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Calling all seekers, dreamers and people in search of a different path! If you feel that you have yet to be all that you could be or were meant to be, this session is for you. In 30 minutes, Emily Esfahani Smith, author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, shares her strategies for leading a fulfilling life, according to her research grounded in positive psychology: cultivating connections to others, identifying and working toward a purpose, telling stories about your place in the world and seeking out mystery. You’ll come away feeling enlightened, hopeful and recharged.
EMILY ESFAHANI SMITH is the author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters (Crown). She writes about culture, relationships, and psychology. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. She is also a columnist for The New Criterion and an editor at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, where she manages the Ben Franklin Circles project, an initiative to build community and purpose across the country. She studied philosophy at Dartmouth College and has a master’s in positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania.
CFW: Welcome to the Conference for Women tele class – The Power of Meaning; How Can You Create a Richer, More Satisfying Life. Our guest today is Emily Esfahani‑Smith, author of “The Power of Meaning, Crafting a Life that Matters.” Emily writes about culture, relationships and psychology. She has spent years studying what it is that gives us meaning. Today she shares what she has found, that there are untapped sources of meaning all around us, right here, right now.
To help us craft our own lives of meaning Emily shares her four pillars of meaning to life and how they can immeasurably deepen our lives. Emily Esfahani‑Smith, welcome to the Conference for Women tele class.
Emily: Thanks for having me; it’s great to be here.
CFW: Great; I want to jump right in. It’s a very ambitious topic. What inspired you in the first place to write about meaning?
Emily: Well, it’s a topic that I have been interested in all my life I think, as early as childhood. I had a little bit of an unusual childhood. I grew up in Montreal and my parents ran a Sufi meeting house out of our home in downtown Montreal. For those of you who might not know, Sufism is a spiritual practice that’s associated with Islam and with the poet Rumi and with the whirling dervishes, and living in a meeting house basically meant that twice a week the Sufis would come over and sit on the ground and meditate as classical Persian Sufi music played in the background.
And the point of their spiritual practice was to diminish their egos and sense of self so that they could grow closer to a higher reality that we might call God. So they did that through meditation, they also did that through practicing loving kindness and service, and the thing about the Sufis that struck me as a child was that so many of them had led really difficult lives. Some of them were refugees from the Middle East, others had just been beaten by life in other ways, and yet they were so full of love and they had clear answers to what it meant to lead a meaningful life. They kind of had this spiritual practice that gave them those answers.And so as I got older and we eventually moved out of the Sufi meeting house I began to wonder, well, how can you find meaning outside of a spiritual or religious practice? Can you find meaning outside of spirituality and religion and that led me to study philosophy at first and then eventually, in graduate school, to study positive psychology, which is this kind of scientific examination of what it is to lead a good life.
And it was in the positive psychology program where I really began to get disgruntled with some of our culture’s messages about what a good life is. In our culture we hear constantly that the whole purpose of life is to be happy, that we should pursue happiness and that if we pursue happiness we’ll be better [unintelligible 00:03:43], we’ll make more money, we’ll be more successful, we’ll be more attractive. And when I reflected on it and when I thought back to the lessons that I learned in [unintelligible 00:03:52] living in the Sufi meeting house and the lessons that I learned studying philosophy in college, it occurred to me that actually happiness shouldn’t be our goal, and what should be our goal is leading a meaningful life.
It was fortuitous that I was kind of thinking through these topics at that particular time studying positive psychology, because positive psychology had just started building up this field of research that was distinguishing between a happy life and a meaningful life, and the findings I thought were pretty provocative. So there were studies showing, for example, that when you pursue happiness and value it the way that our culture encourages us to do that you actually end up feeling unhappy. At the same there has been this kind of rise and despair, higher rates of depression, suicide rates rising, rates of loneliness rising, and the research shows that what actually predicts this rise and despair is not a lack of happiness, but a lack of meaning so meaning seemed to be the thing that we should be going after and I wanted to really understand what meaning was and how we could find it and that’s what led me to write this book.
CFW: Okay. Why is this search for meaning so critical at this moment in our culture? What is it about our culture and our society that makes meaning so important to understand?
Emily: I think a lot of people are searching for meaning and I think that the reason why it’s so critical to figure out what the meaning of your life is now and the reason why people are so interested in this question now, is because so many of our shared cultural sources of meaning are starting to disintegrate. People used to kind of share ideas, religious ideas about what it meant to lead a meaningful life and what the meaning of life was. We used to find meaning in our communities, in our traditions, in rituals that kind of organize our lives, and one by one these sources of meaning have withered away. And I think that in the absence of those shared cultural sources of meaning we’ve been left on our own to discover what the meaning of our own lives is.
On the one had I think that’s what’s wonderful because it means that we can figure it out on our own. We don’t have to kind of bow down to any answers that are put out there by the culture, other systems that we’re a part of. On the other hand, I think that it’s kind of bewildering to figure out the meaning of your life on your own and there are so many options, so many answers for how you can find meaning in life. So we see a lot of people trying to find meaning in their work, you see a lot of people trying to find meaning in political causes and this can be good and bad. You know it can be devoting yourself to a cause that you believe in like closing the achievement gap in education or it can be joining a gang or a cult or even a radical political group like ISIS.
We see a lot of western secular people turning to groups like ISIS because they find that it has a compelling meaning to give them. So I really think that this kind of search for meaning is a really critical question that we need to answer right and take on as a society because if we don’t answer it in a compelling way and provide people with kind of positive, healthy forms of meaning, we risk them being [unintelligible 00:07:33] by things like ISIS.
CFW: Interesting. Now, what role does technology play, either in the loss of meaning or in the creation of meaning?
Emily: Yeah; I love how you phrase that question because I definitely think that technology can be an obstacle in our pursuit of meaning, but I also think that it can support us in our pursuit of meaning. One of the questions that I get a lot is, you know, how is social media affecting our search for meaning and parents ask me this a lot, specifically with respect to kind of how they see their children addicted to Instagram and how so many of their children want to grow up and be Instagram celebrities.
I think technology; it’s doing two things that are making it difficult for us to pursue meaningful lives. The one thing it’s doing is that it’s just eating up so much of our time. So much of our spare time is being sucked up by Facebook, by Instagram, by these other kind of social media, online news, and what we lose is the time to devote ourselves to meaningful pursuits, whether it’s reading a book or reflecting on your values or if you’re a kid doing your homework. So it’s kind of taking away our time and filling our mind and our days with these kind of mindless distractions that would be better – that time would be better served for pursuing meaning and searching for our meaning. I think the other thing that it’s doing, and this goes back to the question that parents ask me about Instagram celebrities and what do I do with it with a child who wants to be an Instagram celebrity; it’s kind of creating false ideas of what it is to lead a good life.
These ideas have been in our culture for decades now, this sense that, oh, if I want to lead a good life I have to be rich, I have to famous, but I think that social media has really created this echo chamber and elevated these ideas and brought them to the fore of our lives like never before, so we’re getting these false ideas about what it is to lead a good life. With that said –
CFW: Go ahead; did you have more to say?
Emily: Yeah; I did want to say that I do think that technology can also help us in our pursuit of meaning and there’s a story that I tell, that I really love, that I think beautifully illustrates this. At one of my book talks – I think I was in San Antonio – I was talking about this. Somebody asked me the question that you asked me and I kind of gave an answer like the one I just gave.
A woman stood up and said, “Well, actually …” – and this woman was in her 80s, she said – “You know, my purpose in life right now is to create a book, a family history and genealogy and I want to create this and I want to pass it down to my children and have their children pass it down to their, that we have this kind of tangible, physical product that tells us where we came from and who we are as a family. And the only way I’ve been able to create this book, the genealogy,” she said, “is by turning to the internet, by using Facebook to find old family members and to trace our lineage back.” So I think if you do it in a mindful, intention way technology can actually help us live with meaning and purpose.
CFW: Great. Emily, you write and have said earlier that people so often confuse meaning and happiness and I’m wondering if you can identify the key difference or differences you’ve identified in your research.
Emily: A lot of people [conflate] meaning and happiness. They kind of want to lead a happy life and they say, “Oh, I want my life to happy and meaningful.” And even in promoting my book I found that people [unintelligible 00:11:41] but people think that because it’s about meaning it’s therefore about happiness. But actually, meaning and happiness are two different ideas and two different paths to leading a good life.
So happiness – psychologists define happiness as a positive mental and emotional state. If you feel good you’re happy; if you feel bad you’re unhappy. It’s really about experiencing positive emotions and not experiencing negative emotions. It’s kind of leading a life of leisure and ease and pleasure.
Meaning though is bigger. A meaningful life is defined by connecting and contributing to something beyond yourself so that it’s making some sort of positive difference in the world. Psychologists say that there are there aspects to believing that your life is meaningful. The first one is – so people who say their lives are meaningful believe first that their lives are significant in some way, so their lives have value and worth. The second is they believe their lives have purpose, so some goal that they really value and cherish that motivates them and drives their behavior. And finally, they believe their lives are coherent, which means that instead of seeing their experiences as random and disconnected they think of those experiences as part of a larger narrative that explains who they are and where they came from.
CFW: Got it. Would it be fair to say that happiness is a byproduct of living a life of meaning?
Emily: I think that would be fair to say; Victor Frankl who wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning,” a beautiful meditation on leading a meaningful life and how meaning helps us overcome suffering. He was a Holocaust survivor and wrote about his experiences in the camp in that book. He says that happiness is not something that you can pursue; it’s something that ensues from living a meaningful life. And indeed, the research shows that when you devote yourself to meaningful pursuits, whether it’s having some job that’s really meaningful to you or raising your children or creating something that you think is going to make the world a better place, that when you devote yourself to these things, even though in the moment it can be difficult and stressful and hard it ultimately, down the road, leads to a deeper sense of wellbeing and satisfaction.
CFW: Okay; now I want to get to the center of your research and that is what you call the four pillars of meaning. Can you walk us through those pillars and their significance?
Emily: Yes; so after I kind of determined that meaning is what we should be pursuing and building our lives around, the next question for me was, well, how do we do that really? How can we find meaning in life? What are the sources of meaning that we can all kind of buildup in our own lives? To find out I interviewed many people about their own stories, about how they found meaning. I read through thousands of pages of research and I interviewed philosophers and psychologists and sociologists and kind of really tried to get as many sources of information as possible to bear on this question.
Bringing it altogether I noticed that there were certain patterns that came up, certain themes that people kept on repeating in their stories that I saw in the research, and there were four of them specifically and they’re what I call the four pillars of meaning. The first one is belonging; so having a sense of belonging. Belonging really is about being in a relationship or part of a community where you’re valued for who you are intrinsically and where you value others as well. So this is the kind of relationship where you feel like you matter to other people and where you treat them like they matter as well.
The second pillar is purpose, and purpose is about having some goal or principle that organizes your life and that involves making a contribution to others and to the world at large. So I mentioned earlier that for some parents, they find a lot of meaning in raising their children, so the children is their purpose; so a lot of other people they find purpose through their work, so if you’re working in healthcare maybe you think your purpose is working towards a cure for cancer. But of course, purpose can also be broader, like being a good person, being a good friend, something like that.
The third pillar is storytelling and storytelling, when I’m talking about storytelling I’m really talking about the story that you tell yourself about yourself. About how you became the person that you are today. Interestingly, I found that this pillar tends to intrigue people and surprise people, and I think the reason is that we don’t always realize that we’re the authors of our own story. That first of all, that we’re telling a story about our life and have the power to tell a story about it, and B, that we’re doing this naturally and that we’re making editorial decisions about the stories that we tell. Sometimes those editorial decisions are good and can help us understand our lives in a positive way, and sometimes they’re not so good and they can kind of be holding us back. So we can edit our stories and we can tell them in ways that help us find more meaning in our lives.
The fourth pillar is transcendence, and transcendent states are those moments when you feel connected to something beyond yourself. Your sense of self kind of dissolves a little bit as you feel part of something bigger. So for a lot of people transcendence happens in encounters with nature, listening to music, going to church or temple, so it’s these moments when you feel small and yet connected to something bigger.
CFW: Great; so I just want to review the four pillars. They are, one, belonging; two, purpose; three, storytelling; and four, transcendence. I’d like to go back to the first pillar which is belonging. You tell a wonderful story in your book about a man who lives in New York City named Jonathan and how he found belonging in an unexpected place. Can you share what you discovered through Jonathan’s story?
Emily: Jonathan has a morning routine in New York, as you say where he goes and he buys a newspaper from the same street vendor every day. Over the years Jonathan and the street vendor have developed a relationship with one another. They talk to each other. They ask each other how they’re feeling, how their children are and it’s a small connection but it’s one that leads both of them feeling a little bit elevated afterwards because here they are in this big city, noisy city where things can feel so impersonal, where people can kind of just treat each other transactionally. But the two of them take a moment to slow down and treat each other like humans, and so that’s an experience that we look at them happier and likely their lives are more meaningful afterwards.
But one time Jonathan went to buy the newspaper and he realized that he didn’t have the right change and the vendor couldn’t make change for him. But the vendor said, “Don’t worry about it. This one is on me,” but Jonathan insisted on paying. So he went to a store and he bought something that he didn’t need to make change, but when he gave the money to the vendor, the vendor withdrew; he kind of drew back and it was clear that he was hurt.
He had been trying to do something kind for Jonathan but Jonathan rejected his bid for affection. I remember when Jonathan told me this story just thinking, you know, I think we all do things like this all the time without realizing it. We’ll check our phone when someone is talking to us; someone is trying to help us and we’ll kind of rebuff them.
What I realized, and what the research actually shows, is that in moments of rejections can literally make people feel that their lives are less meaningful. And on the other hand though, when we invite others to belong, when we cultivate a bond with others in these small moments, we not only lift ourselves up but we lift them up as well. So belonging really – it’s a feature of our big close relationships, like to our spouses and children and family, but it’s also living in moments and can exist just with anyone we happen to have an interaction with if we’re open to it.
CFW: The rejection that you mentioned; is that a permanent damage or can it be repaired and can you regain your sense of belonging?
Emily: It can absolutely be repaired and that’s the good news. So in the case of Jonathan and the vendor, the next time Jonathan saw him he brought him a cup of tea as kind of a way to say, “Hey, I’m sorry and let’s repair our relationship.” To this day they continue to see each other and they continue to share a positive little micro connection every morning. So that’s the great thing about, is that you know those moments of belonging can be torn down but you also have the power to build them back up.
CFW: I like that concept of micro connection. It can be something as small as saying good morning when you see someone, right?
Emily: That’s right; saying good morning, making eye contact, smiling. I heard somebody say in a convention speech recently, the worst thing that could happen if you see someone you don’t know and you make eye contact and smile, is that you become known as the person who smiles and says hello to people, so I agree with that.
CFW: You also talk about purpose as an essential ingredient to meaning – how big does our purpose need to be and how do you define it?
Emily: So purpose is interesting because I think it gets a lot of press. Everyone is always talking about, oh, find your purpose and our company needs to have a purpose and the only jobs worth having are jobs that give you a sense of purpose, but I think that we’ve elevated purpose and put it on this pedestal. In my book I’ve tried to really bring it down to earth because I think that it needs to be brought down to earth for it
So purpose can come in all shapes and sizes. I spoke to a woman who works as a zoo keeper at a zoo, which means that she spends 80 percent of her time cleaning up animal poop and keeping the yards and stalls clean for giraffes and kangaroos that she watches after. Now, for most people you think of a job like that and you think that’s not very glamorous, but actually this woman, she actually thinks that her job is chock full of purpose and she tells me that her purpose is caring for animals and everything that she does as part of her job, all of her task, even though some of them are menial and tedious and laborious, they’re all in the service of that bigger purpose and so they all have a meaning that’s bigger than just the task itself.
But like I said your purpose can also be working on a cure towards cancer, closing the achievement gap in education or just being a good parent or being a good person. And so really you can frame your purpose in a lot of different ways. And I think another important thing to understand is your purpose can change as your life changes; it’s not like you have one capital P, purpose, and that’s going to be your purpose all throughout your life. It’s kind of this nimble thing that can shift and adjust and that you can reframe and recast as your life changes.
CFW: Okay. Now what does the research show about which job creates the most meaning for people?
Emily: The research shows that the job, that people who have the following jobs tend to rate their jobs as the most meaningful. Jobs like being a surgeon, being an educator, being a therapist, a psychiatrist and what’s really interesting about these jobs is that they all share something in common, which is that they’re all service jobs. If somebody wasn’t doing those jobs the world would actually be worse off but because those jobs exist the world is a better place.
And you know I think that tells us something really important about just the nature of finding meaning at work in general. It might seem obvious that being a teacher or being a surgeon would be a job that’s inherently meaningful because it’s making the world a better place, but actually I think all jobs by their very nature exist because they’re filling some need in the world that wasn’t being filled before, and that means that every job has kind of a service component to it.
If you want to tap into the meaning of your work it’s by connecting what you’re doing to that service component. It’s by adopting a service mindset. I think [Ashley] is a really good example of it. One person might look at her job and say, “She’s basically a janitor.” Another person might look at her job and say, “No, actually she’s caring for animals and helping them have better lives.”
I tell a story in my book – I don’t know if it’s [unintelligible 00:26:09] or not – but in the 1960s when John F Kennedy was visiting NASA he ran into a janitor in the hallways and the story goes that Kennedy said, “So what do you do here?” And the janitor said, “Mr President, I’m helping to put a man on the moon.” I just love that story because I think it’s a nice illustration of how far it can take you to kind of adopt a service mindset and how that helps you find more meaning in your work.
CFW: For people who may be starting out in their careers or work on the lower income end of the spectrum, how do they find meaning and purpose in jobs that may be menial or that may involve dealing with impolite members of the public?
Emily: It’s funny that you ask that because I was just having a conversation with somebody about this yesterday, and she’s someone who I know who is just starting out in her career. She tells me that every day she struggles because she feels like – you know she works for a big bureaucracy – she feels like she’s doing things but they’re not really meaningful in the grand scheme of things. She’s writing grants and kind of pushing paper. And one of the things that I thought about as she was talking is a really good way to kind of get in touch with the meaning of the work that you’re doing, especially when you’re working a job that you think is menial or that might seem meaningless, is to go and try to figure out a way to get in touch with the actual impact that the work you’re doing is having.
So in the case of my friend, she’s writing grants; maybe she can go to one of the schools that she’s writing the grants for and see what a difference it’s making in the lives of the kids there. There is a great study by Adam Grant of the Wharton School and some of his colleagues, that went into a university and had people who were working at a call center, raising money for the university, had them meet a student who was on financial aid and benefiting from the work that they were doing, because they were raising money and that money helped that student attend this particular school. And what they found with that, the people who saw the impact of their work were actually were more productive, more engaged and more purposeful, so there’s something about kind of seeing the impact of your work that can kind of revitalize you.
CFW: Great. We have time for one last question and that is are there additional health benefits to leading a meaningful life beyond just how you feel, whether it’s your complete –
Emily: There are and this is kind of what I love about meaning. You hear the word meaning, it sounds like a vague and buzzy concept, and yet researchers from biologists, neuroscientists to psychiatrists are studying it and what they’re finding is that there are real physical effects to leading a meaningful life. So people who have meaning in their lives, they live longer, they’re actually less likely to have cardiovascular health diseases, they’re less likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s.
There is actually one study that opened up the brains of people who had – there was one study that looked at the brains of people who had passed away and who had rated their lives as very meaningful and purposeful. And what they found was that the people who had meaning and purpose, they had the same kind of plaque and junk in their brains as people who didn’t, but that the people who didn’t ended up developing Alzheimer’s with all that plaque and junk, and the people who did didn’t develop Alzheimer’s, so there are really kind of physical effects.There is also – people who have meaning are less likely to smoke, they’re more likely to use preventative health services. And I think it’s about – when you have a reason to wake up every morning it gives you this energy to kind of go through life and seize it, and to also take better care of yourself.
CFW: Great. Well, on that meaningful note that’s all we have time for today.
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