Emily Esfahani Smith is a writer whose work on relationships, psychology, and culture has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, The Atlantic, Time, and more. She is the author of the new book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, and also works as a columnist for The New Criterion. Recently, she joined Heleo’s Editorial Director Panio Gianopoulos for a Heleo Conversation on why crafting meaning is more helpful than finding happiness, why sadness isn’t a bad thing, and why coherence and storytelling are crucial aspects of building our own sense of meaning.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view the full conversation, click the video below.
Panio: You take the somewhat provocative stance that chasing happiness actually makes people unhappy. I say “somewhat” because anyone who’s actually chased happiness has found that it does lead to unhappiness. Why is that? What’s the science behind why the chase makes people unhappy?
Emily: There have been a number of studies showing that when you bring people into the lab and ask them to actively try to make themselves happy, or if you manipulate them to value happiness, that they ultimately end up feeling less happy than people who you don’t [do this to]. I think there’s a number of reasons for it.
One is that in a culture such as ours, people expect to be happy. They want to be happy. They’re told constantly that happiness will lead to all these benefits. You’ll be healthier. You’ll be better-liked. Your career will be more successful. And when people fall short of [that expectation], they’re disappointed.
The other thing that the research has clearly shown is that what actually makes people happy isn’t prioritizing happiness itself, but rather pursuing meaningful endeavors, like relationships and goals and purposes. When you pursue meaningful endeavors, ultimately you’ll feel happier down the road. It’s not that happiness is bad and that the pursuit of happiness is bad. It’s that when we make happiness such a focus of our lives, we end up getting distracted from the things that actually make us feel a deeper sense of well being.
Panio: So happiness is an accidental byproduct of some other pursuit—in this case, the pursuit of meaning?
Emily: Yes, I think that the research shows it is a byproduct of the pursuit of meaning.
Panio: Happiness is a fascinating topic. As you mention in your book, it’s grown [exponentially] as an industry since Martin Seligman started the field of Positive Psychology.
Panio: So my question is—and it might be naïve, but here goes—what’s wrong with being sad? It seems just a fundamental part of our existence.
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Emily: I love that question. That question is part of the reason why I wrote my book. As I started getting more involved in Positive Psychology, I noticed that everywhere you turn, there are articles and books about how you should be happier, why you should be happier. And I noticed that there were a lot of people, including myself, who are just going through life. We don’t feel happy all the time. We’re experiencing difficult emotions. We’re devoting ourselves to goals that are stressful and effortful and frustrating. Yet, we’re leading good lives. They’re meaningful lives.
This happiness frenzy, I thought, was leaving that story out—that you can be experiencing difficult emotions and negative emotions and still be leading a worthwhile life. To your point about sadness, all of the emotions that we experience have a purpose. Sadness, in particular, helps us step back and reflect on our lives, take stock of what’s happened to us. That’s valuable if you want to lead a good life. It helps you gain wisdom and perspective.
“When you look at the research and surveys about meaning and life, there are four themes that come up again and again: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence.”
Panio: One of the most traditional ways for people to find meaning in their life is through spirituality, whether it’s organized religion or some personalized version. Do you think that’s fundamental to finding meaning? Is there a way to do it without that?
Emily: I think the question of meaning is ultimately a spiritual question if you’re defining spirituality as the area of life that’s concerned with ultimate things, ultimate concerns. Meaning and spirituality go hand and in hand. That said, I don’t think that you necessarily need to be a religious person or have faith or even believe in God in order to find meaning in life.
One of the aims of my book was to understand how people find meaning—both with and without religion. When you ask people what makes their life meaningful or when you look at the research and surveys about meaning and life, there are four themes that come up again and again in what people talk about. I broadly categorize the themes as a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose, storytelling (or understanding your life as a coherent whole), and finally, experience as a transcendence.
You can certainly have those four pillars of meaning within a religious context. If you think about why religion gives people such a deep sense of meaning, it’s because those four pillars are present, though you could experience them outside of religion, just in your ordinary day to day life.
Panio: Of the four [pillars], is there one that’s most important?
Emily: Different people are going to lean on different pillars. On my website, I created a little quiz to help people figure out your pillar of meaning, what’s the most important pillar for you. When I take it, it tends to be transcendence. When my editors and colleagues at Crown Publishing took it, a lot of them got storytelling. In surveys and in research, when we ask people what are your most important sources of meaning in life, they tend to say “my close relationships, my children, the people that I love.” For those people, a sense of belonging is going to be one of the more important pillars.
Panio: I’m curious how storytelling is a pillar of meaning. Does that mean the way you tell your own life?
“People who think that their lives are coherent, not random occurrences, tend to feel like their lives are more meaningful. The way you get to coherence is by storytelling, both about your life and also listening to other people’s stories.”
Emily: This pillar was actually, in a lot of ways, the most unexpected for me. It was the hardest chapter for me to write, trying to figure out the role of storytelling in a meaningful way. Storytelling is all about how we make sense of our experiences, sense making—another word for it is meaning making.
So I turned to research. I found that people who actively try to make sense of their life experiences by weaving them into a narrative that explains who they are and where they came from ultimately feel like their lives are more meaningful. The reason is that one of the components of the psychological definition of meaning is a sense of coherence. People who think that their lives are coherent, not random occurrences, tend to feel like their lives are more meaningful.
The way you get to coherence is by storytelling, both about your life and also listening to other people’s stories. Those stories help you understand other people better and yourself better.
Panio: One especially interesting idea you bring up is that trauma doesn’t have to be something that just guts you, that leaves you destroyed. It’s a means of growth as well—which isn’t commonly discussed. Could you talk a little bit about post-traumatic growth?
Emily: Yes. Have you seen the movie Manchester by the Sea?
Panio: Not yet.
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Emily: I saw it over the holidays. It’s a wonderful movie. It is extremely sad. It’s basically about this man who has a very traumatic thing happen to him. Afterwards, he’s kind of broken, a shell of the person that he used to be. As we talked about earlier, it’s important to experience emotions like sadness, especially after traumatic experiences. It’s okay to feel sad and broken and devastated.
I think that the film, and so much of our popular culture, paints this picture of trauma as a shattering. That’s one part of the story, but it’s not the only story. In fact, more people grow after their traumatic experiences than experience post-traumatic stress disorder. The way they grow is by relying on these pillars of meaning.
For example, they realize after a traumatic experience that their relationships are much more important—in fact, their relationship are what helps them get through the traumatic experience. To give another example, if they actively sit down and try to write about the traumatic experience for as little as 15 minutes a day for 3 to 4 days, research shows that they ultimately heal more effectively.
They’re able to overcome the trauma because that writing process helps them make sense of the traumatic experience, and helps them create a narrative around it. In those two cases, a sense of belonging and storytelling help people grow.
Panio: That ties into the concept of resilience, and how even though there is a genetic component to it, it’s not a fixed trait. It’s something that we can develop.
Emily: One of my favorite examples of this is a study where researchers brought people into a lab and stressed them out by telling them they had to do a public speaking assignment very soon thereafter. Obviously, their physiological indicators spiked—[heart rate elevated. etc.]. So they told the participants, instead of thinking of this speech task as a threat, think of it as an opportunity.
Think of it as a challenge that you’re able to overcome. Once they reframed the tasks for them as a less threatening and more something that they could do, [the participants] just put their minds to it. And they ended up being more resilient as measured by how quickly their physiology was able to return to the baseline level.
Panio: That’s amazing. Literally, the event was no different. It’s just the perception of it.
Emily: Exactly. It’s so much about framing and developing the right kind of meaning mindset.
Panio: Putting [the search for meaning] in historical context, in the 60’s, a majority of college students said that their primary goal [for getting a college education] was the pursuit of meaning or a meaningful life. Nowadays, I don’t think a lot of people consider college or academia a place to pursue meaning anymore. Why do you think that there’s been a shift in the culture? Is it because academia can’t teach that?
“In the last 10 years, there’s been a shift again in the universities. Professors are starting to offer classes about how to lead a meaningful life. Students are responding, because there’s a yearning for it.”
Emily: There’s a wonderful book that talks about some of these ideas called Education’s End by a Yale professor named Anthony Kronman. He writes about how traditionally, in the United States, the role of college was to help young people think deeply about the big questions of life: “How do I lead a meaningful life? What is a good life? What is my relationship to the bigger world? How can I contribute to others?”
Over the last 100 years, this traditional purpose of the university, of the college, has transformed. He says this is for two reasons. One is the rise of the research university, which made this question seem almost amateurish and dilettante-ish. Researchers were suddenly more interested in studying and measuring very specific things. Questions of meaning just seemed big and vague and unimportant, compared to the more scientific questions that researchers were studying.
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The second thing he talks about is how it became almost politically incorrect to talk about meaning, because you were relying on traditional authorities—writers, novelists, philosophers. It didn’t seem as acceptable to kind of rely on those authorities to help students figure out what the meaning of their lives is.
I think there’s also a third reason, which is just economic. College is so incredibly expensive now. Students feel an imperative to use college as an opportunity to get a good career, so they’re more likely to study business or economics or what have you, and that’s totally understandable.
The sad thing, though, is that young adult years, emerging adulthood, is a really important time to figure out what your purpose is and what you want to do. Students don’t really have a venue to do that anymore. More and more of them aren’t turning to religion, which is a more traditional source. And now college, which could have been where they thought about this, is also a place where it’s not being discussed as much. It’s a real loss.
At the same time, I’ve noticed that in the last 10 years, there’s been a shift again in the university towards addressing these issues. Professors are starting to offer classes about how to lead a meaningful life. Students are responding, because there’s a yearning for it. That’s been a recent positive development.
Panio: I think everyone has dealt with this question of the purpose of life, what’s our meaning, why am I here. So what was it that compelled you personally to research and write an entire book about it?
Emily: You’re absolutely right—this is the question that we all think about. Maybe I started thinking about it from a younger age than others because of the nature of my childhood. I grew up in a Sufi meeting house that my parents administered. Sufism is a school of mysticism that’s associated with Islam. Twice a week, sufis, these seekers, would come over to our home and they would meditate for several hours in the evening. Part of their practice was loving kindness and service. The whole point of what they were doing was to diminish their sense of self, their ego, so that they could feel closer to god or the alternate reality that they were trying to grow closer to.
I was surrounded by people who were leading very meaningful lives, and for whom the question of meaning had some clear answers. That stayed with me. As I grew older, I began to explore in psychology and philosophy to see if there are ways that you could still lead a meaningful life regardless of whether you had a serious spiritual or religious practice. That took me, ultimately, to this field of positive psychology.
Within positive psychology, a new body of research had started to grow up around this distinction between meaning and happiness, which is a distinction that’s thousands of years old—it has existed in philosophy for a long time, but now is starting to get an empirical backbone behind it. When I saw these studies, I thought they were intriguing, because as a former student of philosophy, I had always thought the goal is to lead a good life, to figure out what a good life is. I had collapsed the ideas of meaning and happiness as both parts of a good life. As I got into the research, I thought that maybe meaning is really what we should be pursuing since the pursuit of happiness can lead us astray, and we all ultimately want to lead meaningful lives.
Panio: Your subtitle is “Crafting a life that matters.” Crafting, to me, sounds very hands-on and do-it-yourself, as opposed to “finding” a life that matters, or “discovering” it. I’m sure that was a very intentional choice—a lot of this can be done, enacted.
Emily: Exactly. I wrote about Aristotle in the introduction. He thought that a meaningful life, a flourishing life, is an active life. I certainly found that as I interviewed people and turned to the research.
There’s a misconception in our culture that meaning and purpose are something that you find. It’s something that just kind of happens to you, that hits you over the head. Once you discover what your meaning and purpose is, you’ll be set for life. Actually, every day there are innumerable opportunities to find meaning within your life. They’re at our fingertips, whether we realize it or not. They’re all around us. We find deeper fulfillment by seeking them out. That’s an active task.