Posts Tagged ‘Meaning’
There is within us–in even the blithest, most light hearted among us—a fundamental dis-ease. It acts like an unquenchable fire that renders the vast majority of us incapable in this life of ever coming to full peace. This desire lies in the marrow of our bones and the deep regions of our souls.
All great literature, poetry, art, philosophy, psychology, and religion tries to name and analyze this longing. We are seldom in direct touch with it, and indeed the modern world seems set on preventing us from getting in touch with it by covering it with an unending phantasmagoria of entertainments, obsessions, addictions, and distractions of every sort. But the longing is there, built into us like a jack-in-the-box that presses for release.
Two great paintings suggest this longing in their titles—Gauguin’s “Who Are We? Where Did We Come From? Where Are We Going?” and de Chirico’s “Nostalgia for the Infinite”—but I must work with words. Whether we realize it or not, simply to be human is to long for release from mundane existence, with its confining walls of finitude and mortality.
What makes a good life? What truly makes us happy? Is it wealth? Is it fame?
The psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, director of a 75-year-old study on adult development, who has an unprecedented access on data about what makes people happy, reveals that money and popularity doesn’t enter at all in the equation.
He says that what makes us truly happy and healthy is the quality of our relationships.
If you’re interested in what matters most in life, listen to his talk.
You know, the ancient Egyptians had a beautiful belief about death. When their souls got to the entrance to heaven, the guards asked two questions. Their answers determined whether they were able to enter or not. ‘Have you found joy in your life?’ ‘Has your life brought joy to others?
— From the movie The Bucket List
I was wrong.
One year ago I left the internet. I thought it was making me unproductive. I thought it lacked meaning. I thought it was “corrupting my soul.”
It’s a been a year now since I “surfed the web” or “checked my email” or “liked” anything with a figurative rather than literal thumbs up. I’ve managed to stay disconnected, just like I planned. I’m internet free.
And now I’m supposed to tell you how it solved all my problems. I’m supposed to be enlightened. I’m supposed to be more “real,” now. More perfect.
But instead it’s 8PM and I just woke up. I slept all day, woke with eight voicemails on my phone from friends and coworkers. I went to my coffee shop to consume dinner, the Knicks game, my two newspapers, and a copy of The New Yorker. And now I’m watching Toy Story while I glance occasionally at the blinking cursor in this text document, willing it to write itself, willing it to generate the epiphanies my life has failed to produce.
I didn’t want to meet this Paul at the tail end of my yearlong journey.
In early 2012 I was 26 years old and burnt out. I wanted a break from modern life — the hamster wheel of an email inbox, the constant flood of WWW information which drowned out my sanity. I wanted to escape.
I thought the internet might be an unnatural state for us humans, or at least for me. Maybe I was too ADD to handle it, or too impulsive to restrain my usage. I’d used the internet constantly since I was twelve, and as my livelihood since I was fourteen. I’d gone from paperboy, to web designer, to technology writer in under a decade. I didn’t know myself apart from a sense of ubiquitous connection and endless information. I wondered what else there was to life. “Real life,” perhaps, was waiting for me on the other side of the web browser.
My plan was to quit my job, move home with my parents, read books, write books, and wallow in my spare time. In one glorious gesture I’d outdo all quarter-life crises to come before me. I’d find the real Paul, far away from all the noise, and become a better me.
My goal would be to discover what the internet had done to me over the years
But for some reason, The Verge wanted to pay me to leave the internet. I could stay in New York and share my findings with the world, beam missives about my internet-free life to the citizens of the internet I’d left behind, sprinkle wisdom on them from my high tower.
My goal, as a technology writer, would be to discover what the internet had done to me over the years. To understand the internet by studying it “at a distance.” I wouldn’t just become a better human, I would help us all to become better humans. Once we understood the ways in which the internet was corrupting us, we could finally fight back.
At 11:59PM on April 30th, 2012, I unplugged my Ethernet cable, shut off my Wi-Fi, and swapped my smartphone for a dumb one. It felt really good. I felt free.
A couple weeks later, I found myself among 60,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews, pouring into New York’s Citi Field to learn from the world’s most respected rabbis about the dangers of the internet. Naturally. Outside the stadium, I was spotted by a man brandishing one of my own articles about leaving the internet. He was ecstatic to meet me. I had chosen to avoid the internet for many of the same reasons his religion expressed caution about the modern world.
“It’s reprogramming our relationships, our emotions, and our sensitivity,” said one of the rabbis at the rally. It destroys our patience. It turns kids into “click vegetables.”
My new friend outside the stadium encouraged me to make the most of my year, to “stop and smell the flowers.”
This was going to be amazing.
I dreamed a dream
And everything started out great, let me tell you. I did stop and smell the flowers. My life was full of serendipitous events: real life meetings, frisbee, bike rides, and Greek literature. With no clear idea how I did it, I wrote half my novel, and turned in an essay nearly every week to The Verge. In one of the early months my boss expressed slight frustration at how much I was writing, which has never happened before and never happened since.
I lost 15 pounds without really trying. I bought some new clothes. People kept telling me how good I looked, how happy I seemed. In one session, my therapist literally patted himself on the back.
I was a little bored, a little lonely, but I found it a wonderful change of pace. I wrote in August, “It’s the boredom and lack of stimulation that drives me to do things I really care about, like writing and spending time with others.” I was pretty sure I had it all figured out, and told everyone as much.
As my head uncluttered, my attention span expanded. In my first month or two, 10 pages of The Odyssey was a slog. Now I can read 100 pages in a sitting, or, if the prose is easy and I’m really enthralled, a few hundred.
I learned to appreciate an idea that can’t be summed up in a blog post, but instead needs a novel-length exposition. By pulling away from the echo chamber of internet culture, I found my ideas branching out in new directions. I felt different, and a little eccentric, and I liked it.
Without the retreat of a smartphone, I was forced to come out of my shell in difficult social situations. Without constant distraction, I found I was more aware of others in the moment. I couldn’t have all my interactions on Twitter anymore; I had to find them in real life. My sister, who has dealt with the frustration of trying to talk to me while I’m half listening, half computing for her entire life, loves the way I talk to her now. She says I’m less detached emotionally, more concerned with her well-being — less of a jerk, basically.
Additionally, and I don’t know what this has to do with anything, but I cried during Les Miserables.
It seemed then, in those first few months, that my hypothesis was right. The internet had held me back from my true self, the better Paul. I had pulled the plug and found the light.
Back to reality
When I left the internet I expected my journal entries to be something like, “I used a paper map today and it was hilarious!” or “Paper books? What are these!?” or “Does anyone have an offline copy of Wikipedia I can borrow?” That didn’t happen.
For the most part, the practical aspects of this year passed by with little notice. I have no trouble navigating New York by feel, and I buy paper maps to get around other places. It turns out paper books are really great. I don’t comparison shop to buy plane tickets, I just call Delta and take what they offer.
In fact, most things I was learning could be realized with or without an internet connection — you don’t need to go on a yearlong internet fast to realize your sister has feelings.
But one big change was snail mail. I got a PO Box this year, and I can’t tell you how much of a joy it was to see the box stuffed with letters from readers. It’s something tangible, and something hard to simulate with an e-card.
In neatly spaced, precisely adorable lettering, one girl wrote on a physical piece of paper: “Thank you for leaving the internet.” Not as an insult, but as a compliment. That letter meant the world to me.
But then I felt bad, because I never wrote back.
And then, for some reason, even going to the post office sounded like work. I began to dread the letters and almost resent them.
As it turned out, a dozen letters a week could prove to be as overwhelming as a hundred emails a day. And that was the way it went in most aspects of my life. A good book took motivation to read, whether I had the internet as an alternative or not. Leaving the house to hang out with people took just as much courage as it ever did.
By late 2012, I’d learned how to make a new style of wrong choices off the internet. I abandoned my positive offline habits, and discovered new offline vices. Instead of taking boredom and lack of stimulation and turning them into learning and creativity, I turned toward passive consumption and social retreat.
A year in, I don’t ride my bike so much. My frisbee gathers dust. Most weeks I don’t go out with people even once. My favorite place is the couch. I prop my feet up on the coffee table, play a video game, and listen to an audiobook. I pick a mindless game, like Borderlands 2 or Skate 3, and absently thumb the sticks through the game-world while my mind rests on the audiobook, or maybe just on nothing.
People who need people
So the moral choices aren’t very different without the internet. The practical things like maps and offline shopping aren’t hard to get used to. People are still glad to point you in the right direction. But without the internet, it’s certainly harder to find people. It’s harder to make a phone call than to send an email. It’s easier to text, or SnapChat, or FaceTime, than drop by someone’s house. Not that these obstacles can’t be overcome. I did overcome them at first, but it didn’t last.
It’s hard to say exactly what changed. I guess those first months felt so good because I felt the absence of the pressures of the internet. My freedom felt tangible. But when I stopped seeing my life in the context of “I don’t use the internet,” the offline existence became mundane, and the worst sides of myself began to emerge.
I would stay at home for days at a time. My phone would die, and nobody could get ahold of me. At some point my parents would get fed up with wondering if I was alive, and send my sister over to my apartment to check on me. On the internet it was easy to assure people I was alive and sane, easy to collaborate with my coworkers, easy to be a relevant part of society.
So much ink has been spilled deriding the false concept of a “Facebook friend,” but I can tell you that a “Facebook friend” is better than nothing.
My best long-distance friend, one I’d talked to weekly on the phone for years, moved to China this year and I haven’t spoken to him since. My best New York friend simply faded into his work, as I failed to keep up my end of our social plans.
I fell out of sync with the flow of life.
there’s a lot of “reality” in the virtual, and a lot of “virtual” in our reality
This March I went to, ironically, a conference in New York called “Theorizing the Web.” It was full of post-grad types presenting complicated papers about the definition of reality and what feminism looks like in a post-digital age, and things like that. At first I was a little smug, because I felt like they were dealing with mere theories, theories that assumed the internet was in everything, while I myself was experiencing a life apart.
But then I spoke with Nathan Jurgenson, a ‘net theorist who helped organize the conference. He pointed out that there’s a lot of “reality” in the virtual, and a lot of “virtual” in our reality. When we use a phone or a computer we’re still flesh-and-blood humans, occupying time and space. When we’re frolicking through a field somewhere, our gadgets stowed far away, the internet still impacts our thinking: “Will I tweet about this when I get back?”
My plan was to leave the internet and therefore find the “real” Paul and get in touch with the “real” world, but the real Paul and the real world are already inextricably linked to the internet. Not to say that my life wasn’t different without the internet, just that it wasn’t real life.
A couple weeks ago I was in Colorado to see my brother before he deployed to Qatar with the Air Force. He has a new baby, a five-month-old chubster named Kacia, who I’d only seen in photos mercifully snail mailed by my sister-in-law.
I got to spend one day with my brother, and the next morning I went with him to the airport. I watched dumbfounded as he kissed his wife and kids goodbye. It didn’t seem fair that he should have to go. He’s a hero to these kids, and I hated for them to lose him for six months.
My coworkers Jordan and Stephen met me in Colorado to embark on a road trip back to New York. The idea was to wrap up my year with a little documentary, and spend the hours in the car coming to terms with what had just happened and what might come next.
I thought hard about whether I could succeed online where I’d failed offline
Before we left, I spent a little more time with the kids, doing my best to be a help to my sister-in-law, doing my best to be a super uncle. And then we had to go.
On the road, Jordan and Stephen asked me questions about myself. “Do you think you’re too hard on yourself?” Yes. “Was this year successful?” No. “What do you want to do when you get back on the internet?” I want to do things for other people.
We stopped in Huntington, West Virginia to meet a hero of mine, Polygon‘s Justin McElroy. I met with Nathan Jurgenson in Washington DC. I thought hard about whether I could succeed online where I’d failed offline. I asked for tips.
What I do know is that I can’t blame the internet, or any circumstance, for my problems. I have many of the same priorities I had before I left the internet: family, friends, work, learning. And I have no guarantee I’ll stick with them when I get back on the internet — I probably won’t, to be honest. But at least I’ll know that it’s not the internet’s fault. I’ll know who’s responsible, and who can fix it.
Late Tuesday night, the last night of the trip, we stopped across the river from NY to get “the shot” from New Jersey of the Manhattan skyline. It was a cold, clear night, and I leaned against the rickety riverside railing and tried to strike a casual pose for the camera. I was so close to New York, so close to being done. I longed for the comfortable solitude of my apartment, and yet dreaded the return to isolation.
In two weeks I’d be back on the internet. I felt like a failure. I felt like I was giving up once again. But I knew the internet was where I belonged.
12:00AM, May 1st, 2013
I’d read enough blog posts and magazine articles and books about how the internet makes us lonely, or stupid, or lonely and stupid, that I’d begun to believe them. I wanted to figure out what the internet was “doing to me,” so I could fight back. But the internet isn’t an individual pursuit, it’s something we do with each other. The internet is where people are.
the internet isn’t an individual pursuit, it’s something we do with each other
My last afternoon in Colorado I sat down with my 5-year-old niece, Keziah, and tried to explain to her what the internet is. She’d never heard of “the internet,” but she’s huge on Skype with the grandparent set. I asked her if she’d wondered why I never Skyped with her this year. She had.
“I thought it was because you didn’t want to,” she said.
With tears in my eyes, I drew her a picture of what the internet is. It was computers and phones and televisions, with little lines connecting them. Those lines are the internet. I showed her my computer, drew a line to it, and erased that line.
“I spent a year without using any internet,” I told her. “But now I’m coming back and I can Skype with you again.”
When I return to the internet, I might not use it well. I might waste time, or get distracted, or click on all the wrong links. I won’t have as much time to read or introspect or write the great American sci-fi novel.
But at least I’ll be connected.
~ Paul Miller
Housebound, mostly bedridden and in my nineteenth year of an incurable illness, my condition is a difficult one. I’m in a great deal of pain. My contorted body radically restricts all aspects of my mobility. I type these words kneeling on a chair outfitted with pressure sore pads, the only position from which I can use a computer.
People sometimes ask what keeps me going. Long before losing my health, there was the spontaneous mystical experience that awakened me from my youthful despair. It seems to me that the rest of my life has been a matter of learning how to receive what was implicit to that experience.
One of those teachings is often called “nonattachment.” That word, however, can be misleading. Whether nonattachment to our smaller selves comes to us more by way of joy or pain, it’s an entirely positive matter: as we die to the lesser, we live to the greater.
It’s hard to put this process into words, and of course the details are different for different people. But I’ve tried.
Whenever I refer to “the One” I mean the greatest context for our lives including and beyond our ability to comprehend — the ultimate story that holds all our stories. You will want to understand the One as referencing God or being itself according to your views.
The core element in my own thinking about spirituality is that faith is an articulation of love that does not depend on religious or spiritual beliefs of any kind. Faith is existential and one on One: deep down, each of us already experiences an unmediated and absolute faith in relation to being or reality itself. In my writing, I refer to becoming aware of our faith-full love and taking direction from it for our lives as learning to speak the Word in our own names.
When I speak of the path of joy, I don’t mean a life that features especially exciting or happy events. Great joy means paying attention to the joy that your love can readily find in life. In family and friends. Work. Play and relaxation. The “little” things that include what it feels like to have a clean body, adequate shelter, and enough food.
The natural world is especially helpful for nurturing our love’s joy in relation to the whole and only One. Sights and sounds like the broad sky, the wind’s sweep, and the outreach of branching trees expand the soul.
To notice your joys instead of minimizing or discounting them is to become joyous. Notice joy, nourish joy, consciously take advantage of your opportunities to experience joy. Joy known over a long period of time takes you beyond yourself, deepening and expanding your mind beyond the boundaries of your disconnections.
Then you notice how very much about the world there is to love, and this becomes the space that you inhabit. Over time, the normal reading on the scope of your love’s desire for the well-being of others enlarges to include beloved individuals in totalities of concern: your community, nation, species, planet, and even, to borrow from Paul, the only One in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).
You could say that home, as a sense of self, is where the heart is. The more you care about something, the more that you identify with it. When you discover that you ultimately care about the greatest context for all our lives, then the power of this larger and more inclusive caring exceeds that of your caring for your separate self. You come to identify more with the One than with yourself alone. (Notice that you do not identify the One with yourself, but yourself with the One.)
You’re likely to outlive some of your greatest joys. Don’t let that be the only period in your life when you become highly aware of them. Notice joy now and it will help you become a person of peace, integrity, and strength when there is less joy in your life.
His note, dawn’s foil —
One blow to fill her pale blue bell with sound,
One impulse to deliver; that serves to sever bonds
Of all things that entangle, sully, soil.
This is the Word that blasts the sap,
The sound of force
That lifts the arms of trees;
That fashions-forth the branches from within
To raise this world of darkwood iron all around;
This the rising sound
Of the very juice by which the ground toils,
Becomes each massive trunk and slender tendril coil
Upright, upreared, at prayer.
Bright above, the morning sky awakens,
She blues and beckons like a mother’s eye toward which
The sun climbs, wings beat a path, while feet
With new-found ease
Like light along the spangled grass self-hurl,
Fast follow down that one windfall trail
Being blazed toward Canaan by what lives.
Let this day go gray, grow disenchanted:
I know the crow.
There is depth and even mystery to your love’s joys. They carry a significance that seems to point not so much beyond themselves but down deeper into themselves, further down than you can peer. You end up recalling the joyous times and events of your life in a certain way that hints of how you are more than yourself alone.
It’s less like remembering something that happened to you than like remembering something that happened. It’s like recalling some wonderful event that you happened to witness. You feel a sense of appreciation and privilege at having been there.
Finally, you recall the joys of your love not primarily with the satisfaction of your having experienced them, but with a real joy in their having happened at all. Our love’s encounters with the world seem to have a rightness and significance that’s more than the memories they leave behind in us.
You can lose everything. Health, mobility, freedom, and independence. House and home. Family and friends. Suddenly or gradually, through accident or disease, crime or warfare, you can find your quality of life and your further opportunities in life terribly reduced. If you live long enough, simple aging will do it.
Great pain and difficulty, especially when it’s permanent, can drive you over the edge, or nearly — and drive you instead to identify less with your disconnected self and more completely with the One. Either you find a deeper basis for life once you lose life as you knew it or you complete your destruction with your own anguish.
Of course, it takes time. Anyone faced with such a situation goes through anxiety, outrage, and grief. But if it goes on long enough, then instead of self destructing you can find yourself at or pretty near the end of complaining.
Under great and sustained adversity, and with enough restrictions on your capacity to enjoy life that can’t be removed, you reach a point where you no longer have the luxury of adding to your burden. You find that you genuinely no longer feel like complaining and begin to engage in your struggle and responsibilities without the anguish and agitation that you once experienced. Even if your struggle is physically painful, exhausting and mentally demanding, the process becomes simple and in a way, easy.
One with One, there is a lack of inner contradiction that imparts an effortlessness even to struggle. When you draw back to take your stand inside the wider circle, there is no frustration or discouragement, just the doing of what you can while you can because you can. You are equally ready to live or die not because you imagine a future heavenly reward but because you have already lived and died into your integrity with the One.
Carolina All the Time
Strings untangling their notes
Tentative then growing sure
When just before the intro ends
A lifting bend intones the way ahead
Curving like a road in me. And in my mind
Somehow I know that Carolina’s
Where I’m going all the time.
In my mind I’m going to Carolina
Once upon a time seemed only
Time to time. But now I find a way
Inside of me, ahead of me, behind,
The only road I’ve ever known in me
Right now with me;
It’s been there all the time.
Geese in flight and dogs that bite
Sometimes it seemed so easy and so right
At other times much worse
Than anything I ever had in sight.
The deep of dark turned steeper than the rise of light
The road so rough
It really seemed to me I’d had enough
Until at every turn I came to hear the strings
Untangling their branching notes
To play a winding song in me I would have said
I knew by heart except the melody
Knew me. It was a song
Of going to Carolina all along,
An undercurrent with a sweet and lustrous sheen –
Like brownstream snowmelt swiftly through the park
Or moonbeams crossing highbeams
Driving down a highway through the dark.
You can call it destiny or chance or fate
But you don’t start early and you can’t leave late
When something tuneful tells you that you bear no weight
And Carolina carries you along
If you solve the problem of living, the problem of dying takes care of itself. The love you seem to own is owned from the center by a wider sphere of ownership. You don’t own the love that is yours only to own up to. Underneath it all, your personhood is stark and simple and beautiful. It takes up where the night sky leaves off. You are awesomeness knowing itself from the inside.
~ Paul Martin
It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.
~ Viktor Frankl
In September 1942, Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was arrested and transported to a Nazi concentration camp with his wife and parents. Three years later, when his camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had perished — but he, prisoner number 119104, had lived. In his bestselling 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to one thing: Meaning, an insight he came to early in life. When he was a high school student, one of his science teachers declared to the class, “Life is nothing more than a combustion process, a process of oxidation.” Frankl jumped out of his chair and responded, “Sir, if this is so, then what can be the meaning of life?”
As he saw in the camps, those who found meaning even in the most horrendous circumstances were far more resilient to suffering than those who did not. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Frankl worked as a therapist in the camps, and in his book, he gives the example of two suicidal inmates he encountered there. Like many others in the camps, these two men were hopeless and thought that there was nothing more to expect from life, nothing to live for. “In both cases,” Frankl writes, “it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them.” For one man, it was his young child, who was then living in a foreign country. For the other, a scientist, it was a series of books that he needed to finish. Frankl writes:
“This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.'”
In 1991, the Library of Congress and Book-of-the-Month Club listed Man’s Search for Meaning as one of the 10 most influential books in the United States. It has sold millions of copies worldwide. Now, over twenty years later, the book’s ethos — its emphasis on meaning, the value of suffering, and responsibility to something greater than the self — seems to be at odds with our culture, which is more interested in the pursuit of individual happiness than in the search for meaning. “To the European,” Frankl wrote, “it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.'”
According to Gallup , the happiness levels of Americans are at a four-year high — as is, it seems, the number of best-selling books with the word “happiness” in their titles. At this writing, Gallup also reports that nearly 60 percent all Americans today feel happy without a lot of stress or worry. On the other hand, according to the Center for Disease Control, about 4 out of 10 Americans have not discovered a satisfying life purpose. Forty percent either do not think their lives have a clear sense of purpose or are neutral about whether their lives have purpose. Nearly a quarter of Americans feel neutral or do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful. Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. On top of that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research. “It is the very pursuit of happiness,” Frankl knew, “that thwarts happiness.”
This is why some researchers are cautioning against the pursuit of mere happiness. In a new study, which will be published this year in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology, psychological scientists asked nearly 400 Americans aged 18 to 78 whether they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy. Examining their self-reported attitudes toward meaning, happiness, and many other variables — like stress levels, spending patterns, and having children — over a month-long period, the researchers found that a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different. Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a “taker” while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a “giver.”
“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” the authors write.
How do the happy life and the meaningful life differ? Happiness, they found, is about feeling good. Specifically, the researchers found that people who are happy tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, and they are able to buy the things that they need and want. While not having enough money decreases how happy and meaningful you consider your life to be, it has a much greater impact on happiness. The happy life is also defined by a lack of stress or worry.
Most importantly from a social perspective, the pursuit of happiness is associated with selfish behavior — being, as mentioned, a “taker” rather than a “giver.” The psychologists give an evolutionary explanation for this: happiness is about drive reduction. If you have a need or a desire — like hunger — you satisfy it, and that makes you happy. People become happy, in other words, when they get what they want. Humans, then, are not the only ones who can feel happy. Animals have needs and drives, too, and when those drives are satisfied, animals also feel happy, the researchers point out.
“Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others,” explained Kathleen Vohs, one of the authors of the study, in a recent presentation at the University of Pennsylvania. In other words, meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants. People who have high meaning in their lives are more likely to help others in need. “If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need,” the researchers write.
What sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans, according to Roy Baumeister, the lead researcher of the study and author, with John Tierney, of the recent book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University, was named an ISI highly cited scientific researcher in 2003.
The study participants reported deriving meaning from giving a part of themselves away to others and making a sacrifice on behalf of the overall group. In the words of Martin E. P. Seligman, one of the leading psychological scientists alive today, in the meaningful life “you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.” For instance, having more meaning in one’s life was associated with doing activities like buying presents for others, taking care of kids, and arguing. People whose lives have high levels of meaning often actively seek meaning out even when they know it will come at the expense of happiness. Because they have invested themselves in something bigger than themselves, they also worry more and have higher levels of stress and anxiety in their lives than happy people. Having children, for example, is associated with the meaningful life and requires self-sacrifice, but it has been famously associated with low happiness among parents, including the ones in this study. In fact, according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, research shows that parents are less happy interacting with their children than they are exercising, eating, and watching television.
“Partly what we do as human beings is to take care of others and contribute to others. This makes life meaningful but it does not necessarily make us happy,” Baumeister told me in an interview.
Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment — which is perhaps the most important finding of the study, according to the researchers. While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning.
Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. “Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life,” the researchers write. “Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future.” That is, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.
Having negative events happen to you, the study found, decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life. Another study from 2011 confirmed this, finding that people who have meaning in their lives, in the form of a clearly defined purpose, rate their satisfaction with life higher even when they were feeling bad than those who did not have a clearly defined purpose. “If there is meaning in life at all,” Frankl wrote, “then there must be meaning in suffering.”
Which brings us back to Frankl’s life and, specifically, a decisive experience he had before he was sent to the concentration camps. It was an incident that emphasizes the difference between the pursuit of meaning and the pursuit of happiness in life.
In his early adulthood, before he and his family were taken away to the camps, Frankl had established himself as one of the leading psychiatrists in Vienna and the world. As a 16-year-old boy, for example, he struck up a correspondence with Sigmund Freud and one day sent Freud a two-page paper he had written. Freud, impressed by Frankl’s talent, sent the paper to the International Journal of Psychoanalysis for publication. “I hope you don’t object,” Freud wrote the teenager.
While he was in medical school, Frankl distinguished himself even further. Not only did he establish suicide-prevention centers for teenagers — a precursor to his work in the camps — but he was also developing his signature contribution to the field of clinical psychology: logotherapy, which is meant to help people overcome depression and achieve well-being by finding their unique meaning in life. By 1941, his theories had received international attention and he was working as the chief of neurology at Vienna’s Rothschild Hospital, where he risked his life and career by making false diagnoses of mentally ill patients so that they would not, per Nazi orders, be euthanized.
That was the same year when he had a decision to make, a decision that would change his life. With his career on the rise and the threat of the Nazis looming over him, Frankl had applied for a visa to America, which he was granted in 1941. By then, the Nazis had already started rounding up the Jews and taking them away to concentration camps, focusing on the elderly first. Frankl knew that it would only be time before the Nazis came to take his parents away. He also knew that once they did, he had a responsibility to be there with his parents to help them through the trauma of adjusting to camp life. On the other hand, as a newly married man with his visa in hand, he was tempted to leave for America and flee to safety, where he could distinguish himself even further in his field.
As Anna S. Redsand recounts in her biography of Frankl, he was at a loss for what to do, so he set out for St. Stephan’s Cathedral in Vienna to clear his head. Listening to the organ music, he repeatedly asked himself, “Should I leave my parents behind?… Should I say goodbye and leave them to their fate?” Where did his responsibility lie? He was looking for a “hint from heaven.”
When he returned home, he found it. A piece of marble was lying on the table. His father explained that it was from the rubble of one of the nearby synagogues that the Nazis had destroyed. The marble contained the fragment of one of the Ten Commandments — the one about honoring your father and your mother. With that, Frankl decided to stay in Vienna and forgo whatever opportunities for safety and career advancement awaited him in the United States. He decided to put aside his individual pursuits to serve his family and, later, other inmates in the camps.
The wisdom that Frankl derived from his experiences there, in the middle of unimaginable human suffering, is just as relevant now as it was then: “Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is.”
Baumeister and his colleagues would agree that the pursuit of meaning is what makes human beings uniquely human. By putting aside our selfish interests to serve someone or something larger than ourselves — by devoting our lives to “giving” rather than “taking” — we are not only expressing our fundamental humanity, but are also acknowledging that that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness.
~ Emily Esfahani Smith
FOR three years after the death of her adored eldest sister, Anne-Marie, Nina Sankovitch mourned by staying relentlessly busy. She felt a guilt-strafed survivor’s obligation to live life enough for two.
The mother of four sons, she signed up for PTA committees, coached soccer and a Lego robotics team, taught art appreciation classes to elementary school students, took Pilates classes and parenting classes, joined a book group and a tennis group, began kayaking, started a theater group for children in her basement and a Web site for trading books, gardened ferociously and wrote a novel (unpublished).
But in her increasingly frantic efforts to taste joy for herself and her sister, she tasted only ashes. She would still wake in the night, sobbing.
Finally, she jettisoned almost all her commitments in favor of the one pursuit that had always given her special pleasure. She committed herself to reading a book a day for an entire year.
“After years of chasing after joy, I finally sat down and let it come to me,” Ms. Sankovitch, 48, a tall, tennis-vibrant woman, said over coffee at her kitchen table in Westport, Conn. A photo triptych of Anne-Marie in thick reading glasses, posing in merry solidarity with Ms. Sankovitch’s son Peter, wearing his first pair, gleams from a rosewood frame nearby.
On Oct. 28, 2008, her 46th birthday, Ms. Sankovitch began the project, dedicating it to Anne-Marie, who died four months after receiving a diagnosis of bile-duct cancer, a week shy of turning 47. That last day, driving home from an encouraging visit with her sister in the hospital, Ms. Sankovitch got the phone call, pulled her car to the side of the road and screamed.
In the resulting memoir, “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair” (Harper Collins), whose title alludes to her reading armchair of cat-clawed, faded purple brocade, Ms. Sankovitch writes about that redemptive year of contemplation. The book is also an account of her family traumas: not only the death of Anne-Marie but also the World War II murders of three of her father’s siblings. It is a meditation on grief and healing, on values held sacred by her family and the life well lived. It is, of course, a paean to reading.
“I was looking to books for more than just escape and pleasure,” said Ms. Sankovitch, an accomplished environmental lawyer who gradually gave up practicing after she had children. Now she was seeking answers about “how to live with sorrow and how to find my place in the world.”
While the mechanics of the project could occasionally be daunting, Ms. Sankovitch found the solace she yearned for. Books like “The Laws of Evening,” the short story collection by Mary Yukari Waters, taught her about addressing loss. “The characters were past the denial stage, past anger,” she said. “They were figuring out how to go on living with loss. Everyone’s solution was different, but many used memory to cope, as proof that good things will come again.”
Diana Athill reinforced that lesson. “Somewhere Towards the End” is a memoir she published at 91. “Every day is still a new day for her,” Ms. Sankovitch said.
Sitting in Ms. Sankovitch’s sunny kitchen, as her sons, ages 10 through 17, tromp in and out of the house, and talking books with her can be just plain fun. As she trades ideas about characters, her blue eyes sparkle. She opens a worn notepad to jot down unfamiliar titles.
“I do read a Kindle on the exercise bike, but I love a real book, especially from the library or a used one,” she said. “I like knowing that other people have held it. I like reading what others have scribbled in the margins. I’ve even seen people make little grammar-correcting marks.”
Seeking safe haven in reading was natural for a woman who grew up in a family of book worshippers. Her middle sister, Natasha, had been a comparative literature professor (later a lawyer); her Belgian mother, Tilde, taught French literature at Northwestern. The year her Belarusian father, Anatole, now a retired surgeon, spent in a sanatorium for tuberculosis, he and another patient read novels aloud to each other. The books Ms. Sankovitch read to her young sons, all passionate readers, include volumes of poetry she had written for them.
Reading was a means of communication for her close-knit family, with its European formality. “My parents are private people,” Ms. Sankovitch said. “Americans are raised to ask personal questions. But I feel that if something isn’t my business, I won’t pry. Books are a shield and a way to get closer to those questions, so you can talk about taboo subjects. You can have those intimate conversations without prying.”
Anne-Marie was an art historian who loved the written word, and the sisters, unlike in many ways, often found common ground through books. “She was smarter than me and more beautiful,” Ms. Sankovitch said sadly, recalling her sister. “But I was more fearless and socially adept. She didn’t suffer fools. I’d been at dinner parties where she would up and leave if she was bored. But she was a saint to me.”
In “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair,” she describes how she and other family members would bring books to Anne-Marie’s sickbed. The visits often included book chats. After her death, the family dedicated a bench in her memory in the Conservatory Garden in Central Park, where passers-by can sit, contemplate the surrounding blooming beauty and read.
During her reading year, Ms. Sankovitch received recommendations for books from readers of a blog she had started (readallday.org), where she posted short reviews of each book. She also drew inspiration from the deep, eclectic collection in the Westport Public Library.
“My year would have been different with a different library, in a different town,” she said. She discovered new stacks, exploring genres outside her comfort zone of novels: essays, plays, science fiction, travel.
Typically reading 70 pages an hour, she’d try to finish each book in about four hours. She still did the laundry and carpooling, reading while the boys were in school, percolating at night, posting in the morning.
She described her reviews as “a public diary.”
“They’re not intellectual dismemberment,” she continued, “but more of my emotional response to the book.”
About “Little Bee,” the devastating novel by Chris Cleave, she wrote: “We connect to those we can see and touch; we protect the ones we can. But even then, a sister can die, and you won’t even know it until you get the phone call driving home over the Henry Hudson Bridge after what you thought was a very good day.”
The quixotic intensity of the project did not surprise those who know Ms. Sankovitch: she seems hard-wired for the full-bore experience. When tennis elbow threatened to forfeit her daily match with her husband, Jack Menz, a Manhattan lawyer (their home sits on two acres, including a clay court), she switched to her left hand, playing poorly but gamely. As a young associate at a Manhattan firm, a position demanding 16-hour days, she was focused and efficient, largely because other priorities called, including books. She would skip lunch and close her door to read for pleasure.
Once, while biking, recalled Stephanie Young, a friend from Harvard Law School, Ms. Sankovitch mentioned that her father advised “everything in moderation.”
At that, Ms. Young laughed. “Nina doesn’t do anything in moderation,” she said. “While she was telling us this, she was eating her sixth FrozFruit bar.”
As Ms. Sankovitch began to emerge from grief during her year of reading, her husband said the impact on the entire family was salutary.
“Nina had such a serenity,” Mr. Menz said. “And part of it was that the pace of her life was just slower than everyone else’s. We had fun dinners, because you’d not only hear about what our guys did during the day, but Nina would talk about the new characters she had just read. I’d watch Giants games with our son Michael, and she’d be there, but reading. We just gave her that space.”
Now, Ms. Sankovitch’s own readers have written her, saying that her memoir has become their handbook about how to read through grief.
“I am so happy that what I found in books, someone else might have found in mine,” Ms. Sankovitch said. “It’s all back to Anne-Marie, what a tribute to her.” She is thinking of writing a new book, based on letters from the late 19th century that she found in the family’s former Upper West Side brownstone.
And she is still reading. Last November, she proposed that she and her husband tackle “War and Peace” together. He somehow set it aside.
Naturally, Ms. Sankovitch finished. But not until January.
Some books are just not meant to be read in a day.