing, there is a lack of places to search for existential answers. People try to seek for answers within science but the problem is that science does not provide all the answers.
People who experience that their own life is meaningless often suffer from depression. On the other hand, many people are happy even if they believe that life has no existential meaning at all. It is therefore important to distinguish between the feeling of existence being meaningless, and that of one’s own life being meaningless, which is a symptom of depression.
To sum up, the link between meaning and happiness can be viewed as the individual´s ability to create personal purpose in life. Frankl provides an existential framework where a mindset based on reason can increase the unique human tendency to discover individual meaning. Opposite to biological understandings, his main insight is that our primary drive in life is not pleasure, but the discovery and pursuit of what we personally find meaningful.
Frankl, Victor. E 1996. Man´s Search for Meaning. Beacon Press.
Frankl, Victor. E 1988. The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy. Meridian/Plum.
*Fence photo by George Olcott