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Robin Smith

Reduced to a six-digit number, kept in squalid conditions, and faced with the possibility of execution, Viktor Frankl endured imprisonment in a concentration camp of the hate-driven Nazis. He, his pregnant wife and parents were arrested and relocated from Vienna, Austria, in September 1942 because of their Jewish faith.

Prisoner 119104 was Frankl's identity in captivity.

Taken from him was his stature as a trained neurologist and psychiatrist. Taken from him was his family. Taken from him was his freedom to exist -- because of his religion.

During his time of imprisonment, Frankl observed and later wrote in his world-renowned book, "Man's Search for Meaning," of the difference between those who died in hopelessness versus those who endured the harsh conditions and the all-encompassing fear of death. That one factor was "meaning."

"Everything can be taken from a man but one thing," Dr. Frankl wrote, "the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

Viktor Frankl developed a type of psychotherapy to assist patients in overcoming depression. His method was based upon the premise that "life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones; our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life; and that we have freedom to find meaning in what we do, and what we experience, or at least in the stand we take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering."

Dr. Frankl could have asked, "What's the meaning of your life?" as opposed to "Are you happy?"

The Jewish scientist penned a cutting observation in his book published in 1946: "To the European, 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.'"

Today's culture that worships me, myself, and I rejects the notion that happiness can't be pursued or conjured up. We associate one's happiness with events, status and wealth, among many other pursuits that seem to fall into the category of "the ingredients of happiness."

A soon-to-be-published survey of more than 400 adults ranging from 18 to 78 years of age shows similar observations as made by Viktor Frankl almost seven decades ago.

A collaborative effort with Florida State, Minnesota and Stanford universities titled "Some Key Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life" produced this conclusion: "... Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided."

The authors further note that an active pursuit of personal happiness is "associated with selfish behavior" and equated with being a "taker" rather than a "giver."

It is counter to our culture to serve others, to give and not take first, and to find worth, not in the pursuit of happiness but in the meaning of who we are, not what we possess.

The late Danny Thomas, TV actor of the 1950s and 60s, honored a vow of faith he had made to the patron saint of hopeless causes, St. Jude Thaddeus, by opening St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis.

He was often quoted as saying, "There are two types of people in this world, the givers and the takers. The takers sometimes eat better, but the givers always sleep better."

Indeed, meaning matters.

Robin Smith, immediate past Tennessee Republican Party chairwoman, is owner of Rivers Edge Alliance.