When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he enshrined life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as inalienable human rights, endowed by the Creator himself. Since then, popular discourse in the United States has gone heavy on all three, with each now supporting a cottage industry of books, blogs, TED talks, how-to DVDs, and inspirational miscellany. Lately the pursuit of happiness, in particular, has taken the center of the self-help stage. This focus raises an important question: In the world’s wealthiest nation, at a time of unprecedented technological advancement, why is happiness so difficult to attain?
In her new book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, Emily Esfahani Smith attempts to answer this question by offering an alternative. Instead of spending our lives chasing happiness, she argues, we should get to work creating meaning. Rather than concentrating our energy inward at our own emotional states, in other words, we should direct it outward, using our talents and abilities to improve the lives of family members, friends, and neighbors. As religious identification and participation decline, new forms of communal action may become vital to the meaningful life.
Esfahani Smith is a columnist for The New Criterion and an editor at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. A graduate of Dartmouth College, she earned a master’s degree in applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Her writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Time, and The Atlantic, among other publications. Eric C. Miller spoke with her about her book. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
R&P: Your book responds to a “meaning crisis” in modern life. How would you characterize that crisis, and what inspired you to respond in this way?
EES: There are all kinds of signs of a crisis of despair. The suicide rate in the United States reached a thirty-year high recently—and the suicide rate has risen 60 percent worldwide since World War II. For decades we have also seen a rise in depression, anxiety, and loneliness.
This shouldn’t make sense. Life is getting better by so many objective measures: The world is a less violent place, people are being lifted out of poverty in record numbers, and the world is much wealthier than it ever has been before. And yet, there’s so much misery and hopelessness. When I looked at the data to figure out what was going on, the research suggested that the problem is a lack of meaning in people’s lives. People feel like their lives lack meaning, so they are falling into despair and hopelessness.
I thought this was really heartbreaking. If this is a crisis of meaning, then what is meaning? How do we define it, and how can people go about finding it?
What I discovered is that we can all create lives with meaning, no matter who we are, where we are, or what we do. I wrote this book because I wanted to bring hope to those who might be struggling, either in a severe way with depression, or who just feel unmoored and adrift from time to time and are wondering what it takes to make their lives meaningful.
R&P: In the beginning, you say a bit about your childhood in a Sufi community.
EES: Right. I grew up in a Sufi meetinghouse, and that meant that twice a week dervishes would come over to our home to meditate, tell stories, and drink tea. There was just a real sense of community. For the Sufis, the goal was to diminish their egos so that they could grow closer to a higher reality that we might call God. Part of the way that they got there was by practicing love, kindness, compassion, and service toward all of creation.
And that wasn’t always easy. It’s hard to respond with love to a relative who is driving you crazy or to the person at work who is really mean, but that’s what they were called to do—to practice love and to engage in other spiritual disciplines such as meditation so that they could transcend themselves. As I got older, and started tuning into our culture’s messages about wellbeing and the good life—messages that are so focused on happiness—it occurred to me that, for the Sufis, the pursuit of their own happiness wasn’t really the point. They were devoted to leading meaningful lives, which is different from a happy life. Ultimately, it’s the meaningful life that brings you a lasting sense of contentment and satisfaction.
R&P: You identify four “pillars” of meaning: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. How did you arrive at these four, and how do they combine to generate meaning?
EES: I wanted to figure out how exactly people can go about finding meaning in their lives. Are there certain sources of meaning that we can all tap into? Or do we just need to go out on our own to find meaning?
So I traveled all over the place and interviewed dozens of people about their own stories of how they found meaning. I also read through thousands of pages of psychology, sociology, philosophy, religion, and literature. As I organized and synthesized the research, I noticed a few themes arising again and again. When people talked about what makes their lives meaningful, they mentioned their most important relationships; they talked about doing something worthwhile with their time; they mentioned crafting narratives about their lives that helped them understand themselves; and they talked about having experiences of transcendence and awe. Those are the four pillars of meaning—belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence.
R&P: What, specifically, do you mean by transcendence?
EES: Transcendent states are those rare times when two things happen. First, you feel your sense of self kind of wash away and, second, as that’s happening, you feel connected to something much bigger than yourself. It might be the universe, nature, God, the universal consciousness, or whatever you might call it.
And people experience transcendence in different ways. For one person I talked to it was through creating art. For another it was through meditation. For another person it was going to Catholic mass. Music was another big one. So it refers to these moments when you are stepping outside of yourself, touching something higher and more sacred. Afterwards, when you come back down to earth, your perspective has shifted. You see things differently, you are a little wiser, a little more in touch with what really matters.
R&P: How central are religion and politics to meaningful living? In what ways have they influenced your thinking about the topic?
EES: Religion, community, tradition—these used to be the default paths to meaning for people throughout most of the world.
As religion has lost its centrality in the developed world, people seem more open to finding meaning on their own, and one of the places they have turned is to politics. We see a lot of people today investing their identity into their political beliefs. And sometimes, politics may be a dangerous source of meaning. We’ve seen this with the rise of ISIS and how a lot of secular, Western individuals seem to be drawn to that organization. These are people who are looking for something bigger to live for. It’s part of that meaning crisis. If people feel unmoored and adrift, they may end up finding meaning in more negative ways.
R&P: You offer meaning as sort of an alternative to happiness, noting that the two are related but separate entities. What is that relationship?
EES: Happiness is a positive mental and emotional state. It’s feeling good. Meaning is bigger—it’s about connecting with and contributing to something beyond yourself. When people say their lives are meaningful, it’s because they feel that what they do matters, that they are part of something bigger, and that their lives make sense to them.
So happiness is an emotion that comes and goes, while meaning is about being your best self, contributing what is inside of you to the world. When you pursue meaning, it can be difficult in the moment. The things that make our lives meaningful—like raising children or participating in certain forms of spiritual practice—don’t always make us happy, but ultimately they give us a stronger sense of wellbeing down the road.
R&P: Looking back on the Tea Party movement, and on the current spread of “Indivisible” chapters and other groups working to resist the Trump agenda, it seems to me that unhappy people with a cause may find more meaning in their lives than happy people without one. Is that fair to say?
EES: Yes, absolutely. Having a cause definitely can bring meaning. It’s a purpose, something to live for. People driven by causes have led some extraordinarily meaningful lives—Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights, Winston Churchill and defeating Hitler, Mother Theresa and serving the poor. But not all causes are worthy or good. After all, Hitler and Stalin were very purpose-driven individuals, too.
R&P: If there was one piece of advice that you would give to people hoping to live meaningful lives in the twenty-first century, what would it be?
EES: I would encourage them to understand that living a meaningful life is not about you—it’s about what you can give to the world. There is so much out there today saying that you should find your happiness, pursue your dreams, do what you love. But really, a meaningful life is about serving others and figuring out how you can cultivate your talents, strengths, and gifts in order to give back to the world in some significant way.