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Around the time Emily Esfahani Smith went off to college, she began searching for deeper meaning in her life.
She would eventually find it in researching the topic itself, ultimately reaching graduate school to study the psychology of happiness.
More recently, Esfahani Smith toured the United States, asking hundreds of people what they considered important in their lives. The answers she received didn’t have much to do with happiness, fame, or fortune.
“The most meaningful lives, I’ve learned, are often not the extraordinary ones,” Esfahani Smith recently wrote in the New York Times. “They’re the ordinary ones lived with dignity.”
Esfahani Smith captured these sentiments in her recent TED talk, “There’s more to life than being happy,” and book, “The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed Happiness.”
In both, she highlighted how the national suicide rate in the US has been steadily increasing over the past few decades – now at a 30-year high – despite considerable improvements in quality of life.
“Even though life is getting objectively better by nearly every conceivable standard, more people feel hopeless, depressed, and alone,” she told the crowd at the TED Conference this past April.
According to Esfehani, cultivating meaning comes down to four key pillars. The first two, belonging and purpose, are straightforward, while the second two, transcendence and storytelling, require a bit more explanation.
Esfahani has found people who feel a sense of belonging – in their family, community, school, or elsewhere – tend to believe life is more worth living. It’s richer. Similarly, people who say they’ve find their calling more often view life as fulfilling. Esfahani Smith cautions, however, that purpose tends to be fulfilling mainly when it involves being selfless.
“The key to purpose is using your strengths to serve others,” she said in her TED talk. It doesn’t matter whether those strengths include carving a small gift for a family member or managing millions of dollars in personal assets.
Transcendence involves getting into a mental state of complete focus and engagement. Psychologists call this “flow.” For some, it means painting or sculpting. Others may get the same joy from gardening or sports. Esfahani Smith said the important thing is to lose yourself – literally, your self – in the activity you choose.
Finally, storytelling helps people create meaning because it allows people to create, edit, and transform the story of their lives. People who have found deep meaning reflect on how they came to be themselves, and how their story may continue in the future, Esfahani Smith found.
Those four pillars coalesce into a life that is rich in more ways than one. People who derive meaning from their hobbies and stay engaged with the people around them more often report enjoying the arc of their story than people chasing riches.
Life might not always be a happy journey, Esfahani Smith’s work suggests, but it can be a rewarding one.