What is more important, a meaningful life or a happy life? For years we have been taught that one of our most precious freedoms is the pursuit of happiness. But what really is happiness and does it give us a fulfilling life? According to Webster, the word happy means “delighted, pleased, or glad as over a particular thing.”

What the Research Shows

According to recent researchers such as Roy F. Baumeister and colleagues from Florida State University, more Americans are happy now than they have ever been. Terrific. But they also say that happiness alone is a rather selfish thing. People are mainly concerned about themselves, not others. They are considered “the takers” and their state of happiness is often short lived. As soon as that thing, like that BMW, or that vacation, is common place to them they move on to find new things or fun events to make them happy.

But is there something in life that is more important, more permanent? Researchers have also found that a person who knows his life is meaningful and significant on earth has a lasting feeling of purpose and inner strength. More than most anything else, knowing your purpose reduces depression and stress and increases resilience. It is a constant.

Frankl’s Perspectives from a Nazi Prison Camp 

Victor Frankl a Jewish psychiatrist in Europe, wrote the book Man’s Search for Meaning after he survived the brutality of a World War II Nazi prison camp. Both his parents and young pregnant wife were not so fortunate. Many people died, but he survived. Why? He did not attribute his stability and resilience to happiness. He survived because he knew he was needed. His life had meaning far beyond his own. He was what the researchers have called “a giver,” an altruistic man who had compassion for all the people in the camp. His first concern was not for himself but for others. As a psychiatrist he spent many, many hours helping people through their most difficult times, and in doing so he focused on others and how he could help them, not on himself.

Happiness and Meaning Go Hand in Hand 

Happiness is wonderful, but I believe we all need more. We need purpose, a reason for being here. As an example I will mention our returning veterans who need help from all of us to reintegrate here at home. Often after veterans come home they become depressed and far too many commit suicide. They feel life has no meaning, no purpose anymore. There is no reason to be here. The happiness they feel on return is often short lived and things do not satisfy for long.

In my book, How to Cope with Stress after Trauma: Especially for Veterans, their Families, and Friends my eighteenth of twenty steps to recovery is called, “Rebuild your Purpose in Life.” I write, “I’m here to tell you veterans, we need you here at home as much as we needed you overseas. You have unique and vital skills and gifts that few other people have.” Then I mention several ways they can serve here at home to give them meaning.

Balance Between Getting and Giving

So what is my conclusion about what is more important, a happy life or a meaningful life? The way I see it is that we need a balance in our lives of getting and giving, of happiness and meaning. Getting is important and we all need it, but on its own does not provide inner joy and satisfaction for long. It needs to be balanced by giving. Giving provides purpose and meaning, a reason for being here, throughout our lives.

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