The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, along with the observance of Yom Kippur, often finds Jews at our most reflective as summer turns to fall, the leaves begin to change colors, and Pumpkin Spice Lattes are back on the menu.
Research has found that beginnings, endings or times of transition often prompt us to reconsider, re-evaluate and plan. Perhaps, for this reason, you have found your Monday mornings filled with "strategy" meetings and January exuberant with resolutions; the downtime that came with the pandemic has catalyzed many people to make significant changes in their lives.
At the start of year 5782, I would ask fellow Jews, and anyone reading this, to reflect upon this question
What does it mean to live a meaningful life?
If we are only here on this Earth once, which we have every reason to believe is this case, there could be no more important question to ask ourselves.
My approach to life, and indeed what it means to live a good life – a meaningful life – was crystallized after reading There's More to Life than Being Happy, a 2013 Atlantic essay. Emily Esfahani Smith references Viktor Frankl's memoir Man's Search for Meaning, in which he recounted his time enduring hunger, starvation and omnipresent death and depletion in a Nazi concentration camp, where he spent three years from 1942 until the camp's liberation and the war's end.
Frankl's observations during this time centered on the characteristics and attitudes that separated those individuals who ultimately survived this harrowing experience from those who perished. Frankl hypothesized that those who survived possessed a sense of purpose that gave meaning to their life. For Frankl, that purpose was the work he needed to complete, including disseminating these lessons learned. There was also his wife, whom he hoped would also survive. Others who survived had a spouse, a child or even a pet motivating them to push through the most physically and mentally agonizing experience imaginable. Those who didn't have something or someone to live for more often became despondent and died.
Observing our society today, Smith argues that far too many people have forgotten or failed to learn Frankl's lessons, and as a result, are deeply confused about what might be deemed a "good life."
We might think about most people living today as one of two types. In the first group are people who might appropriately be called "utility maximizers," who believe a good life constitutes experiencing all the highs that one possibly can with few, if any of the lows. Their primary goal in life is to pursue and experience personal contentment and happiness — a carnival of indulgence and experience.
The other group might define a good life not by personal contentment but by embodying Frankl's virtues — finding and acting upon a purpose for one's life. These people, Frankl believes, could survive anything:
He who knows the "why" for his existence will be able to bear almost any "how."
This year, 5782, what way will we choose? Will we pursue the path of personal contentment or the one of meaning? For the latter, what would constitute meaning or purpose? Can meaning and a meaningful life simply be defined as having a partner, a spouse, a friend, a pet that we care about and nurture? Or is there more to it?
Although these relationships with others — animals or humans — might be enough meaning to get us through the most difficult experiences, I would challenge readers to a higher standard of a well-lived life.
For me, the definition of a meaningful life is one that seeks to ease the suffering in the world. To leave the world a better place, no worse than we found it.
If we marry this with Frankl's vision of meaning, we might say that a meaningful life is one in which we have found the means through which we will ease the suffering in the world and leave it a better place, no worse than we found it.
Adding Smith's views, we might say that a meaningful life is one that chooses to pursue means of easing the suffering in the world over personal contentment.
Beyond just the altruistic, there are many reasons to pursue a paradigm of meaning in one's life, rather than personal contentment.
One of the biggest motivators for me has been the fleeting nature of happiness. Joy and happiness are not a constant state but an ephemeral, momentary, transient feeling. When we go to bed at night, wake up the following day, or even pass from one moment to the next, all the happiness and joy we have experienced is gone -– it does not carry on.
How long does the high of winning an NBA championship last? Or the excitement of a brand new iPhone? Or winning the lottery?
No matter how sensational the pleasure is, the feeling is still transitory. In all these cases, the happiness derived from these experiences probably lasts not much longer than the experience itself. It's an unfortunate but sad fact that life goes back to it as it was before –- a baseline.
Meaning, on the other hand, endures far past when we are gone.
Without Martin Luther King's choice of a life of meaning, we might not have civil rights in this country. Without Marie Curie's pursuit of a life of meaning, we might never have developed treatments for cancer. Without Frankl's choice of a life of meaning, he may not have survived the concentration camps to share his wisdom. These giants chose the path of easing the suffering in the world — of making things better for people, or other beings, at no one else's expense.
Furthermore, one might argue that our country is experiencing a crisis of meaning in our lives. In recent years the number of deaths from drug overdoses, most notably opioids, and from suicide in the U.S. have spiked, from roughly 47,000 overdoses in 2014 to more than 70,000 in 2019. Academics have coined a term for these losses of life — "deaths of despair." Is despair a lack of happiness or a lack of meaning? It can often be both, but as Frankl said, “The man who has a why for his life can bear almost any how.”
Could it be in part that our hunt for happiness, as opposed to seeking meaning and purpose, could be causing us so much anguish? As Freud said (and the Buddhists would agree with), “The mere pursuit of happiness thwarts happiness.”
The longer we think we can hold onto it, the more we try to replicate that same feeling, the more it slips away — and we are left disillusioned and unsatisfied.
This brings up perhaps an essential question to consider. Are there ways that a life of seeking contentment and purpose can intersect? I have spent much time considering this question, and the answer I have come to is: They can, but in most cases, these paths diverge.
The most obvious case where these two paths diverge is that addressing suffering comes with a prerequisite commitment to knowing the suffering in the world. For those who are focused only on personal contentment, being aware of others' suffering would be a source of unhappiness — so they would prefer not to know. Ignorance is bliss, as they say.
So, to commit to a life of meaning, we must first commit to knowing that there is suffering in the world and that there are problems that need addressing. On this matter, we need not look far. Even in the world's wealthiest country, there is a constant need for volunteers or resources at homeless shelters, to donate food or resources to under-served communities, to help disadvantaged people without access to quality healthcare, to contribute one's dollars to charity rather than spend frivolously on material belongings. Even the act of calling one's Congressperson to demand a cleaner future or for us to not wage more war, or to prohibit the keeping of captive primates, are examples of seeking to ease the world's suffering. The well runs deep.
But there are ways that these paths can overlap. An important one is that the newfound meaning you see your life possessing may be a source of happiness. My life matters. I matter. Someone out there is counting on me. And this can bring us joy.
One source of purpose in my life is taking care of my two dogs. They are both rescues from a local shelter, one of whom was in great distress. The time that I get to spend with Sylvia and Parker, of course, brings me great joy. But, at the same time, through this search for meaning, I have become more aware of the number of innocent animals like them who are suffering — a source of anguish. So, it can be said almost with certainty that the life of meaning is not one of constant joy and personal contentment.
The rare person who commits their whole being to easing the world's suffering is genuinely exceptional. Bryan Stevenson, perhaps. Detroit Dog Rescue's Kristina Millman-Rinaldi. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, of blessed memory.
Of course, it would be a lie to say I have never pursued personal contentment or that I have never spent my dollars frivolously on things that I would enjoy rather than on addressing the suffering of others. I would argue that outside of these rare individuals, it would be too draining and perhaps too big of a sacrifice to ask all of us to live a life of austerity and pursue only those activities that ease others' suffering.
But, this is a little beside the point. What I am calling for does not necessarily dictate every action that we take — it's more about directionality. A compass pointing one way or another. The idea is simple ... How do we answer the question, what we are here for? To experience personal happiness or to ease the suffering in the world?
Reflecting on his experiences in the most extreme of circumstances, Frankl also observed that "Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."
What way will you choose?