Finding Meaning Amidst the Chaos: Viktor Frankl and the Importance of Eudaimonic Happiness


“Happiness is not about the pursuit of happiness itself. It’s the pursuit of a reason to be happy.”

-Viktor Frankl


Do you want to find a deep, sustainable source of happiness within your life? Finding your eudaimonic, or purpose-based happiness, means living a life that’s driven by a sense of purpose, it’s finding meaning in your life that will lift you up and keep you going even on your darkest days. This is no easy feat, and so it’s essential that you turn to others, as well as looking inwards, and let their insights guide you while on the search for your eudaimonic happiness.


Today, we’ll be turning to the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, who writes on the importance of establishing and encouraging the growth of our own eudaimonic happiness. Before we start to unpack Frankl’s teachings, though, we must first uncover why making the effort to find a sustainable source of eudaimonic happiness is so important.


Why Eudaimonic Happiness?


COVID-19 has hit us all hard. Whether you’ve lost someone close to you, suffered through unprecedented levels of unemployment, or found yourself struggling with isolation, despair, or fear, it’s more difficult now than ever to feel truly at peace, truly happy when facing such chaotic times. Many of us have turned to hedonic (pleasure-based) forms of happiness to try and fill that ache within us. Karuna’s founder, Arun Sardana, discusses this topic and his personal experience with hedonic happiness in the below video… make sure to check it out after you’ve finished reading.



“The Kool-Aid that we all drink—if I buy the next BMW, if I buy the next house, I buy the next custom suit—I’ll be happy. And yes, it gave me happiness for that moment, but I think it wasn’t happiness. It was relief, and I confused it with happiness. Having money in the bank didn’t make me happy. It relieved me that I could pay the bills, that I could support my family. It was relief disguised in what we call happiness.”

-Arun Sardana


Relief, disguised as happiness. Hedonic happiness allows us to breathe easier for a little while, but when all the lights are off and you’ve laid your head on the pillow, oftentimes that sense of relief is not as lasting as we’d like to believe. There will always be another bill to pay, another vacation to plan. By placing such value on that which merely fills us with relief or pleasure for a day, or week, or even a year—we lose sight of that which is truly important.


The source of this importance can vary greatly from person to person, but the need to establish and foster that sense of purpose does not. Especially when many of us have lost so much, we must not continue to perpetuate the narrative so many of us tell ourselves: If I don’t have a job, I am useless; and if I am useless, life is meaningless.


This false narrative is also referred to as unemployment neurosis, and it’s applicable to far more than just the loss of a job. It haunts many of us through many different losses. Viktor Frankl identifies the end result of this narrative—life is meaningless—as give-up-itis. We’re now going to dive a little deeper into the conclusion Frankl draws in his book, and explore a study that stemmed from his discoveries. Today, this study helps us to understand just how essential finding your eudaimonic happiness is.


Viktor Frankl and Man’s Search for Meaning


So how do we establish that sense of purpose that will stay with us no matter what life throws at us? To help answer this question, we’ll turn to Viktor Frankl. Frankl was a holocaust survivor—in fact, he was the only member of his family to survive the concentration camps. He watched them all walk into the gas chambers: his parents, his siblings, his wife. He grappled with the time he spent within the concentration camps in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning.


In Frankl’s book, he describes a condition the concentration camp prisoners suffered from, give-up-itis. He saw this exhibited in the people who, despite warnings and threats, did not want to leave their straw beds. They were laying in their own excrement and urine, but still, they would not move. Frankl discovered that they had lost the will to live because they no longer attached any meaning to their lives. They just did not want to go on any longer. Frankl discovered, like his quote at the beginning of our blog states, that without a reason to go on, these people completely lost their will to live.


The insight he gained from those experiences led to him founding an entirely new school of psychotherapy, logotherapy. Logotherapy, in its essence, describes a search for the meaning of one’s life as humanity’s central motivational force to live. Before we dive into some initial ways you can establish that sense of meaning within yourself, we must go back to the importance of doing so.


The Science Behind Eudaimonic Happiness


Frankl’s first-hand observations on the importance of a life that is filled with purpose are not just that, observations—they’ve not only given way to a new school of psychotherapy, but they’ve also led to studies that have actually quantified the importance of finding eudaimonic happiness. The study we will discuss, Gene expression and well-being, uncovered the demonstrable effects that high levels of eudaimonic happiness can have on the human body.


Barbara Frederickson, a member of the karuna scientific advisory board, and her colleague, Steven Cole, conducted a 2013 study that aimed “to identify molecular mechanisms underlying the prospective health advantages associated with psychological well-being.” In order to do so, they “analyzed leukocyte basal gene expression profiles in 80 healthy adults who were assessed for hedonic and eudaimonic well-being.” That’s to say, they looked to identify a biological basis for the relationship between psychological and physical health via the human genome. The study compared individuals who were experiencing high levels of hedonic well-being with those that experienced high levels of eudaimonic well-being, and compared the gene expression profiles of the subjects in order to determine if eudaimonic happiness had any impact on their health.


The study states that “previous studies have found that circulating immune cells show a systematic shift in basal gene expression profiles during extended periods of stress, threat, or uncertainty.” The genetics that dictate the function of our immune system exhibit changes in the face of stress and adversity, also known as Conserved Transcriptional Response to Adversity (CTRA). CTRA is “characterized by increased expression of genes involved in inflammation (e.g., proinflammatory cytokines) and decreased expression of genes involved in type I IFN antiviral responses and IgG1 antibody synthesis.” So, while it’s already known that our immune system reacts negatively to adversity, how does it react to hedonic versus eudaimonic happiness?


The study found that “hedonic and eudaimonic well-being engage distinct gene regulatory programs,” and those with high levels of hedonic well-being “showed up-regulated expression of CTRA.” The antiviral levels of those with high levels of hedonic happiness decreased, whereas “high levels of eudaimonic well-being were associated with CTRA down-regulation.” ¹ In other words, those with high levels of eudaimonic happiness saw their immune systems increase in strength. The importance of finding your eudaimonic happiness is clear. How, though, do we establish purpose and meaning amidst all the chaos life is constantly throwing at us?



DEA: 3 Practical Strategies for Finding Your Eudaimonic Happiness


These strategies are derived from Man’s Search for Meaning, but they have been made more accessible, especially for those who may be newer to logotherapy and the concept of eudaimonic happiness.


To begin, you must first establish what lifts you. What is able to lighten your mood, no matter what you may be going through? An easy way to determine this is by using the website www.viacharacter.org. Find the Character Strengths Survey, and take it—this will only take about ten minutes to do. It will provide you with 24 of your character strengths. This is a more scientific way of determining what is good within you, as your strengths are also what is able to bring you the most joy.


From that list, take the top three character strengths. You should now begin to exercise and strengthen these three strengths, and below, we’ve listed the three main ways you can do so, using the acronym DEA. Try to exercise one strength each day, in these three different manners. This is not a practice that has an expiration date in sight. It’s an exercise that you should carry with you everywhere you go, all of the time. It’s never too late or too early to begin, and the longer you do it, the more beneficial it is.


D: Deeds


Deeds refer to actions—doing things that will lift you up. Make sure you pick an action that will help foster the specific character strength you’ve chosen for the day. For example, if your character strength is Kindness, or doing favors and good deeds for others, make sure you go out of your way to do so! Buy your neighbor a coffee, hold the door open for a stranger, call your mother. The actual deed is up for interpretation, it just needs to be something you perceive as an act of kindness.


E: Experience


This means experiencing something inside of yourself. If your character strength is Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence, you should try and spend some time immersed within whatever you find beautiful, whether that be in the forest, in a bustling subway, or in an art gallery.


A: Attitude


This refers to making a shift in your attitude towards suffering. This is easier said than done, no doubt, but it is possible. In relation to your character strengths, this can mean using the particular strength as a lens to look at the world through—to view things through a different perspective is to gain a greater understanding of the world, especially in regards to how we experience suffering.


Take Mother Teresa, for example—at the end of her life, she lived amongst a colony of lepers in Calcutta. She was able to live amid deep suffering, to grapple with that feeling of chaos that fills us when coping with grief, fear, disillusionment, and still find meaning. As she used to say, “give your hands to serve, and your hearts to love.” Even when she was surrounded by suffering, she was still able to love and have faith that despite all of the bad, good still remains, and it should be cherished.


Shift the frame. Life is precious, and suffering is part of life. We must endure it, understand it, become familiar with it, and live with it. Appreciate it, even, for showing us what is good, what we should hold on to, and never let go.


If you can look within and make active efforts to lift yourself up in these simple ways, you will find that those strengths that fill you with purpose have been inside of you all along, quietly sitting in a dusty corner, just waiting to be stirred awake. They have been your companion all this time, and now, they are ready to rise with you.



The journey towards finding your eudaimonic happiness doesn’t end here, though. There are many more practical strategies, exercises, and teachings that will aid you in your journey. The karuna school of happiness will soon offer guided transformational journeys, structured by both evidenced-based principles of western psychology, and the timeless ancient wisdom that has led humanity closer to enlightenment for all of time. If you’ve been searching for happiness, look no longer. Happiness lives here. Welcome home.



References


¹ Gene expression and well-being

Barbara L. Fredrickson, Karen M. Grewen, Kimberly A. Coffey, Sara B. Algoe, Ann M. Firestine, Jesusa M. G. Arevalo, Jeffrey Ma, Steven W. Cole

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Aug 2013, 110 (33) 13684-13689; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1305419110


 

Sanskrit: karuṇā (करणा) = the compassionate desire to remove suffering

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