National Commentary

Humanity’s ‘Quest For Meaning,’ Part 1

nfbenton-mugOne value of a print newspaper, compared to online, is that as you leaf through the pages and skim headlines, you expose yourself to new things beyond your previous range of interests.

So, when watching an all-news TV channel you think you’ve just about had your limit of Donald Trump and hope you are about to get some brief relief and who comes on, but Dick Cheney (ugh! how is he still out of jail?)…when things like this happen, turning to a non-stressing section of the paper sometimes turns up something that can change your day for the better.

For me this week, it led to the Washington Post’s weekly “Health and Science” section where a seemingly simple “self-help” article caught my attention. As I glanced at the sub-topics, I found myself impressed by the author’s list of things to do to “give your mood a tune-up with some do-it-yourself steps,” as the headline read.

The tips, under the byline of Stephanie Pappas, senior writer for LiveScience.com, included the following: set goals, but don’t overdue it, go outside, give meditation a try, get some exercise, be generous in relationships, use social media wisely, aim for meaning, not pleasure, worry (some) but don’t vent and don’t sweat the small stuff.

Now, don’t write off my column this week as irrelevant fluff. It needs to be emphasized that to my surprise, one of those tips struck me, in particular, as cutting to the quick of what needs fixing most profoundly in our current culture.

In fact, it was a central point of my collection of 100 weekly columns that were published in my recent book, Extraordinary Hearts (Lethe Press, 2013).

Here’s what Stephanie Pappas had to say about it: “Aim For Meaning, Not Pleasure. Imagine a life of lounging by a pool, cocktail in hand. Paradise? Not so much. A 2007 study found that people are happier when they take part in meaningful activities than when they focus on hedonism. University of Louisville researchers asked undergrads to complete surveys each day for three weeks about their daily activities. They also answered questions about their happiness levels and general life satisfaction. The study found that the more people participated in personally meaningful activities such as helping other people or pursuing big life goals, the happier and more satisfied they felt. Seeking pleasure didn’t boost happiness.”

I was schooled in this perspective while in a very progressive Berkeley, Calif., graduate theological seminary and the source of the wisdom was by the German concentration camp survivor Dr. Viktor E. Frankl and his famous work (more than 12 million copies in print a 1992 edition reported), Man’s Search for Meaning (1946).

I wrote about this in my book, “(Frankl’s) is a short work that embodies the essence of Frankl’s theory and work as a therapist, even among the most despairing facing extermination in the concentration camps. As Rabbi Harold S. Kushner wrote in the introduction to the 1992 edition, one of Frankl’s key ideas was that life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning.’

“Frankl saw man, as a ‘meaning-seeking creature,’ having three possible sources for meaning: ‘in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person) and in courage during difficult times.’

He believed that ‘forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess, except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.”

I added that Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of Great Britain, in a book entitled The Great Partnership, God, Science and the Search for Meaning (2011), drew heavily on Frankl and added to the notion of man as a “meaning seeking being” with a supplementary notion that “man is a culture-producing animal.”

Moreover, pleasure and happiness are hardly the same.

Such are vital concepts today in an age when an unfulfilling pursuit of hedonism and “pleasure” has corrupted the national psyche. Trump, Limbaugh, porn, Ashley Madison and rude potty mouths are objects of infantile hedonistic pleasure, not serious nation building.