I read a piece in The Atlantic yesterday by Emily Esfahani Smith that annoyed the living daylights out of me. It was titled: “There’s More to Life than Being Happy.”
Yes, I agree there is more to life than being happy, but in the article Ms. Smith conflates happiness with a relentless pursuit of selfish pleasure. What a sad, narrow-minded and ultimately ludicrous interpretation of happiness. Happiness is a state of being; a combination of contentment, joy and celebration of life in all its ups and downs.
Ms. Smith’s article is primarily about Viktor Frankl’s seminal book, Man’s Search for Meaning, and its core thesis that life only has value if it has meaning, and happiness does not give life any value or meaning. Frankl asserts that those who survived the Nazi concentration camps did so because they managed to find meaning in their lives, and that gives “meaning” a higher value to humanity than happiness.
This suggests that suffering has some noble purpose that happiness does not have. If you go through your whole life only being happy, your life will have no meaning, according to Frankl and Smith. This is simply wrong, but more importantly, suffering and happiness are not mutually exclusive. You can survive immense difficulties and still remain a happy person. That is the reason I wrote Happiness as a Second Language, to provide a series of guidelines and exercises for people who want to teach themselves how to be happy, regardless of their circumstances.
The geniuses who wrote the Declaration of Independence recognized that all humans are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights — the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Not the pursuit of meaning, or security, or profit, or any other less lofty goals. We have the right to pursue happiness. I believe that is the greatest gift mankind was ever given, and I am not going to squander it by searching to find meaning in my own and other’s suffering. I will embrace and grow my happiness, regardless of what challenges the world throws at me. I hope you do the same. Life is much better (and probably more meaningful) when you’re happy.