The Pursuit of Happiness . . . not all its cracked up to be

I think I am having an “aha” moment.  Over the past couple of months I’ve had a flat, disinterested feeling that I was blaming on winter, on gray skies, on spring too many months away.  But now, in this moment, I think it is more than that.  I’ve been struggling on a soul level and didn’t realize it.

I’ve had a divided feeling between the part of me that loves her bit of land, likes the sandbox play of building a straw bale house, enjoy the dirt and grime of gardening, and bugs and wood fires.  All of these things make me “happy.”

Another part of me has spent a lifetime helping others to find purpose and meaning in their lives, to work toward something and not against something.  I love being side by side with somebody as the dreaming, meaning-seeking part of them wakes up and comes alive.  I love the question, “What do I have to offer others, and how will I do that?”

Here is the conflict that has brought me down into winter.  I’ve been trying to convince myself that I may be done with my “work” with others.  I’ve written pros and cons down lists of paper trying to convince myself that I could be “happy” just working the land and building new stuff–that I have done enough workshops and coaching and constellations.

I had no idea what a bad argument I was making with myself until right this moment.

This morning Milt sent me a wonderful article from The Atlantic about Victor Frankl and his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning.  This was an important, shaping book in my earlier life.  Frankl was sent to a German concentration camp at the height of his career as an important psychiatrist and there he discovered an important difference between the internees who lived and those who died.  Those who survived the German concentration camps survived because they had found meaning—a reason to live and suffer and go forward.   Those who died had lost any and all sense of meaning in life.

The article by Emily Esfahani Smith explores in depth the difference between the pursuit of “happiness” and the pursuit of “meaning” in our lives.  Put into the simple math of my own life.  Puttering around our place makes me “happy” but it does not add “meaning.”  Working with other people, the youth radio project, sharing important strategies and tools, pushing people to think outside of their own smaller selves and into the bigger realm of what do I have to contribute to this world is what gives my life meaning.  To quit working with others would be like cutting my own arm off.  It flattens everything and leaves me sad and depressed.  So much for the pursuit of happiness.

Although sometimes it feels like I struggle alone, writing these posts, writing more books, offering workshops to people to share what I have learned, but it is not a fruitless task.  It is who I am.

I believe in the goodness of people and their right and their ability to bring forth some larger, greater part of themselves.  I want to assist that process.  I want to constantly strive to bring forth something greater in me.  Happiness is not the be all and the end all of this human life.  When we struggle and suffer with relationships, children, careers, finding our place, we are making meaning of it all.  Of course I could be happy puttering and planting and growing and building–but it would not fill the need in me to be a part of building a better, kinder, more gracious and beautiful world.

Darn.  And I thought I was going to retire.  But to what?

What is the meaning and purpose in your life?  What contributions are yet to be made by someone such as you?  Are you looking for that meaning?  Please do take the time to read the article I’m referencing and consider your own big questions.   What are they?  Perhaps you’ll have your own “aha” moment. If you read the article, be sure to click on the flowers in a psychiatric hospital link at the end of the article for another interesting read.




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The Pursuit of Happiness . . . not all its cracked up to be — 10 Comments

  1. “I want to constantly strive to bring forth something greater in me.”, says Jamie Lee.

    With the exception of that sentiment, I’m quite sure that we are 180 degrees apart. I have no faith in the goodness of people, but I’m glad that you do. I do believe that happiness is all that counts. I think struggling and suffering should be rectified ASAP, and avoided when possible. A smile and a “howdy-do” to another person is enough. Great to have you taking up my slack though. Thanks, and keep writing. You write’em, I’ll read ’em.

  2. Hi Jamie… How fascinating… I just finished re-reading “Man’s Search for Meaning” myself a couple weeks ago! I had read it a long time ago, too, and just found it again going through a box of books that I took from my parents house.

    It is a multi-faceted book, with lots of ideas to be absorbed, depending on where a person is in their own understanding of their life. One of the things that struck me was his observation that no matter how much is taken from us externally, no one can take away our freedom to respond in the way that we believe to be right. That’s why some prisoners became monstrous crew leaders, (chosen by the Nazi’s because of their selfish personalities) and some prisoners became loving and generous friends who comforted their fellow prisoners.

    What this tells me is that suffering is not as bad as we think, just like happiness is not as “good” as we think. Sometimes it takes suffering for us to realize that it’s what we carry within us and what we bring into the world that’s important, not what the world is doing to us and what we are “getting”. Some prisoners found great joy during their time in the concentration camp, because it forced them to look within for meaning in ways that regular life had not.

    Anyways, very thought provoking book, and I love how it turned a lightbulb on in your head about your own life!

    Lorna K.

    • Hi Lorna,

      I always love your long and thoughtful replies to my posts. I was struck one day by the idea that suffering most often comes because we love. There is depth in both suffering and our deep love for others, family, the planet. I would not be willing to forego suffering if it meant my ability to love would be diminished or disappear. I need to order a copy of the book and re-read it myself. I remember it being an important part of my reading list during college. Did you read through the article I cited? It is worth the time.

      Thanks for writing.


      • Hi Jamie,
        No, I haven’t read the article. I’ll see if I get a chance… I think the sort of suffering you talk about might be called grief, which is definitely a result of love. I’m not sure I would put the concentration camp suffering in that category. That was just plain physical and mental torture (mixed, of course, with plenty of grief, knowing what was happening to the people they loved). I honestly have no idea how I would respond in such a situation…. I can and do “do” grief regularly, and in fact it doesn’t feel like suffering. It feels like something that needs to be expressed, and I feel alive when I do it. I haven’t any real experience with external torture on the scale experienced in a place like Dachau…

        • Hi Lorna,

          Yes, you are right. It is much more complex than that–grief, love, suffering, compassion. I recently watched a nice Sounds True piece on Compassion and the Brain and the speaker said the Dali Lama defines compassion as “The ability to see the suffering of others and have a desire to help.” Or something close to that. Sometimes when I consider the big hurts of the world and what people are capable of, I do experience a deep grief that is tied to love of this world and humanity, but that is different than the personal grief on the loss of a loved one. I also can’t imagine how I would be in the face of war or internment or extreme cruelty such as Dachau. When we visited the camp several years ago, I was swamped with emotion.

          Thanks for continuing our conversation.

  3. Hi Sis,
    Funny thing is lately I’ve been feeling extraordinarily happy and that prompted me to watch Happy – a documentary in search of what makes people happy. I was struggling with my happiness. I thought it might look bad if I was too happy. (You understand without me going into detail.) And my career both drives me nuts and gives me satisfaction but if I follow the lead of many people I should be complaining about it all the time. Well, I do complain about those parts that drive me nuts but only to the extent that I’m looking for solutions. I love you.

    • Hi back Sis,

      I love that film. I think happiness has to be part of any mix, and if we can find happiness even in difficult times, even better. I know your career challenges you, but it also shapes you. I can’t imagine you only in “the pursuit of happiness.” We need a little meaning in all we do and sometimes the meaning comes from being with family. It was such fun to have your mid-winter visit. A bright spot in a gray sky. I love you, too.

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