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A Christian Argument for Purpose and Significance
Under Non-theism: There is No Lasting Purpose, No Ultimate Meaning, and No Hope
By Mike Robinson


Without God, all the ideas, objectives, and achievements of mankind will collapse, fade, and vanish as they ultimately dissolve into the desolation of inoperative energy. All human experience and existence will be as though it had never been. Devoid of God, the cosmos will end in futility and extinction as it subsides into the nethermost mode of heat energy. The Second Law of Thermodynamics insures that without God, in the end, one is left with no lasting purpose, no ultimate meaning, and no hope. Moreover, reject the Christian worldview and one lacks a ground for purpose as well as the analysis and evaluation of purpose. To account for the notion of purpose, all men depend on the Christian worldview as it supplies the necessary functioning features of the analysis of purpose. Studying purpose and meaning, gathering knowledge regarding such matters, and offering claims concerning such—these actions require the use of universal operating features that the brute material cosmos cannot ontologically underwrite. Purpose is not intelligible apart from the biblical God.

Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever (Westminster Standards).1

Everything has been figured out, except how to live (Jean-Paul Sartre).

In the West it used to be considered the realm of the churches to solve the problems regarding the point of existence, but these days the question “What is the meaning of life?” is included in many exams for sociology, psychology, and philosophy degrees. However, the issue also arises in a very real form in contemporary ethics, particularly with the cases of the terminally ill, abortion, and the treatment of the elderly. It seems ironic that for too many people, the only time the question of the meaning of life is pondered deeply is when it is almost over.

Boundaries and Meaninglessness

A life without boundaries is a meaningless existence (Josh McDowell).

So what’s the point of it all anyway? There are numerous alternatives, some very hedonistic, some slightly epicurean, and some idealistic, some morally principled, and some very virtuous.  The later type may live a life that is about truth, beauty, and honor—learning and growing in Christian virtue.2 Many people seek fulfillment of the self-gratifying kind—pursuits along the lines of: to seek personal comfort and pleasure, to get wealthy, or to gain power or fame. But if life is merely about the “pursuit of happiness”—what if that doesn’t satisfy? What if my happiness pursuit conflicts with another person’s happiness? Or what If I’m not very good at pursuing happiness? Many people in modern societies are not good at pursuing happiness; just look at the alcoholism, illegal drug use, and violence in contemporary societies.

An Incoherent Noble Truth

Does Buddhism have a coherent and satisfying solution? For Buddhists in selected sects, the answer to questions about the purpose of life, the universe and everything, is that the point of life is to put off desire. All men suffer because we lack that which we want—we receive the trouble, which we do not desire. This desire to possess things is the cause of our suffering (dukkha). This means that the soul is out of harmony and seeks after the wrong things, and thus perpetuates the suffering. An important part of enlightenment is the understanding that suffering is just an illusion, like desire, and one escapes this desire through following the Dharma (the law of life, one’s duty within cultural norms or the basic philosophical principals of one’s life in the world).

In contrast, Van Til observed that “when apples are shaken off a tree, one can ask whether there must not have been some sort of something that is higher than the apples in order to account for the fruit. Similarly, not looking for the meaning of man in the light of the revelation that comes from Christ revealed in the Bible is even more absurd. He who does not look for the meaning of humanity in the light of the revelation that comes from God revealed in Scripture is like one who shakes off all the apples of the apple tree, grubs out the tree, and then asks whether there must not have been some sort of something that is higher than the apples in order to account for them. This ‘some sort of something’ or at most some sort of tree may, possibly or probably, tell us that it is an apple tree.”3                                                     

The Buddha taught that one should strive to remove desire, and affirm that everything that seems real—things we seek—are all just illusions.

•   If all desire is error and increases suffering

•  Then the desire to rid myself of desire is an error and actually increases suffering

•   I should not desire to completely stifle desire

A goal to extinguish desire, as asserted above, is self-impaling. On this crucial issue—the diagnosis of the human problem—Christianity and Buddhism are infinitely different. Buddha teaches that our desires need to be subdued and annihilated, but Jesus presses men to cultivate passionate desires to please God and follow after love. Buddha attempts to rid men of suffering by denying one’s aspirations and in promulgating the notion that desires are part of the vast illusion of life. This reveals that the real need that Buddhists have is for the forgiveness of sins and acceptance by God. Only Jesus can provide this solution. The Buddhist is taught to resolve to follow Dharma with precision so one can find Nirvana. By contrast, the Christian, by grace, obtains salvation as a gift from God through the person and work of Christ.

The concept of “God” invented as the antithetical concept in life–everything harmful, noxious, slanderous, the whole mortal enmity against life brought into terrible unity! The concept the life beyond … invented to deprive of value the only world which exists (Nietzsche).4

Some cultists advance the idea that life is about knocking on enough doors to sell magazines or to participate in enough temple occultic rituals to please God. Selected Hindus suggest that one needs to stay pure in order to escape the Karmic cycle. The Prussian born Friedrich Nietzsche advanced the idea that life was about attaining power. Nietzsche wrote of the will of power, the Superman, and magnificent destinies. Yet Nietzsche was a physically and emotionally weak man: headaches, unattractive, bad eyesight—a tragic figure. He ironically asserted: “A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.”5 A few years later he fell into insanity and repeatedly declared that he was Jesus Christ.6 Nietzsche stated that the goal of humanity is to rise atop nature’s power-seeking—untrammeled by Christian notions of justice and compassion. There is no meaning to life except that which individuals create for themselves. The only way out of this meaninglessness is through the exercise of power. Whereas Christianity teaches that men ought to glorify God, aim to do good, love your neighbor, Nietzsche argues that this is slave morality and is born out of weakness.

God the Foundation for Purpose

F--k damnation, man! F--k redemption! We are God's unwanted children? So be it! (Fight Club).7

I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers ... were ultimately prepared not in some ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers (Viktor Frankl; italics mine).

O LORD, You have searched me and known me. You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off. You comprehend my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word on my tongue, but behold, O LORD, You know it altogether. You have hedged me behind and before, and laid Your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful … You formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are Your works, And that my soul knows very well. My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them. How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! How great is the sum of them! If I should count them, they would be more in number than the sand; when I awake, I am still with You (Psalms 139:1-18).

The Christian worldview supplies hope. The proper application of science is a wonderful tool to advance aspects of human life. Nevertheless, the “religion” of science cannot provide enduring hope or purpose. Mathematics and scientific observation have demonstrated that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is a fundamental truth (all things are running down). And without God, this law of physics leaves man without a future and a hope. This principle reveals that the universe is running down like a clock. One day in the distant future the whole universe will die in the whimper of an eternal heat-death. The sun, the starry hosts, and all the galaxies will be extinguished in a humming red flash.

An Argument for Purpose

[1] Without an everlasting existence, men have no enduring purpose.

[2] God supplies everlasting existence for men.

[3] There is an enduring purpose.

[4] Therefore God exists.

One may extend this argument to an antithesis:

[5] Non-theism cannot supply an everlasting existence.

[6] Under non-theism men have no enduring purpose.

[7] Without enduring purpose men have no ultimate meaning.

[8] Non-theism offers no ultimate meaning

[9] There is ultimate meaning.

[10] Therefore non-theism is false.

This argument places most its weight on [3]. It does not stand as an assured argument. If the non-theist denies that there is an enduring purpose, he can evade the weight of its vigor. But the denial is very telling. Under non-theism there is no enduring purpose.

A Transcendental Proposal for Purpose

To fashion the truth of purpose in an assured argument—a transcendental form is much preferred since a transcendental inference is not governed by the truth value of its antecedent premise, regardless of whether this premise affirms purpose or not. This is the case since a transcendental supposition constitutes the very ground for the proof of that premise.

Deny the Christian worldview and one lacks a foundation for purpose as well as the investigation and evaluation of purpose, meaning, and hope. To account for the notion of purpose, all men depend on the Christian worldview since it furnishes the obligatory functioning features required for the analysis of purpose. Investigating purpose and meaning, gathering knowledge regarding such matters, and offering assertions concerning such—these actions require the use (and presupposition) of universal operating features that the mere cosmos cannot ontologically fund. Purpose, not merely eternal purpose, is not intelligible apart from the biblical God.

The Distressing Reality of Purposelessness

Without God, all the schemes, dreams, monuments, and attainments of mankind will be like a “cosmic sand sculpture” which will be toppled, subdued, despoiled, dissolved, and swept off into the sea of nothingness (unusable energy). All reality and existence will be as though it had never been and the whole universe will wear the final mark of purposelessness and oblivion, as it ebbs into the lowest vocation of soft heat energy. The Second Law of Thermodynamics demonstrates that without God, in the end, one is left with no lasting purpose, no ultimate meaning, and no hope.

God announces to His people that He is with them everywhere, at all times. God’s will is to be our delight and purpose. The universe and our individual lives are part of the culmination of a prefigured design.

Sagacious But Illegitimate

Socrates believed that the best life, in part, is realized when the soul ponders ultimate beauty in its pure form and when it pursues knowledge of ultimate forms. This and many other theories (by Socrates as well as other philosophers) have no ultimate footing to ground their claims. They are just empty claims by individual men—though many times from very brilliant men—nevertheless, just men. Those, who believe that human existence and our universe are just “accidental afterthoughts,” leave souls in despair, immersed in purposelessness. When one reads Bertrand Russell summing up life as “unyielding despair,” one starts to ache for meaning and purpose. To find meaning in life, one has to look to the true and living God. He is the God of the living and He gives life purpose and meaning.

The inward area is the first place of loss of true Christian life, of true spirituality, and the outward sinful act is the result (Francis Schaeffer).8

The Bible instructs people to do “all things for the glory of God.” Holy writ notifies the world that in our life, we can have the supreme joy of knowing the Father in a loving, covenant relationship. One cannot have real meaning in this life without the Lord Jesus Christ. Emptiness, loneliness, purposelessness, and despair are the companions of those who do not seek God in Christ. A covenant life with God Almighty brings daily enrichment, enchantment, and a wonder-filled life. Doing all things for the glory of God and enjoying Him brings a splendor-filled zest to the daily delights of nature, employment, motherhood, children, friends, God’s Word, prayer, and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

God is The God of Hope

He who has a why to live can bear almost any how (Friedrich Nietzsche).9

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He has made us accepted in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins... having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself (Ephesians 1:3-9).


Hungering for the world’s disjointed abstract knowledge will only lead to struggle and despair. Real purpose and meaning are pursued, attained, and sustained by a hot-blooded, passionate pursuit of Jesus. The non-Christian worldview leads to Heidegger’s ultimate, yet empty, answer to the problem of the meaninglessness of life “is to stand on deck and salute” as the ocean liner sinks. He tells us to do this because it is more visually appealing than doing nothing. That is real despair. That is depressing. Thank God it is false. Following Jesus lifts one up into a wonderful, enthralling life in the Spirit.

Overlooking or rejecting God’s purpose in Jesus Christ is:


It leads to despair and desolation.  

It is arrogant.

Ends in doom.

And may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, that you may overflow with hope through  the power of  the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13).

See Psalms 86:9, 16:5-11; 144:15; Isa. 60:21; Rom. 11:36; I Cor. 6:20; 10:31; Phil. 4:4; Rev. 4:11, 21:3.

Galatians 5:22-23.

Cornelius Van Til: Christian Theory of Knowledge, p. 348.,%20Friedrich%20Wilhelm%201844-1900/Nietzsche,%20Philosopher%20of%20the%20Perilous%20Perhaps%20 %20Rebekah%20Peery%202008.pdf


One reaps what one sows. Nietzsche viciously attacked the truth of Christianity—

even attacking Jesus Christ. But he, like all rebels, received what he deserved.

Tyler Durden: Fight Club, 20th Century Fox, 1999.

Francis Schaeffer: True Spirituality, p. 12.

Friedrich Nietzsche: Twilight of the Idols.

See my New Apologetic Devotional eBook Who is Jesus? The Great Logos at 

Narrator:. He who has a why to live can bear almost any how (Friedrich Nietzsche).

Tyler Durden: Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who've ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off.

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven,” so mused John Milton (Paradise Lost).

Philosophers have long sought reduce complex moral and ethical issues into logical form, all the better to proclaim them. The first step is putting the problem into the lingual of formal is logic, which attempts to follow certain rules o reasoning drawn up by Aristotle—a long time ago. There are many practical reasons why this is difficult and a few theoretical ones too. Not the least that in order to achieve logical form, the eventual conclusion must be assumed at the outset. Notwithstanding this, logicians carry on their convoluted wand indigestible linguistic acrobatics.

But some slightly ridiculous consequences have to be swallowed even with this fairly modest beginning. The first is that any argument with inconsistent premise is valid. Irrespective of what the conclusion of that arguments are. For example:

Law and Gospel: Distinct But Not Separate

Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal (Jean-Paul Sartre).

On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero (Fight Club).8

Remember happiness is not Hell (Matthew 25; Revelation 20-22).

Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in Heaven (Luke 10:20).

The predominant functions of the moral law and God’s commandments:

I. Restrain Evil.  II. Reveal Sin/our Depravity.  III. Assist in our sanctification.

One must not confuse and commingle law and gospel: God’s commands distinct from God’s promises. The law is not just the Old Testament inasmuch as the Old Testament contains the gospel and the gospel is not just the New Testament for the New Testament contains law. The law accuses. The law commands and demands. It’s what God expects out of His creatures in our thoughts, words, and works. For it is not the ten recommendations, it is the Ten Commandments. It is rigorous. The law doesn’t say just do the best you can. God does not grade on a curve. The final requires perfection or one does not enter Heaven. It demands one hundred percent, every moment, in thought, word, and deed. The good news is Christ has expiated the transgressions against the law for His sheep by grace through faith. The greatest good news is that Christ has made satisfaction for the sins, the mistakes, and the commandment breaking of His people.

The gospel has attained and acquired for all Christians, without any works or merit on our part, the forgiveness of sins and the imputed righteousness of Christ that avails before God and provides eternal life. The law is written on our hearts and the gospel comes from outside us from God’s grace (Galatians 3:10-12). Scripture reveals that the law is everything that demands perfect obedience to God and pronounces God’s curses on all transgressors (Romans 3:19). The law of God renders the whole world guilty before God’s holiness and reveals the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20-23).

How can one avoid Hell? Jesus taught that it is very simple, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Do that every day, perfectly and live. Recall what Jesus said, “It is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven than a camel to go through an eye of a needle.” In that particular instance the disciples were very perplexed. They said, “Lord who then can be saved?” Jesus responded by revealing to them, “With man it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Heaven is infinitely beyond the reach of sinful men. Men need God to do the impossible. And God has accomplished this through Christ and His vicarious death and resurrection. It is all solely by grace. Deny Christ and it is impossible for an imperfect man to be accepted into a perfect Heaven. One must have their imperfections and sins removed by the Cross of God’s Son.

The gospel offers acceptance from God, peace with Him, and salvation freely given to the sinner by grace through faith (Romans 1:16-17, 10:15; Acts 20:24; Ephesians 1:13, 6:15). The law is distinct from the gospel but not separate; there is a unity within the diversity. Distinct but not separate.

Both the law and gospel are in the whole of Scripture. The two pertain to men and women and must be taught side by side with distinction within the oneness of Scripture. Christians are to uphold the law with zeal and with truth through the grace and the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 7:7-14). Some contemporary Christians believe the law is not to be upheld. They argue that we do not need to do the commandments in today’s dispensation. These are antinomians. Anti means: against. The definition of noumos: Law. Hence an antinomian is against the law. If there is no moral law, there can be no hell and no punishment for lawbreakers. If the law is gone, you get rid of the absolute standards of right and wrong. You also get rid of hell, and you get rid of the need of the Savior too. If we are not lawbreakers we do not need to be saved.

The Life of a Christian

To live a life of obedience before God’s face you must:

1. Admit that the flesh is weak (Matt 26:41).

2. Pray for power and wisdom to overcome temptation and sin.

3. Avoid instruments, places, people, and circles that tempt you and where you previously fell.

4. Keep your focus on Jesus and His victory

(1 Corinthians 15:56; Hebrews 12:1-2).

Trust the Changeless Rock

It only makes sense to put your full faith in a being that is changeless. That which changes will fail. Mutable men, including teachers who claim enlightenment, will be faithless at times. But Yahweh is always faithful. He is the Rock of unmoving hope and purpose. God’s faithfulness is not contingent on the faithfulness of men. God is immutable and remains perceptually faithful. God is unchangeable and He never differs from age to age. Unlike religious sages, God does not grow or develop for He does not vary from past, present, and future in any way. God has never been less infinite or less righteous than He is today or in the far distant future. God is self-existent and self-sufficient: He is changeless in His character. All that Yahweh is, He has always been, and He will always be.

Whereas all humans change, sin, and fail, God never slips or fails. Men forget and stumble but there is always a solid unchanging place to turn: God. In Yahweh, no change is possible. One can come to God in faith and one does not have to guess whether God will be found in a favorable disposition. God is always open to the needs and cares of His people. He does not change. He does not keep banking hours, He never closes on holidays. He never changes His mind and He always keeps His covenants and promises. He is not capricious nor arbitrary for His love never fades. Blessings come from His eternal and unchanging hand. The hand of even the most enlightened teacher, guru or avatar is in constant flux. One cannot depend on that which always changes.

The Infinite God Supplies Epistemic Rights: A Man Cannot

By the infinity of God is meant the boundless fullness of His being. God is limitless in His existence, and therefore in His attributes.28

Eternity is a perceptual duration, which hath neither beginning nor end; time hath both.29

The sine qua non epistemological starting point is infinite and all-knowing. Without this foundation, the God of Christianity, one cannot know anything at all. However, that would be self-contravening; therefore, rational beings have true, but partial, knowledge. And to know anything, one must utilize the laws of logic, and that requires the Lord God. Van Til observed that with “the self-contained ontological Trinity we have the foundational concept of a Christian theory of being, of knowledge, and action. Christians are interested in showing to those who believe in no God or in a God, a beyond, some ultimate or absolute, that it is this God in whom they must believe, lest all meaning should disappear.”30 If all meaning disappeared as an illusion, then that proposition would forfeit its own meaning; thus, it would be false. Therefore, justified infinite knowledge is necessary. God alone has this attribute; hence He is necessary for true knowledge.

A holy man, who develops and attains, is a contingent individual. A contingent, finite being is devoid of the essential qualities to provide meaning (universality, infinity, immutability). No dependent entity “would survive an infinite stretch of time.”31 The Buddha could not reveal infinite and necessary truth as a man who was temporal and stuck within time. The Lord God of Christianity is atemporal. He transcends time. If God did not transcend time and space, He would increase in knowledge (like Buddha), and decrease in strength (Second Law of Thermodynamics). These are attributes of finite beings, but not God. God by definition and necessity must be all-knowing and all-powerful. As Buddhism's source of knowledge is limited to time and finitude; the infinite and sovereign God is transcendent over time. Therefore, He can be the bedrock for reason, knowledge, moral absolutes, and the coherence of our experience. Yahweh is matchless in His eternity and infinitude.

Psalms 86:9, 16:5-11; 144:15; Isa. 60:21; Rom. 11:36; I Cor. 6:20; 10:31; Phil. 4:4; Rev. 4:11, 21:3.

Galatians 5:22-23.,%20Friedrich%20Wilhelm%201844-1900/Nietzsche,%20Philosopher%20of%20the%20Perilous%20Perhaps%20 %20Rebekah%20Peery%202008.pdf


One reaps what one sows. Nietzsche viciously attacked to the truth of Christianity even attacking Jesus Christ. But he like all rebels will receive what they deserve.

Francis Schaeffer: True Spirituality, p. 12.

Friedrich Nietzsch: Twilight of the Idols

Narrator: Fight Club, 20th Century Fox, 1999.

Tyler Durden: Fight Club.

Ben: Greetings.

You wrote: “You seem to acknowledge that the nontheist has no reason to accept the premises of your argument for the existence of God. So that should be the end of that.”

Not so, except in the sense of those who are devoted to explanatorily-weak ultimate commitments; this is the case since non-theistic presuppositions require a robust turn in order to admit the truth of Christian theism. Their ontological commitments need deep revision in order to account for anything—including any sort of purpose. Theism is not only preferred, but it is the case. Non-theists know this but actively suppress what they know to be true. 

Ben: “Nontheists are quite happy and hopeful, I think. I have no reason to dwell on my disbelief in eternal life. Instead I am grateful for what I have in this life, which is the only one I can count on.”

A researcher (non-Christian liberal) last week on MSNBC stated that the “happiest Americans are Evangelicals who own guns. The more Evangelical and the more guns, the happier they are.” Moreover in the end, the end is worse than the falsehood of a final goodnight into eternal darkness that non-theism proposes—it is the eternal judgment due the non-believer for all their sins.

And it does matter; you need, at ground level, belief revision that accounts for rationality and provides real hope. Minimal ontological mutilation will not suffice for the non-theist. It’s not merely that a non-theistic framework and ontic status lack justificatory accounting, but all who hold such a worldview are condemned. Thus I call you to turn from your worldview mutiny and trust in Christ who died for His people. He offers complete pardon for all our iniquities/sins as He brings real peace infused with a blessed hope.

In September 1942, Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was arrested and transported to a Nazi concentration camp with his wife and parents. Three years later, when his camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had perished -- but he, prisoner number 119104, had lived. In his bestselling 1946 book, Man's Search for Meaning, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to one thing: Meaning, an insight he came to early in life. When he was a high school student, one of his science teachers declared to the class, "Life is nothing more than a combustion process, a process of oxidation." Frankl jumped out of his chair and responded, "Sir, if this is so, then what can be the meaning of life?"

As he saw in the camps, those who found meaning even in the most horrendous circumstances were far more resilient to suffering than those who did not. "Everything can be taken from a man but one thing," Frankl wrote in Man's Search for Meaning, "the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

Frankl worked as a therapist in the camps, and in his book, he gives the example of two suicidal inmates he encountered there. Like many others in the camps, these two men were hopeless and thought that there was nothing more to expect from life, nothing to live for. "In both cases," Frankl writes, "it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them." For one man, it was his young child, who was then living in a foreign country. For the other, a scientist, it was a series of books that he needed to finish. Frankl writes:

This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the "why" for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any "how."

Viktor Frankl [Herwig Prammer/Reuters]

In 1991, the Library of Congress and Book-of-the-Month Club listed Man's Search for Meaning as one of the 10 most influential books in the United States. It has sold millions of copies worldwide. Now, over twenty years later, the book's ethos -- its emphasis on meaning, the value of suffering, and responsibility to something greater than the self -- seems to be at odds with our culture, which is more interested in the pursuit of individual happiness than in the search for meaning. "To the European," Frankl wrote, "it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to 'be happy.' But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to 'be happy.'"

According to Gallup , the happiness levels of Americans are at a four-year high -- as is, it seems, the number of best-selling books with the word "happiness" in their titles. At this writing, Gallupalso reports that nearly 60 percent all Americans today feel happy without a lot of stress or worry. On the other hand, according to the Center for Disease Control, about 4 out of 10 Americans have not discovered a satisfying life purpose. Forty percent either do not think their lives have a clear sense of purpose or are neutral about whether their lives have purpose. Nearly a quarter of Americans feel neutral or do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful. Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. On top of that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research. "It is the very pursuit of happiness," Frankl knew, "that thwarts happiness."


This is why some researchers are cautioning against the pursuit of mere happiness. In a new study, which will be published this year in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology, psychological scientists asked nearly 400 Americans aged 18 to 78 whether they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy. Examining their self-reported attitudes toward meaning, happiness, and many other variables -- like stress levels, spending patterns, and having children -- over a month-long period, the researchers found that a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different. Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a "taker" while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a "giver."

"Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided," the authors write.

How do the happy life and the meaningful life differ? Happiness, they found, is about feeling good. Specifically, the researchers found that people who are happy tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, and they are able to buy the things that they need and want. While not having enough money decreases how happy and meaningful you consider your life to be, it has a much greater impact on happiness. The happy life is also defined by a lack of stress or worry.

Nearly a quarter of Americans do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful.

Most importantly from a social perspective, the pursuit of happiness is associated with selfish behavior -- being, as mentioned, a "taker" rather than a "giver." The psychologists give an evolutionary explanation for this: happiness is about drive reduction. If you have a need or a desire -- like hunger -- you satisfy it, and that makes you happy. People become happy, in other words, when they get what they want. Humans, then, are not the only ones who can feel happy. Animals have needs and drives, too, and when those drives are satisfied, animals also feel happy, the researchers point out.

"Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others," explained Kathleen Vohs, one of the authors of the study, in a recent presentation at the University of Pennsylvania. In other words, meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants. People who have high meaning in their lives are more likely to help others in need. "If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need," the researchers write.

What sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans, according to Roy Baumeister, the lead researcher of the study and author, with John Tierney, of the recent bookWillpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Baumeister, a social psychologists at Florida State University, was named an ISI highly cited scientific researcher in 2003.

The study participants reported deriving meaning from giving a part of themselves away to others and making a sacrifice on behalf of the overall group. In the words of Martin E. P. Seligman, one of the leading psychological scientists alive today, in the meaningful life "you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self." For instance, having more meaning in one's life was associated with activities like buying presents for others, taking care of kids, and arguing. People whose lives have high levels of meaning often actively seek meaning out even when they know it will come at the expense of happiness. Because they have invested themselves in something bigger than themselves, they also worry more and have higher levels of stress and anxiety in their lives than happy people. Having children, for example, is associated with the meaningful life and requires self-sacrifice, but it has been famously associated with low happiness among parents, including the ones in this study. In fact, according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, research shows that parents are less happy interacting with their children than they are exercising, eating, and watching television.

"Partly what we do as human beings is to take care of others and contribute to others. This makes life meaningful but it does not necessarily make us happy," Baumeister told me in an interview.

Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment -- which is perhaps the most important finding of the study, according to the researchers. While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning.

Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. "Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life," the researchers write. "Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future." That is, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.

Having negative events happen to you, the study found, decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life. Another study from 2011 confirmed this, finding that people who have meaning in their lives, in the form of a clearly defined purpose, rate their satisfaction with life higher even when they were feeling bad than those who did not have a clearly defined purpose. "If there is meaning in life at all," Frankl wrote, "then there must be meaning in suffering."


Which brings us back to Frankl's life and, specifically, a decisive experience he had before he was sent to the concentration camps. It was an incident that emphasizes the difference between the pursuit of meaning and the pursuit of happiness in life.

Peter Andrews/Reuters

In his early adulthood, before he and his family were taken away to the camps, Frankl had established himself as one of the leading psychiatrists in Vienna and the world. As a 16-year-old boy, for example, he struck up a correspondence with Sigmund Freud and one day sent Freud a two-page paper he had written. Freud, impressed by Frankl's talent, sent the paper to the International Journal of Psychoanalysis for publication. "I hope you don't object," Freud wrote the teenager.

While he was in medical school, Frankl distinguished himself even further. Not only did he establish suicide-prevention centers for teenagers -- a precursor to his work in the camps -- but he was also developing his signature contribution to the field of clinical psychology: logotherapy, which is meant to help people overcome depression and achieve well-being by finding their unique meaning in life. By 1941, his theories had received international attention and he was working as the chief of neurology at Vienna's Rothschild Hospital, where he risked his life and career by making false diagnoses of mentally ill patients so that they would not, per Nazi orders, be euthanized.

That was the same year when he had a decision to make, a decision that would change his life. With his career on the rise and the threat of the Nazis looming over him, Frankl had applied for a visa to America, which he was granted in 1941. By then, the Nazis had already started rounding up the Jews and taking them away to concentration camps, focusing on the elderly first. Frankl knew that it would only be time before the Nazis came to take his parents away. He also knew that once they did, he had a responsibility to be there with his parents to help them through the trauma of adjusting to camp life. On the other hand, as a newly married man with his visa in hand, he was tempted to leave for America and flee to safety, where he could distinguish himself even further in his field.

As Anna S. Redsand recounts in her biography of Frankl, he was at a loss for what to do, so he set out for St. Stephan's Cathedral in Vienna to clear his head. Listening to the organ music, he repeatedly asked himself, "Should I leave my parents behind?... Should I say goodbye and leave them to their fate?" Where did his responsibility lie? He was looking for a "hint from heaven."

When he returned home, he found it. A piece of marble was lying on the table. His father explained that it was from the rubble of one of the nearby synagogues that the Nazis had destroyed. The marble contained the fragment of one of the Ten Commandments -- the one about honoring your father and your mother. With that, Frankl decided to stay in Vienna and forgo whatever opportunities for safety and career advancement awaited him in the United States. He decided to put aside his individual pursuits to serve his family and, later, other inmates in the camps.


No Flowers On the Psych Ward

The wisdom that Frankl derived from his experiences there, in the middle of unimaginable human suffering, is just as relevant now as it was then: "Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself -- be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself -- by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love -- the more human he is."Baumeister and his colleagues would agree that the pursuit of meaning is what makes human beings uniquely human. By putting aside our selfish interests to serve someone or something larger than ourselves -- by devoting our lives to "giving" rather than "taking" -- we are not only expressing our fundamental humanity, but are also acknowledging that that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness.