What can you do if the traditional forms of happiness feel beyond your reach? Dale Decker suggests ways to create the presence of meaning
Since many queer people come into conflict with the religion they were brought up in, we are far more likely to end up without a formal way to explore the meaning of life. For many people a counselor has replaced the clergy as a source of advice and guidance. Certainly counseling can help people to relieve their suffering and be happier. Unfortunately, it’s easy to get caught up in feeling better and ignore the largest question on the table:
What exactly is happiness?
The majority of Americans define happiness as the presence of pleasure and absence of pain. We all know that fine food, a comfortable house, romance, money, and good health can create happiness in humans. In fact, research shows that if depressed people start doing the things that used to bring them pleasure, their depression improves. Hopefully we will have plenty of pleasure and comfort in our lives from start to finish, but what if life circumstances make feeling pleasure difficult? How are we to be happy then?
There is a second form of happiness that shouldn’t be controversial if we consider it carefully—the presence of meaning. Even pain and suffering can produce joy if there is a meaningful reason to endure it; child birth is a perfect example. Mothers are willing to undergo extreme suffering to give life to their child because of the importance of the action. The presence of meaning in our lives provides protection even when the harsh realities of life are unavoidable. The loss of meaning isn’t merely an intellectual problem, it affects both mental and physical health. These concepts don’t seem to fit into modern psychology but the pioneers in this field were no strangers to this discussion.
Dr. Victor Frankl was a respected psychiatrist and a contemporary of Sigmund Freud (the two had a spirited correspondence since their theories were so different.) Dr. Frankl specialized in treating suicidal people which provided him a unique perspective when he was detained in a Nazi concentration camp. He noticed that some prisoners survived while others quickly died of disease or committed suicide. He found that people who had meaning in their lives, such as wanting to survive to be reunited with family, were able to endure. Those who became despondent literally lost the will to live.
Modern research about trauma also sheds light on the importance of meaning. Researchers set out to find out why some people who are exposed to traumatic events have very little impact on their functioning while others become disabled by their experience. Both groups had the same level of symptoms and similar exposure to trauma. However, those who accepted these symptoms as a normal experience of life coped better than those who railed against their suffering as unfair. The healthy individuals were still suffering from their trauma but that experience was contained in the larger view of their lives and therefore had less hold over them.
At this point, you may be wondering what this has to do with you. Well, think of the search for meaning as an insurance policy. Reinforcing your ability to find meaning in all aspects of your life will provide you with the strength to endure whatever life brings. Of course, I can’t prescribe a belief system for you but I can suggest some mental habits that will encourage you to find your own path.
How We Can Help Ourselves
Set your motivation. Before you start your day, remind yourself of your intention. Focus on your purpose (perhaps putting food on the table for your family) rather than the daily frustration of work. The hassles don’t seem so important when compared to the real purpose.
Take an inventory. I’ll bet you already do many things that are meaningful each day but you don’t give it much thought. Encourage yourself to look forward to good deeds as much as you anticipate the purely fun activities of the week.
Know your limits. We all know someone overextended by numerous political and volunteer duties. Eventually exhaustion wins and that driven enthusiasm turns to apathy. Do what you can and rejoice in it no matter how small it may seem.
Enjoy your good fortune. Experiencing the pleasure available to you is far from a decadent waste of time. Rather it is essential for giving us energy and joy to work on more lasting happiness.
Don’t fall into the guilt trap. You can waste a lot of energy picking each action apart and examining it. This leads to resentment and eventually the urge to throw the whole activity out to avoid the guilt. You’ll get a lot further if you set realistic expectations and celebrate your accomplishments.
Share your experience. It’s important to have guidance and support from outside yourself. It might be a congregation, an inspiring person or a sympathetic group of friends.