In September of 1942 Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist and nuerologist from Vienna was deported to a Nazi concentration camp along with his elderly parents and pregnant wife. After three brutal years at the camp it was liberated and Frankl walked out of the camp alone as his parents and wife perished in the camp. Upon leaving the camp Frankl wrote his renowned book “Mans Search for Meaning.”
Frankl was utilized as a therapist while in the death camp and came to believe that finding meaning could make all the difference including life and death. The camp’s prisoners sometimes became very despondent and those that could not find meaning in the simple interactions of daily life sometimes ended their own lives. The inhabitants of the camp lived with the daily threat of bodily harm or death. They suffered all manner of indignities and perhaps the worst pain was suffered by those that were separated from their children or loved one upon entering the camp.
Still, many found meaning, not happiness in daily life. A recent study released in the Journal of Positive Psychology asked hundreds of Americans between 18 and 78 whether they thought their lives were meaningful or happy. Leading a happy life was defined as being a “taker “ or someone that put their energies into satisfying themselves and stayed away from situations that could be troublesome or complicated.
A meaningful life was defined as being a “giver” or someone that derived meaning from giving to others and also did not avoid complicated or difficult situations or people. Frankl believed that ” happiness without meaning would lead to a life that was characterized as a shallow, self-absorbed or selfish life in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied and difficult or taxing situations are avoided.”
According to the Center for Disease control four out ten Americans have not found a satisfying life purpose. Nearly a quarter of Americans feel neutral or don’t have a clear sense of what makes their lives meaningful. An impressive body of health research has demonstrated that having a clear purpose in live increases overall well-being.
Life satisfaction improves mental and physical health enhances self-esteem and resiliency. “It is the very pursuit of happiness that makes people unhappy” according to Frankl. Frankl suggests that life for each of us is a series of decisions across time that greatly influences our happiness and satisfaction. Most of us are making decisions as “takers” and “givers.”
Frankl suggests that the decisions that we make for happiness without meaning result in happiness that is fleeting. These actions are often defined by what we do or get for ourselves while avoiding the complications that life so often injects.
In 1941 Frankl had applied for an American visa and received it. He was free to leave the impending tyranny of the Hitler regime and to possibly save himself, his wife and unborn child. Frankl knew that if he chose to leave his elderly parents they would surely be sent to a death camp and would be their without his support or comfort. Frankl struggled mightily with this decision and in the end he chose to honor his parents by staying.
Though Frankl’s parents and wife perished in the camp, he saved many hundreds of others that would have died without his help. All animals instinctively seek to satisfy themselves and to preserve the life that they have.
Humans set themselves apart from other animals by their ability to sacrifice themselves and their needs for the good of another. While few of us know anything about the horrors that Frankl and his camp mates faced, almost every day we have a chance to make decisions that can make others happy while greatly enriching our own lives with meaning.
Frankl suggests that these actions, though seemingly small can have positive results. Decisions such as letting someone have the parking space you have lined up. Offer a helping hand to an elderly neighbor that is trying to shovel their walk or to a young person that is trying to earn some spending money.
It is as Frankl has explained that in our gifts to others our own lives become richer. I would add to this sentiment that when we give to someone who we no can never give back to us, the satisfaction is especially powerful.
Remember, all kids count.
Reach the writer at Hurlburt@wildblue.net