I’m always intrigued by books that seem to speak about improving your life in ways that aren’t always as step-by-step as self-help books teach. In “The Power of Meaning,” by Emily Esfahani Smith, she brings many viewpoints and stories together to teach us, that through such a wide-range of experiences by many different people, we can find more meaning in our own lives.
Happiness seems to be the unicorn of life we all search for, but few truly find. Happiness can be confusing though, as the author points out. There are life experiences that don’t necessarily give us happy feelings, but are so meaningful that eventually they aid in our long-term happiness. There are also things that make us happy but only for a short while. We need to figure out the balance that works for each one of us.
There are four pillars of meaning, according to Smith: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence.
Belonging is about the need “to find our tribe. A sense of belonging is the most important driver of meaning.”
From the early 1900s, when people thought they were killing their children by giving them too much love due to the spread of germs, to the increased research in behavioral psychology that said the increased deaths were due to lack of love and a lack of children feeling belonging in their “tribes” at home, the idea of belonging is quite important to our connection with those around us and the lives we live.
We still feel the importance of belonging today, especially in a time where phones, computers, video games, television, and other electronic devices keep us in our own little worlds and take over our daily lives. We have decreased our in-person conversations, our time spent with each other is focused on looking at our phones and constantly checking the internet, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, or the other hundreds of apps out there. People think they have meaning in their lives through these devices, but are unhappier than ever and are more lonely then ever.
Small moments of “intimacy” are also important and usually require slowing down our lives to make them. For example, instead of rushing in to get a coffee and out again to get to work, we can practice forming brief bonds with those around us by slowing down and making each other feel like humans and maybe a little less alone.
Purpose is such a big word sometimes. When it is included in books about the meaning of life, it can make us think of much bigger, usually unattainable things like world peace, a solution to world hunger, or something like ending homelessness. But more often than not, it means something closer to our purpose to be a good parent or employee or the like; or maybe being the productive one at our office or the motivator or support system; and it can even mean keeping buildings clean (hospitals, schools, workplaces) so that other people can also do their jobs more easily.
“Not all of us will find our calling. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find purpose.”
“Our story-telling impulse emerges from a deep-seated need all humans share: the need to make sense of the world.”
When we tell stories about ourselves, we are sharing who we are, how we live, and how things could have been different. We also find meaning and inspiration in other people’s stories.
Transcendence involves going beyond the every day and experiencing a higher reality.
“During transcendent states, two remarkable things happen. First, our sense of self washes away along with all of its petty concerns and desires. We then feel deeply connected to other people and everything else that exists in the world. The result is that our anxieties about existence and death evaporate, and life finally seems, for a moment, to make sense – which leaves us with a sense of peace and well-being.” David Yaden of the University of Pennsylvania.
We all have certain sources of pain in our lives that can pose a threat to finding meaning. They can shatter our belief that there is good in the world and they can lead to cynicism and hatred. They can lead to lost relationships, loss of faith, loss of life. But sometimes they can, while leaving deep wounds, make us grow in ways that make us wiser and stronger. If our pillars of belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence are strong, we can build them to be even stronger.
With all the stories from different people of different backgrounds and life experiences, we can all find at least a bit more meaning in our lives. We can maybe look at our “jobs” differently than we had before and find a new respect for them; we can acknowledge those around us who we don’t “see” on a daily basis, maybe take a minute to slow down and say hello or make someone feel like they are important; or make a plan to go out and find our true path if we are stuck in a situation that makes us miserable.
I love how some stories make me relate to experiences and feelings in my own life, while others make me want to strive to find something higher, something more. Other stories are very interesting to read and offer lessons more general than the specific experience. Whatever it is you might be looking for, you can find something in this book. Your life will only be more rich after reading it.
The Power of Meaning @ Penguin Random House
I received this book for free from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.