Why Finding Meaning — Not Happiness — Is What Really Matters

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Author Emily Esfahani Smith explains how one can live a more meaningful life.

picThe pursuit of happiness is so important to American ideals that it has been enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. But a new book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, argues that finding meaning in life is ultimately more satisfying than searching for happiness.

Author Emily Esfahani Smith says one can find meaning even in tough circumstances to give you a reason to live, whereas a pursuit of happiness focused on satisfying your every whim can still lead to emptiness.

Smith, a columnist for The New Criterion and editor at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, joined the Knowledge@Wharton show on SiriusXM’s channel 111 to talk about her book.  

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: What got you thinking down this path? Most people want to do everything they can to be happy.

Emily Esfahani Smith: I certainly thought that myself as I was growing up. But I was a grad student here at the University of Pennsylvania for positive psychology several years ago, and one day we heard a lecture about the difference between a happy life and a meaningful life. It was eye-opening and provocative because it showed me that the happy life was associated with things like feeling good, being in good physical health, and being a taker versus a giver, to use the language of Adam Grant, a professor here. Whereas the meaningful life was associated with doing things for other people, connecting to something that’s bigger than you and being a giver versus a taker.

I started thinking about that and realized that makes a lot of sense because so many of the people that I know and admire aren’t focused on pursuing their own personal happiness. They’re focused on leading meaningful lives and what they can do for others. That was the germ of idea that led to the book.

Knowledge@Wharton: In many cases, success comes out of leading that meaningful life.

Smith: Exactly. The research shows that if you set happiness as your goal and pursue it, value it the way our culture encourages us to do, you can actually end up feeling unhappy and lonely. But if you set meaning as your goal and devote yourself to living a meaningful life, you experience this deeper and more endearing form of well-being down the road.

Knowledge@Wharton: Many would say the millennial generation is leading the path towards having meaning be an important component of our society.

Smith: That’s right. I remember seeing a study that showed that of all the things that millennials want in a job — financial reward, prestige, status — the No. 1 priority for them is a sense of meaning at work, which I think is wonderful. I would also say that sometimes millennials and non-millennials, all of us, can suffer from some myths about meaning. We think that if we want our work to be meaningful, it has to give us the one meaning and purpose of our lives — and that we can’t find or craft meaning no matter what kind of circumstances we are in. So, as much as I think it’s important to value meaning, I think that we also need to bring it down to earth a bit.

“We weren’t put on this earth to feel happy all the time. We were put on this earth to find meaning.”

Knowledge@Wharton: You say meaning can take a variety of different forms. It’s different things for different people.

Smith:  Exactly. I interviewed all kinds of people about what makes their lives meaningful, and I looked at what the social science research said. No two people told me the same things. Everyone found meaning on their own. But I did find that there were certain themes that came up again and again.

When people talk about what makes their lives meaningful, they talk about having relationships that are defined by a sense of belonging, having a purpose or something worthwhile to do with their time, crafting narratives that help them understand themselves in the world, and having experiences of transcendence or self-loss. We all have to find it on our own, but I think that there are those universal building blocks that we can all build up in our lives.

Knowledge@Wharton: One of the things you looked at in this book was the element of suicide, which I found very interesting. Suicide is incredibly impactful, but how does it play into this concept of a meaningful life?

Smith: A lot of people think of suicide as a problem of unhappiness. Someone is depressed or despairing, and the reason is they’re not happy, so let’s make them happy. But the research shows that when you look at what’s driving suicide rates, what predicts it most strongly is not a lack of happiness among the population but a lack of meaning. Suicide is really a problem of meaning. People think that their lives don’t have worth, so they give up on life. They despair. The best way to get people out of despair and depression is for them to know that their life has a why or a reason.

Knowledge@Wharton: Is there a link between not having meaning and suicide?

Smith: Human beings are meaning-seeking creatures. We weren’t put on this earth to feel happy all the time. We were put on this earth to find meaning and to live meaningful lives and to know that our lives matter. When we feel like we don’t have meaning or our lives don’t matter, then we become vulnerable to depression, suicide, despair.

Knowledge@Wharton: If you go back 20, 30 years to that Wall Street culture we all remember, it would seem that was the height of seeking happiness through financial and professional gains and maybe not worrying as much about the meaning part of it.

Smith: There was a very hedonic sense of pleasure and happiness that was driving the culture then. Speaking about millennials, there was a study related to this showing that the interest in finding meaning among millennials correlated with the recession. There’s something about being in an economic downturn that forces people to maybe take stock of their lives because the financial opportunities aren’t as readily available.

Knowledge@Wharton: You talk about something called the Pillars of Meaning. What are they?

Smith: I wrote this book because I wanted to understand what exactly the building blocks of a meaningful life are so that we could know what we have to do. … My approach was to go out across the country and interview dozens of people about their own stories of what makes their lives meaningful. I also turned to social science research. There’s a new and growing body of research around what makes life meaningful, so I pored through all those studies. I also looked at what the humanities had to say because for thousands of years philosophers, religious sages, poets, artists have been dealing with this eternal question of meaning.

As I parsed through all that research, I found that these four themes came up again and again. These are what I call the Four Pillars of Meaning. These are what the building blocks of a meaningful life are — having a sense of belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence.

Human beings have a need to belong. This means that we need to be in relationships or part of communities where we feel valued for who we are intrinsically, not just because we adopt a certain label. Where it gets negative is you become part of a group and you’re not true to yourself, or people only care about you because you assume some label, like a political label or a sports team label.

Knowledge@Wharton: Talk about resilience. I think more and more, people feel like resilience is a key component because you don’t know what’s going to come around the corner for you.

Smith: Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity. Psychologists talk about it as being bent but not broken by tragic experiences or adversities. I found that the people who were the most resilient had those four pillars of meaning that were strong in their lives so that when adversity hits, they were able to withstand it. Like if it was an earthquake, their infrastructure was strong enough to withstand it.

The other thing that happens is that people grow after adversity, and that’s another form of resilience. The way that they do it is by building up these different pillars of meaning in their lives. They strengthen their relationships. They find a new purpose. Their spiritual life deepens, for example.

“When you look at what’s driving suicide rates, what predicts it most strongly is not a lack of happiness among the population but a lack of meaning.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Purpose and meaning seem very similar in many cases.

Smith: I think a lot of us use the terms purpose and meaning interchangeably. But purpose is really one of the building blocks of a meaningful life. Meaning is an assessment that we make about our lives. Do our lives have value and significance? Purpose is a far-reaching goal that involves contributing to the world. It’s having something worthwhile to do with your time. It’s the way you leave your mark on the world.

Knowledge@Wharton: The spirituality part of it I find interesting because it feels like that has regressed a bit.

Smith: When you look at the indexes of religious involvement — such as people going to church, people praying, religious identification — those are all down. At the same time, what’s been increasing is the number of people who identify as spiritual but not religious. We have this part of us that needs spirituality defined in the sense of things that are bigger than us. We want to know what life is about, what our lives are about. That’s been with us for thousands of years. It’s not going to go away. If we don’t satisfy it within a framework of organized religion, we’re going to try to satisfy it in other ways.

Knowledge@Wharton: We still have a lot of people in this country who are looking to survive by working two jobs. How does that play into finding a meaningful life?

Smith: I think one of the big distinctions between a meaningful life and a happy life is that a meaningful life can be a hard life. When you’re giving back, you’re making sacrifices. It’s a busy life. It’s an active life. The key in meaning is about connecting and contributing to something beyond yourself. If you’re busy because you have two different jobs, you’re raising children, I would say that the way to find meaning is to ask yourself how are the things that you’re doing supporting the people and the communities that you love? Even if you don’t find the nature of your work meaningful, you can find meaning by adopting this kind of service mindset.

Knowledge@Wharton: What has meaning meant to you?

Smith: In my book, I write about my childhood growing up in a Sufi meetinghouse in Montreal. Sufism is a school of mysticism that’s associated with Islam. Rumi the poet was a Sufi. The whirling dervishes were Sufis. It’s kind of like a group of monastic orders that grew up in the Middle East during the middle ages. Living in this Sufi meetinghouse meant that twice a week Sufis came over to our home and they meditated sitting on the floor for several hours. They practiced love and kindness. They practice service to all through charity and volunteering.

I was surrounded by people who were leading really meaningful lives, even though their lives were also difficult lives. Some of them were refugees. Some of them had just been beaten up by life in other ways. I was surrounded by people who had really clear answers to what it meant to lead a meaningful life. I think that seeded the idea of meaning as a really important part of life from an early age for me.

Knowledge@Wharton: The U.S. is a cultural melting pot. Does that impact how meaning can be brought forward, especially reaching out to other people and other cultures?

Smith: This is really about belonging, and cultivating belonging with other people. As Americans we want people who come here to feel at home, like they’re welcome here.

One of the things that I like to say about belonging is that it’s a choice and we can cultivate it in the moment with another person. We can choose to reach out to someone and build up this pillar of meaning, or we can choose to reject them by unfriending them on Facebook, by being racist or inappropriate or things like that. Or we can choose to value them and lift them up. I think that as we live in a culture that’s increasingly diverse and immigrants come to this country, we need to do everything we can to build that pillar of belonging.

Knowledge@Wharton: How does this relate back to the traditional business structure in the U.S.?

Smith: In recent years, there’s been this move in the business community towards meaning and purpose. A lot of companies are rebranding themselves around meaning and purpose. Some of them, maybe it’s not so sincere, but others it really is. I talk about this apparel company ‘Life Is Good’ in my book and how they are a meaning-driven company. They really want to spread the power of optimism. That’s their mission and purpose. They do that by having these positive shirts and hats.

“One of the big distinctions between a meaningful life and a happy life is that a meaningful life can be a hard life. When you’re giving back, you’re making sacrifices.”

People who are going through adversities, like a woman who lost her husband to 9/11, children who are suffering with cancer, have written into the company saying how meaningful the company’s message was for them as they got through their adversity. The company takes those letters and reads them to their employees, so the employees know that no matter what they’re doing their tasks are part of this bigger purpose to make the world a better place.

Knowledge@Wharton: I want to touch on storytelling because I find it interesting. We are a culture of stories. How does that play in to what you’re talking about with finding meaning?

Smith: Storytelling is about your own life story and how you tell that story to yourself. It’s the act of taking your experiences and weaving them into a narrative that explains who you are and where you came from. It’s how you make sense of your experiences, and it gives meaning because it provides a framework. It allows you to understand your life in terms of patterns, and it makes you feel like your life is coherent and integrated. Storytelling is especially important when you’re dealing with adversity because those are blips in your narrative that you need to reintegrate into your story.

Knowledge@Wharton: So that you don’t forget the path you’ve been or the travails that you’ve had to deal with?

Smith: Exactly. And to understand that those travails weren’t meaningless, that they helped you grow or they led to this or that good outcome. We don’t want to feel despair whenever we experience something negative.

Knowledge@Wharton: But do enough people think of it that way?

Smith: That’s the real problem of the happiness zeitgeist — we don’t want to deal with negative and painful memories, even though it’s really important to do so because we need to be able to close the chapter … on the more difficult experiences of our lives to find a sense of peace and resolution.

 

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