I just finished this book by Emily Esfahani Smith: The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness. I don’t read nonfiction very often, but once in a while when I find a topic that intrigues me, curiosity pulls me in, and this book certainly did. It investigates how we can find meaning in life, on why a focus on meaning rather than happiness is so critical to our ability to thrive. The book was published recently, in 2017, so it includes all the latest research on this topic, which was definitely interesting to read about.
Our Obsession with Happiness
It’s true—happiness seems to be the goal we’re constantly aiming for in life. We make plans and buy things and pursue paths because we think it will make us happy. And for a brief moment it does. Ask anyone what they want out of life, and they will probably say “I just want to be happy.”
We use happiness to justify our actions, our means to our ends. Do what makes you happy, society says. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, America declares. We all just want to be happy!
And I get it. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be happy. But I’ve always believed that happiness isn’t the point of life. I don’t believe I was put here on this earth to be happy. Happiness to me is a fleeting emotion, and at the same time, a wonderful gift. (Also, how egocentric of us to think that life’s ultimate mission is to find our own personal happiness.) Happiness, I believe, is a by-product of how we choose to live and perceive our lives.
The Desire for Meaning
Enter Emily Esfahani Smith. This wise young author presents in her book the idea that meaning—not happiness—is what we’re all truly seeking on an innate level. And it makes sense if you think about it. Money and fame and success and all those traditional triggers for happiness don’t bring their recipients any lasting joy or fulfillment.
People live in gilded cages feeling empty and lost. Our obsession with buying more and more stuff stems from this desire to fill that void, to refuel that happiness tank that can never stay full. It can never stay full because it’s simply not the point. We’re chasing the wrong goal.
Perhaps it’s an issue of semantics; when people say they want to be happy, they mean they want to feel a sense of meaning in their lives. That’s life’s big question after all, the GREAT MYSTERY: What is the meaning of life? Why am I here? What is the point of it all?
To answer these questions, we must either find a source of meaning or create meaning for ourselves. Only then can we lead meaningful lives and find that sense of fulfillment.
The Pillars of Meaning
Using research in psychology and neuroscience, and insights from philosophy and literature, Smith illuminates the four pillars of meaning—belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence—that can help us lead more satisfying lives.
Each pillar has its own chapter in the book, and all throughout we’re introduced to people, both ordinary and extraordinary, who are working to build meaning in their lives using these pillars. We meet astronauts, survivors of trauma, entrepreneurs, people facing impending deaths, a zoo keeper, and everyday people trying to make sense of their lives.
The stories entwine with fascinating research and scientific findings—from how awe affects the sense of self to the strange relationship between happiness and suicide, and to the factors that make some people more resilient in the face of adversity than others.
The beauty of these pillars is that they are accessible to everyone. Both with and without religion, individuals can build up each of these pillars in their lives. They are sources of meaning that cut through every aspect of existence. ~ Emily Esfahani Smith, The Power of Meaning
I read this book for a book club, and it was interesting to hear, during our meeting, how the pillars resonated differently with each person. Not surprisingly, one of the pillars I gravitated towards was the pillar of storytelling.
Storytelling is one of the oldest traditions in human history; it’s how we connect with ourselves and others, how we make sense of the world and our place in it. This method of discovering meaning through narrative is not just about the stories we share or hear, but about the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves. These stories of the self can either lift us up or oppress us, depending on the perspective we choose. There is great power in the story and it’s ability to shed light, provide context, and promote healing and understanding.
It was interesting to notice, also, how many of these pillars already exist in many aspects of my life and the lives of the people I know closely. The more I read about each one the more I made connections with how certain people in my life arrive at meaning, whether they realize it or not, through one of the pillars.
With transcendence, for example, where you connect with something larger than yourself to find meaning, I saw how my tendency to seek out nature—the peace and tranquility of forests or the overwhelming majesty of the ocean—is my way of achieving a transcendent state, to recenter myself amidst the chaos of everyday.
It’s by recognizing these pillars that we can work to cultivate them more intentionally in our lives, and thus achieve a deeper sense of meaning for who we are and how we want to live.
There’s More to Life Than Being Happy
I really enjoyed this book. It was a fast, easy read, well-written and well-researched. I had never heard of Smith before but I’m glad we are now acquainted, and I’m looking forward to hearing her speak at an event next month.
Intrigued? Check out her TED Talk “There’s more to life than being happy”—and if you end up reading her book, let me know what you think!