A recent article in The Washington Post identified a rising “sea of despair” among the white working class and a surge in suicides from 1999 to 2015, when a record high of 600,000 Americans took their own lives. In a country as free and as prosperous as the United States of America, where the pursuit of happiness is enshrined as an unalienable right in the Declaration of Independence, why do so many of its citizens seem so increasingly, desperately unhappy?
That paradox is what drove Emily Esfahani Smith to write the important new book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. Smith, who holds a master’s degree in positive psychology, is an editor at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, where she manages the Ben Franklin Circles Project, the aim of which is to build community and purpose across the country. Smith points out that the boom in positive psychology since the late 1980s has spawned an army of personal coaches, motivational speakers, and celebrities pushing the “gospel of happiness,” but the “happiness frenzy” has failed to deliver on its promise. “Indeed,” she writes, “social scientists have uncovered a sad irony—chasing happiness actually makes people unhappy.”
It turns out that what we should be pursuing is not happiness but meaning, and those who choose the latter ultimately live fuller and happier lives—even though meaning and happiness sometimes are at odds with each other and the meaningful life incurs more stress and anxiety than the “happy” life. What does meaningful mean? It means that people see their lives as significant and worthwhile, believe their lives make sense, and feel driven by a sense of purpose.
One significant insight from the book is that “meaning is not something we create within ourselves and for ourselves. Rather, meaning lies largely in others,” Smith notes. “To Kant, the question is not what makes you happy,” she continues. “The question is how to do your duty, how to best contribute—or, as the theologian Frederick Buechner put it, your vocation lies ‘where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.’”
The pursuit of happiness takes all manner of forms, of course, but they will all fall short unless they can provide satisfying answers to two questions that lie at the roots of philosophy, religion, and art: “What is the meaning of existence?” and “How can I lead a meaningful life?” The Power of Meaning maps out the paths to the answers of those questions.
In her research for the book, Smith identified recurring themes that she calls the four pillars of meaning: Belonging, Purpose, Storytelling, and Transcendence. “They are sources of meaning that cut through every aspect of our existence,” and they are accessible to everyone. Belonging is the sense that we matter to others, that we feel we are part of a community of like-minded people who appreciate our value. Purpose, of course, means an overarching goal—whether large or small—that serves as a sort of through-line in our lives and impels us to persist even through suffering. Storytelling is the process whereby we craft—consciously or not—a coherent narrative that helps us shape a positive identity for ourselves and makes sense of our lives. Transcendence is the transformative mystical experience—“a brush with mystery,” Smith calls it—that enlarges our perception of ourselves to include a sense of connection to something bigger and more important than ourselves. It is the moment when we leave behind our temporal anxieties and embrace the serenity of a higher reality.
Although the book is grounded in psychological theories and studies, it is far from a dry read. Insights abound on every page. Smith is a compelling storyteller and skillfully engrosses the reader in instructive examples from the lives of individuals ranging from Tolstoy, Camus, and Will Durant to the residents of a Chesapeake Bay island, the members of a society of medieval re-creationists, a Detroit zookeeper, a Mumbai photographer, and many others, including her own experiences growing up in a Sufi family. Those stories often are woven from a common pattern in which the subjects, or characters if you will, move from suffering to salvation, from transgression to redemption, from aimlessness to meaning.
At the risk of overselling the book, I can hardly overstate how deeply the denizens of America’s fast-paced, socially disconnected, shallowly distracting, and endlessly materialistic culture need to absorb the revelations contained within it. I have read the book twice, a rarity nearly on the scale of an appearance by Halley’s comet, and wish that I had been exposed to its wisdom decades ago when I was lost and flailing about, directionless.
Unhappiness, of course, is not limited to the United States. For untold millions here and elsewhere, “the search for meaning on earth has become incredibly urgent—yet ever more elusive,” as Smith puts it.
The good news is that today there is “a larger shift in our society toward meaning.” Dissatisfied people of all walks of life are pushing back against the frenetic nature of modern life and seeking ways to enhance those four pillars of meaning. Nothing will propel them on their search faster and more purposefully than sitting down with a copy of Emily Esfahani Smith’s The Power of Meaning.
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