On The Power of Meaning: A Conversation With Author Emily Esfahani Smith

What am I here for? How can I live a meaningful life? People have been wrestling with these existential questions forever, and clear answers seem more elusive today than ever. Amid this uncertainty, author Emily Esfahani Smith has illuminated a timeless foundation on which to build a meaningful life in The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. It hinges on four pillars: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. Recently, Emily and I chatted about how we can rely on these pillars and help children and teens lean on them to grow and weather whatever challenges they may face in life.

Listen to our full Q&A, which includes discussion on Emily’s spiritual foundation, the urgent search for meaning today, the topic’s revival in American universities, and the role of mindfulness in transcendence. (36 minutes)

Read edited excerpts from our conversation below.   

The Four Pillars of Meaning

“In talking to many different people about what makes their lives meaningful and reading a lot of philosophy and psychology and literature about how to live a meaningful life, I began to see patterns emerge. People tended to talk about four different things.
  1. Belonging is about being in a relationship where you’re valued by others for who you are intrinsically and where you in turn value others. It’s not just any type of relationship; it’s one that’s based on feeling like you matter and treating other people like they matter.
  2. Purpose is about having something worthwhile to do with your time, and psychologists define purpose as having a goal that organizes your life and that involves making a contribution to the world. One person’s purpose might be working on a cure for cancer, and another person’s purpose might be raising their children. It has this other-oriented dimension to it.
  3. Storytelling is about the story you tell yourself about yourself about how you became the person you are today. To lead a meaningful life, we have to develop a coherent narrative about who we are and how we got to be that way. This involves reflecting on the top experiences of our lives, but also the more tragic experiences, and understanding how they shaped us.
  4. Transcendence is about those moments when you are lifted above the hustle and bustle of daily life and you feel connected to something bigger than yourself. For a lot of people this might happen in nature, at church, or even in the work they do. As a writer, I can sometimes get so in the zone that I lose all sense of time and space and before I know it, it’s past dinner and I’m still writing. People who have had these transcendent experiences say they rank among the most meaningful of their lives.”

Achieving Belonging in Our Mobile Lives…

“It’s important to recognize that belonging exists in moments among individuals. So even though for most of us, our chief sources of belonging will be our families, friends, and communities, we can cultivate this belonging with anyone.
“Let’s say you are at the grocery store and checking out; you could just conduct the transaction with the person who is checking you out, or you could take a moment to have a short conversation with them, to ask how they’re doing, to treat them like a human being. Research shows that these kinds of small moments, these micro-moments of belonging are powerful sources of meaning for you and for the other person. They lift both of you up.”

…And Helping Children Gain Belonging

“It’s important for children to understand that there is this obligation to be present when they’re with another person and to treat them with dignity and respect, no matter who they are. We know things like bullying are such problems in schools and now in the online world, but adults can help kids realize that developing true friendships and being a good person come by treating others like they matter, and that this lifts both people up.”

Approaching the Problem of Youth Suicide

“I’ll tell you a story that really moved me when I was researching my book. I went to this presentation that high school students from around the country were giving about what’s called a dream project. They each had these different dreams, and were working towards accomplishing them. This one group of girls presented their dream to publish a book of letters written to a friend of theirs who had committed suicide just a few months ago.
“The girls were devastated obviously. Then they thought about a meaningful way to respond to this. They asked everyone in the school’s community to write a letter to this boy named Billy, as if he were still alive, encouraging him to not take his life and reminding him that life is worth living. They compiled these letters together in a book they called Dear Billy, which they wanted to publish so other students like Billy could read the book and find hope and consolation in it, and hopefully decide not to kill themselves.
“In this workshop, the girls asked us to write on a piece of paper a list of everyone in our lives who was dear to us: our parents, friends, families, doctors, neighbors, everyone who ever cared for us. Then they had us write our own names on a separate portion of that paper. Then they had us rip our names off the paper and said that’s what suicide is like: You’re ripping yourself out of the lives of all these people who care about you.
“I thought it was profound. It captured the fact that suicide is a social problem — not just an individual problem — because it’s not just about the person who has killed themselves who has suffered and is suffering. It leads to this wider suffering in the community.
“Helping kids realize that they are integrated in a broader community that cares about them is one step toward preventing suicide. If you can get kids to create a culture of belonging by cultivating small moments of belonging with each other, I think that would protect some of these at-risk kids. Research shows that one of the things that predicts a suicide among boys is a rise of individualism and personal control, which implies that if you nestle them within a community, they’ll be more protected.
“Also, it’s about helping kids understand what is the broader purpose of their lives. If they see they are needed by others, that will also prevent them from committing suicide.”

Taking Steps to Realize Your Purpose

“There’s a wonderful assessment, a scientifically validated test, that you can take for free online called the Via Character Survey. You answer a bunch of questions in about 20 minutes. Then, it tells you what your strengths are. Strengths are things like love, compassion, leadership, curiosity that across ages have been valued by cultures. There’s a real universality to it.
“Also, reflect on yourself. You don’t have to take a test to figure out what your strengths are. You know yourself as well; think about what you’re interested in, what excites you. And use that to reflect on the ways you can use your strengths to give back to society.
“Another thing I recommend is speaking to a mentor. Sometimes, especially when you’re young, you don’t know yourself as well as the older people around you know you. I know when I was in college, I thought I wanted to be a doctor. It was only through the intervention of mentors who knew better than I knew myself that I was encouraged to pursue this other path, which was writing and psychology — where my strengths really lie.”

Crafting Your Story

“If you want to tell a story about your life, you either begin by thinking about it or writing about it. I would begin by reflecting on the defining moments of your life. What was your childhood like? Did anything happen there that you think really shaped you? Was it a positive? Was it a negative? How did it make you grow? Piecing together those dots of experience into a bigger picture that explains who you are today is the first step.
“It’s important to recognize you’re not just going to sit down one afternoon and say these were the key experiences of my life, and this is how they shaped me. Storytelling is an ongoing process, and you can constantly revise your story, edit it, tell it, and retell it in different ways, even if you’re constrained by facts.
“For example, you can imagine that two different people have the same set of events happen to them. Both people went through their parents’ divorces when they were younger. Then their parents ended up getting remarried. One person could say that was a really awful experience, and it made me lose faith in the idea that long-term commitments can ever work out positively. Another person might say that was a really terrible experience for a while, but then I saw both of my parents went on to have these new richer lives with their spouses. It made me see that maybe sometimes we make mistakes, and we have to try again in our relationships. It’s the same set of facts, but two different interpretations.
“Researchers find that when we tell redemptive stories — stories that move from something bad happening to something good happening — we tend to believe our lives are more coherent and more meaningful. So in addition to reflecting on the bullet points of your story, see that you’re interpreting them in a way that’s both consistent with reality, and focuses on the good that ultimately came of your experiences.”

Helping Children Shape Their Stories

“An educator or a parent, any adult who is working with kids, has a powerful role to play in helping kids understand and shape the stories they’re telling about themselves.
“If kids are telling a dysfunctional story about who they are or where their lives are going, then you can help them edit that story by pointing out that their interpretation of events is not true. ‘Do you really think that nothing that you do matters? What about the time when you studied hard for that test and your grade got better?’ Helping them edit their stories in ways that are healthier would be good for them. Research shows that the stories we tell about our lives actually shape how we live our lives. If we tell positive stories defined by redemption and growth and love, we end up living more in accordance with those values ourselves. It’s this self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Finding Meaning in Others’ Stories  

“All the stories in the culture, whether it’s movies or television shows, radio stories, stories that your friends tell you over dinner, stories that you read in novels can build meaning in two ways. One, if you’re sharing stories with another person, it builds a sense of belonging because people love listening to each other’s stories. Having somebody listen to your story in an attentive way makes you feel like you matter and like you’re heard. David Isay, the founder of StoryCorps, said listening is an act of love, and I think that’s absolutely right.
“The other way storytelling builds meaning is when we hear somebody else’s story, or read it in a novel, or watch it on television, it helps us process our own story more deeply. You might read Hamlet by Shakespeare, and maybe you haven't gone through everything that Hamlet has gone through, but maybe you experienced self-doubt. Maybe you are unsure about a major decision you have to make in your life. Hamlet’s story of doubt and uncertainty helps you come to a deeper understanding about where you are and how you might move forward.”

Opening Yourself to Transcendent Experiences

“Transcendent experiences exist on a spectrum. You can have a major transcendent experience when you are meditating, in prayer, or doing something where your sense of self just completely fades away, and you feel like there’s no boundary between you and the world around you. You feel totally connected to the outside world, to God, to nature, whatever the case may be.
“There’s also more ordinary, everyday experiences with transcendence. You can go on a walk in the woods and feel a little bit more connected to the world around you, a little bit less weighed down by your own problems. You can listen to a beautiful piece of music, or go the art museum and just look at a beautiful painting. In those encounters with beauty again, you can experience a stillness and a renewal that comes from slowing down and stepping outside your own head for a few minutes.
“To have more of these experiences, you can be intentional about seeking them out. Instead of spending the last five minutes of every day on social media before you go to bed, try listening to a piece of music or reading a poem you love. Don’t just eat lunch at your desk; go out for a walk during your lunch hour. A lot of times we’re so tempted to be tethered to our phones, to not just walk to school or whatever, but to listen to our pop music as we’re walking to school, or to be checking our texts and email constantly. If we can resist this urge to constantly be connected to our technology, we’ll open ourselves up to more opportunities to experience transcendence.”

Seizing Opportunities to Grow After Crisis

“It’s important to have meaning in life because it brings you a sense of wholeness and well-being, but it also helps sustain you through life’s more difficult challenges. The people who tend to be more resilient in the face of a crisis are the ones for whom the pillars were already strong in their lives beforehand. The ones who tend to grow in the face of some sort of crisis are the ones who lean on these pillars to get them through, or actively build the pillars up in their lives.
“I interviewed a Vietnam War veteran, who experienced a terrible post-traumatic stress disorder when he came back. It turned him into an alcoholic, and his life completely unraveled to the point that one night he drank so much that he got into a car accident where he killed another man who was on a motorcycle. This person, Bob, hit rock bottom. Not only did he take somebody else’s life, but he thought his own life was now meaningless. He couldn’t understand why he was here and what purpose his life had. With time, he started to see the only way he could redeem what happened to him was by helping veterans who were struggling in the same way he was.
“He started this organization called Dryhootch, a chain of coffee stores throughout the Midwest for veterans. There’s no alcohol, just coffee. It’s also a community center for veterans to do things like meditate together, play board games. It’s a space that’s familiar to them and comfortable, but is also protected from the temptation of alcohol and other substances.
“His goal was to help people like him not make the same mistakes he did. He was able to overcome the crisis he faced by having this renewed sense of purpose, by creating community, a form of belonging for others, and he really built these pillars in his life.”

Fostering Students’ Resilience in Adversity  

“I would encourage educators to help their students connect with the different pillars in their lives, and help them see how those pillars already exist or how they can build them up.
“The research on kids and adversity is clear. One of the profound things that makes a big difference in how a child weathers adversity is if they have one person in their life who really cares about them. Things could be a mess in their home life, and maybe their friends are not there for them either, but if they have a teacher or an aunt or an uncle, somebody who shows them love and affection, they will fare a whole lot better. A teacher can either be that person, or can help guide their students to somebody.
“Teachers can encourage students to form a kind of community. If they’re struggling with mental health, maybe they can reach out to other people who are struggling, too, and create a support group where they get together and talk regularly about these kinds of things.
“The other thing that’s very important for kids is purpose — if they know and feel connected to some dream they have, some goal that lies in the future, it can be something that motivates them and helps them get through whatever they’re going through at the moment. We know from research that kids who have a sense of purpose are much more resilient in the face of adversity.”

Nurturing Children’s Natural Generosity

“I am so excited these ideas are reaching children because I think they’re some of the ones who need it most. I hear all the time today from parents and teachers that so much of what their kids care about is becoming an Instagram celebrity or making lots of money, things that are more about self-glorification.
“But I think kids have this natural generosity to them, and all we have to do is encourage them to bring out that part of themselves. Then they will be far more likely to withstand the trials of childhood and adolescence and not fall into so many of these problems that we see young people falling into, from depression to suicide to substance abuse. It’s about helping them find their meaning, and helping them realize it’s not about them. It’s about how they can contribute to others.”
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Ari Pinkus

Ari Pinkus is a former digital editor and producer at NAIS.