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Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Meaning

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Alex Pattakos
August 26, 2019

Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Most Americans are familiar with these words, even if they don’t know that they are contained in the introduction to the Declaration of Independence. The full phrase reads as follows:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

These powerful words and the concepts behind them helped to establish a platform for designing political systems in the United States of America and elsewhere in the world.

The concept of happiness has evolved significantly since 1776 when this phrase was first introduced. Now we often relate the thought of happiness with living the good life, a concept that has been hijacked by advertisers and portrayed as a life in which we seek pleasure, relaxation and, of course, material goods.

But more choices and more personal freedom to choose has led to higher expectations that, in turn, have led to never being satisfied with what we have! We think we want more, but when we get it, it is not enough. We still want more. Enough becomes a moving target.

We’ve been taught that we should expect to have it all and that if we don’t have something, someone else owes it to us. The responsibility for meeting our expectations lies with someone else, e.g., our family, our employer, the government and even in a broader sense, society.

We have also been taught that we should expect to have what we want now. In other words, we are driven by instant gratification—and justify it with thoughts like, “Just put it on credit,” “There’s no need to earn the money today,” and, “Pay for it later.” Not just individuals but cities, states and nations have embraced and become addicted to this belief as well. Hence, it has become increasingly common to associate the phrase, “Kick the can down the road,” with lawmakers at all levels of government when dealing with budget shortfalls, mounting public debt and other fiscal issues. Putting off work on such matters for a later date poses serious questions about how well the public’s business is being managed, not only by policy leaders but also by public administrators.

Years ago, the Greek philosophers encouraged us to live the so-called good life, but what they really meant was the complete life, the meaningful life. They suggested, among other things, that we strive to build our character, virtues or excellences. Importantly, they encouraged us to do so not only to benefit ourselves but also to benefit all of society. Aristotle, for instance, believed that the greatest virtues are those that are most useful to others. The commonly heard phrase, “Living the good life,” in this context, means that we are acting well and living for society, not just for ourselves.

Put simply, life is about the pursuit of meaning, which the world-renowned psychiatrist and existential philosopher Viktor Frankl famously espoused is the primary intrinsic motivation of human beings.

It should be noted that Frankl was very much concerned about the balance between freedom and responsibility. He took exception, for instance, to what appeared to be a commonly accepted view in America of equating freedom with a license to do virtually anything one wants. To Frankl, freedom without responsibility was an oxymoron.

In many ways, Frankl’s perspective on what constitutes real freedom (or, “Liberty,” as referred to in the Declaration of Independence) can be traced back to the ageless wisdom of Aristotle. Living the good, i.e., meaningful, life demands that we look beyond ourselves and, importantly, hold ourselves—both individually and collectively—responsible for a greater good. For this reason, Frankl advised that happiness cannot be pursued; instead, “It must ensue and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.” True happiness, therefore, is a by-product of the search for meaning.

This is particularly important in the workplace, where people must be encouraged to follow the steps to meaning, versus simply wanting to be happy or working in a, “Happy workplace.”

Perhaps the founders involved in drafting the Declaration of Independence had these deeper concepts in mind when they wrote the words, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” More than likely, they weren’t referring to what we now refer to as hedonistic happiness, a fleeting emotion and moving target, dictated by things, events or other people, all external to ourselves. Instead, they most likely had in mind the deeper concept of meaning as the ultimate purpose or end goal of our work and life.

Author: Alex Pattakos, a former ASPA National Council member, is a founder of a think tank, the Global Meaning Institute (www.globalmeaninginstitute.com). He is co-author with Elaine Dundon of two international bestselling books on the human quest for meaning: Prisoners of Our Thoughts, based on the wisdom of the world-renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, and The OPA! Way, inspired by Greek philosophy, mythology, and culture. He is recognized internationally as the leading authority on applying Frankl’s System of Logotherapy and Existential Analysis to work, the workplace, and organizations in business and government. His passions include advancing meaning in government service and the “human side of innovation.” He may be contacted at: [email protected]

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