Several years ago, Forbes Magazine published a special issue, a collection of articles with a theme approximating the title of this essay. One of the articles, by Peggy Noonan, made the observation that we are the first generation in world history that expects happiness. This struck me as profound, but also prompted my asking, “how do we define happiness?” After thinking about this question for some time, my conclusion is that the search for happiness is really a search for meaning in life, and that the character of a community is determined by what gives its people their sense of meaning. I was reminded of all this by a recent convocation sponsored by the Great Books Foundation, the subject of which was Alexis de Tocqueville’s essay in his 1835 book, Democracy in America, entitled “Why Americans Are Often So Restless in the Midst of Their Prosperity”. De Tocqueville’s essay is a masterpiece on the dynamics and frustrations of a fledgling democracy committed to equality in the context of freedom and “the constant strife between the desires inspired by equality and the means it supplies to satisfy them.” He was optimistic about America’s capacity to manage these trade-offs because of the pervasiveness of religion in America and the absence of a materialist philosophy. I wonder how he would react in a return visit?
One of the most moving treatments of the concept of meaning for me was by Dr. Viktor Frankl in his book Man’s Search For Meaning. Europe’s leading psychiatrist until his death several years ago, Frankl writes of his horrific experience as a prisoner at Auschwitz and his own search for meaning as a prerequisite for survival. From that experience, his essential conclusions about meaning are that the sort of person one becomes is not the result of external influence and that any person, even under the most adverse circumstances, can decide what shall become of himself. This last inner freedom cannot be lost and it is this spiritual freedom that makes life meaningful and purposeful. For Frankl, there is wisdom in these words of Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”