Could pursuing meaning be the path to true happiness?
We at Greater Good have written often about the differences between a happy life and a meaningful life and found that the two are closely related. When we aim for a life of meaningful pursuits, we are likely to feel more sustained happiness and life satisfaction—even if there is some discomfort, sadness, or stress along the way—than if we aim for a life of pleasure alone. In fact, seeking happiness directly may actually backfire, while pursuing meaning may increase our health and well-being.
Now a new book takes a stab at figuring out just what pursuing a meaningful life entails. In The Power of Meaning, journalist Emily Esfahani Smith draws from the texts of great writers and philosophers—Emerson, Aristotle, Buddha, and Victor Frankl, for example—as well as interviews with everyday people seeking to increase meaning in their lives, to try to distill what’s central in this pursuit. The book, though only loosely tied to research, is mostly an engaging read about how people find meaning in life through “four pillars” of meaning.
1. Belonging. When we are understood, recognized, and affirmed by friends, family members, partners, colleagues, and even strangers, we feel we belong to a community. Results from some studies—as well as end-of-life conversations—indicate that many people count their relationships as the most meaningful part of their lives, even when those relationships are difficult or strained.
2. Purpose. When we have long-term goals in life that reflect our values and serve the greater good, we tend to imbue our activities with more meaning. Researcher Adam Grant has found that professions focused on helping others—teachers, surgeons, clergy, and therapists—all tend to rate their jobs as more meaningful, and that people who imbue their work with purpose are more dedicated to their jobs. Having purpose has also been tied to many positive outcomes, including increased learning for students in school and better health.
3. Storytelling. When it comes to finding meaning, it helps to try to pull particularly relevant experiences in our lives into a coherent narrative that defines our identity. People who describe their lives as meaningful tend to have redemptive stories where they overcame something negative, and to emphasize growth, communion with others, and personal agency. Laura Kray and colleagues found that asking people to consider paths not taken in life and the consequences of those choices imbued experiences with more meaning.
4. Transcendence. Experiences that fill us with awe or wonder—ones in which “we feel we have risen above the everyday world to experience a higher reality,” according to Smith—can decrease our self-focus and lead us to engage in more generous, helpful behavior. It may seem counterintuitive in some ways; but the diminishment of our own self-importance can induce a sense of meaning, she says.
Smith’s book aims to be somewhat prescriptive, offering practices that could encourage meaning in your own life. For example, at work you may want to practice acknowledging coworkers, engaging in personal interactions, and offering support to others when they need it, using these “high-quality connections” to increase your sense of belonging. You may also want to redefine the tasks of your job to fit your motives, strengths, and passions—a strategy recommended by organizational scholar Jane Dutton and colleagues.
Or, if you feel stuck, you may want to spend time creating a life narrative—an understanding of what experiences shaped you into the person you are now—with a redemptive storyline, perhaps through expressive writing practice or through working with a therapist. Or, you may want to find ways to experience more awe in your life, spending time in nature, staring at the stars, experiencing profound works of art, or pondering heroic figures.
Though her book is more focused on stories and philosophy than research, Smith does at least offer new ideas in an area that was once primarily the purview of spiritual traditions. She argues that pursuing meaning can be healing, not only for those of us with mild existential malaise, but for those who’ve suffered trauma or are facing their own mortality.
Her book is a call to recognize our place in the world—perhaps most importantly by nurturing our relationships and serving others—so that we bring more meaning to our lives.
“Each of us has a circle of people—in our families, in our communities, and at work—whose lives we can improve,” she writes. “That’s a legacy everyone can leave behind.”