Famous words that we Americans encounter as little kids in first grade if not before, although without the question mark. Once in college, if we’re lucky, we learn to follow the Polish proverb, “Remember to doubt.” After all, Doubting Thomas, Jesus’ skeptical follower, is the patron saint of education. But, for whatever reason, I never doubted the soundness of this famous phrase from our Declaration of Independence. Then in the early 60s, a new-minted Yale graduate, I happened to read Viktor Frankl’s account of his time in concentration camps, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946). There Frankl recounts how younger, fitter men than he, an intellectual, would lose all hope and quickly die. Frankl, whose early manuscript on what he would later call logotherapy, was burnt by his captors, decided to use mental alchemy to turn his remorseless imprisonment into an experimental laboratory. To wit, he used his skill of observation to test out his theory that the worst thing that can happen to a person is loss of a sense of meaning or purpose in life. His motto in effect became, “My imprisoners can harm my body and take away my physical freedom but not my ability to observe, think, and thus have meaning in my life [my words].” In short, the Nazis could abuse his body but not his mind, heart, or soul. In his reflections in the latter part of the book, he suggested that the (American) pursuit of happiness is a red herring that leads human beings astray. Instead, he posed, individuals should attempt to find and follow meaning in their lives. Happiness, he suggested, was a biproduct of meaningful living and not a worthy goal in and of itself...
Recently as of January 2023, there has been a spate of interest in happiness, specifically what it is and how to get and maintain it. The timing is far from mysterious. We live in especially interesting times, as the Chinese curse would have it, what with Covid, the rise of authoritarian governments, the growing danger of irreversible climate change, political and social divisions at home and abroad with potential civil wars in the winds, and the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine. Yale professor Laurie Santos’s course on Happiness is the most popular class in the University’s 222-year history. Moreover, she’s now created an online course for teens on the subject. Time Magazine in its January 16/23, 2023 issue featured a special section on the subject. In September 2022 Harvard faculty members Drs. Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz published their book The Good Life, an attempt to define what it is and how to attain it based on lessons from Harvard’s 80-plus-year research on human well-being. The book’s subtitle is Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness. Some of the ideas arising from all these studies are that (1) no one can avoid bad times; they come with the territory of being alive, (2) yet there are better and worse ways of dealing with them, with attitude seeming to play a big role here, and (3) good nutrition, adequate sleep, and an active lifestyle all help one to be content. To this, as a nonscientist, I would add living a purposeful life. Then, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we can all follow our yellow-brick road.