I was recently stopped in the street by two clean-cut young men wearing white shirts, ties and black name badges. “Excuse me sir. We are asking people about what makes them happy.” It was a cold evening and I was on my way home from a long day at work. I wasn’t really in the mood to discuss theology with these gentlemen, which was ultimately their aim. “Sorry I’m in a bit of a rush,” I said and continued on my way.
For a few days, I couldn’t get this encounter out of my head. What had they meant by happiness? Why is there such a focus on happiness and contentment as some kind of must-have state of mind in our society. There are popular movements on the web such as The Happiness Project and Action For Happiness – both of which have admirable aims. The BBC reported just yesterday that in Western world nations, life satisfaction bottomed out between the ages of 45 and 54 before rising again. That’s good news for me – I’m about to get happier in two years time!
A few days later, I was fortunate enough to come across some words of wisdom on this matter from Victor Frankl whilst reading his remarkable book, on his personal experience and observations in Nazi concentration and extermination camps, Man’s Search for Meaning. I will leave you with an excerpt from the book, which is advice he gave to his students after the war, that I would like to offer as a belated response to those two young men:
“Don’t aim at success, The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the byproduct of one’s surrender to a person other than one’s self. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have two let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you do then go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run – in the long run I say! – success will follow you precisely because you have forgotten to think of it. ”
Man’s Search for Meaning – Victor Frankl