Excellence Reporter: Emily, what is the meaning of life?
Emily Esfahani Smith: Despite our culture’s obsession with happiness, we are more weighed down by despair than ever; suicide rates in the US recently hit a thirty-year high and depression has been trending upward for decades. This growing despair is very often a problem of meaning. To be psychologically and spiritually healthy, we need to believe that our lives matter. We all need to discover ways to feel connected to something larger than ourselves—to feel that our lives make sense and that we have a purpose.
I wanted to know what exactly a meaningful life consists of, so I started poring through old and new social science findings on meaning. I also turned to thinkers and novelists—among them Aristotle, Virginia Woolf, Viktor Frankl, the Buddha—and interviewed all kinds of people—from a former drug dealer to a zookeeper to an astronaut—about their search for meaning and where their sources of meaning lie. In the end, four themes came up again and again, which inspired me to create the four pillars: Belonging, Purpose, Storytelling, and Transcendence.
I write about these pillars in my book The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed With Happiness. Belonging is about being in relationships and communities where you’re valued for who you are intrinsically, and where you value others in turn. Purpose is about having something worthwhile to do with your time. Storytelling is about how you make sense of your experiences and the world around you. Transcendence is about connecting to something higher, whether it’s nature or God.
There’s a myth in our culture that the search for meaning is some esoteric pursuit—that you have to travel to a distant monastery or page through dusty volumes to figure out life’s great secret. Actually, that’s not true. There are untapped sources of meaning all around us—right here, right now. We can find belonging in a brief connection with a barista or a newspaper vendor. We can find purpose by helping a colleague at work or our children with their assignments. We can reflect on a pivotal experience from our life to understand more deeply who we are. We can look up at a starry night sky and feel awe and transcendence. We need to bring meaning down to earth, and that’s what I do in my book.
~Emily Esfahani Smith is the author of The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed With Happiness.
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