Episode 2: The Importance of Meaning for Flourishing, with Emily Esfahani Smith
Updated: Jul 13, 2022
We discuss flourishing with Emily Esfahani Smith, writer, public speaker, and former journalist. Her 2017 book The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness was an international bestseller and has been translated into 16 languages, and her TED Talk "There’s More to Life than Being Happy," based on her book, has been viewed over 9 million times.
Our conversation focuses on the role and importance of meaning in human flourishing; how to find meaning in life; and what meaning consists of, orienting around Emily’s account of meaning having four ‘pillars’ – belonging, purpose, transcendence and storytelling.
“Human beings have this need for meaning that is as vital to our psychological and spiritual health as the need for food, water, safety and shelter are for our physical well-being. Without meaning, we suffer in profound ways. … Meaning is that kind of ‘why’ that gets us through the good things but also the bad things in life. It's vital to flourishing.”
Emily’s path into researching meaning
This episode begins with Emily describing what led to her interest in meaning and the research that culminated in The Power of Meaning. Growing up, she was interested in big questions concerning meaning and how to lead a good life, which drew her towards studying philosophy in college. But there were two major factors that led to her work on meaning.
First, during graduate school, Emily studied positive psychology – the ‘scientific study of the conditions and processes that lead to human flourishing’ (Martin Seligman & Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2000), ‘Positive Psychology: An Introduction’, The American Psychologist, 55: 1, p. 5). During her studies, she encountered the work of the late neurologist and psychiatrist Victor Frankl, author of the renowned 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning, which describes his experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps. One of the observations Frankl made during his time in concentration camps about how human beings find meaning in life is that it’s important to be able to find meaning in experiences of suffering, to maintain a sense of hope during difficult times and cope with the vicissitudes of life. Emily mentions a concept Frankl discusses in the book which she found particularly inspiring, ‘tragic optimism’: the ability to hold onto hope and meaning in life, even though life is full of suffering and loss.
While learning about Frankl’s work Emily was also studying empirical research on meaning and happiness, which for a time she saw as quite separate from Frankl’s work. However, as she dug deeper into the research and Frankl’s work, she learned that Frankl and many other psychiatrists and psychologists of the era were also concerned with an obsession with happiness in the culture and research of their time, an obsession which Emily argues is still prevalent today. This was the beginning of the journey that led to Emily writing The Power of Meaning.
The second major and connected factor Emily recollects was her very spiritual childhood. Emily was raised by Sufi parents and she grew up living in a Sufi meeting house in Montreal. Sufism is the spiritual and mystical branch of Islam, and one of its central beliefs is the importance of practicing loving kindness and service to all people. Emily spent her upbringing surrounded by spiritual seekers committed to practicing meditation, who would visit her family home and meditate for several hours a week. Some of them had difficult lives – for example, some were refugees who had travelled to Montreal from the Middle East. Reflecting on her earlier life experiences during graduate school, Emily started thinking more about how we can lead good lives despite difficult experiences. She realized that happiness might not be central to such a life, but meaning can be. As she recollects in the episode, she thought this was a “beautiful idea.”
What’s the role of meaning in a flourishing life?
In response to this question, Emily starts off talking about Frankl’s work on “logotherapy”, a form of therapy he developed which helps people find meaning in life, based on the principle that a person’s primary motivational force is to find meaning. Frankl describes how we each need a reason to live – a ‘why’. Emily describes the idea behind this being that humans have a need for meaning, which is “as vital for our psychological health as the need for food, water and shelter are for our physical well-being.” Without meaning, she says, “we suffer in profound ways.”
Emily describes a story Frankl describes to illustrate this, where he acted as a therapist for two suicidal inmates in a concentration camp. Frankl writes that to restore these inmates’ will to live, he needed to help them see that there was something waiting for them and expected of them in the future, beyond their imprisonment and suffering. For one, it was the prospect of reuniting with his son; for the other, it was returning to his research. Moments such as this illustrate, Emily says, that “meaning is that kind of ‘why’ that gets us through the good things but also the bad things in life – it’s vital to flourishing.” She also points out that some of the most important things in life don’t always make us happy from moment to moment, but give us a rich sense of meaning, such as raising kids and devoting ourselves to a political or social cause.
What is the connection between meaning, happiness and flourishing?
Meaning and purpose occupy a central place in some of the most influential contemporary accounts of flourishing, such as those of positive psychology and the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard. On the relation between meaning, happiness and flourishing, Emily thinks of flourishing as the overarching construct, with meaning and happiness as two approaches towards leading a good life. Some people, she points out, are more oriented towards pursuing happiness and others are more oriented towards meaning. While there is nothing wrong with this, Emily points out problems with focusing on happiness rather than meaning as the primary source of life satisfaction.
Happiness, as it’s typically defined and measured, is a positive mental and emotional state which comes and goes. Since it’s not always going to be there, focusing on this as your primary means of life satisfaction will cause problems. Emily points out that the research shows this: devoting yourself to the pursuit of happiness shows that you can often feel happy, but it’s not as lasting.
By contrast, meaning lasts much longer – it can even last a lifetime. This is among the reasons that Emily argues that meaning is a more important area on which to focus our lives to flourish. To support this, Emily describes how Aristotle’s concept of ‘eudaimonia’ is better translated and understood as ‘flourishing’ rather than ‘happiness’. Emily points out that flourishing, for Aristotle, is “about leading an active life where you’re realizing your potential, activating your strengths and leading a life of virtue”, and this is more consistent with living a meaningful life rather than a happy one.
What is meaning?
Emily argues that meaning consists of four “pillars”: belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence. Each contributes to our overall sense of meaning in our lives. What led Emily to this account of meaning was that these four themes came up time and time again when she was doing research for her book, which included interviewing people from around the world working in a variety of fields.
We are social animals. Belonging concerns our social nature as human beings. Much research has shown how important relationships are for well-being and flourishing (for example, good, close social relationships are among the key domains for flourishing in the theories of flourishing put forward by positive psychology and the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard). For meaning, Emily argues that a certain type of relationship is particularly important: one that’s defined by a sense of belonging, where we each value one another for who we are intrinsically. This involves seeing other people for who they are in and of themselves.
Purpose concerns your reason for living. In psychology, purpose is typically defined as a goal or principle that organizes your life and involves contributing to the lives of others. For example, striving to be a great parent, sibling or friend; furthering a social or political movement; working to discover a cure for a disease; to trying to invent new technology that improves people’s lives. Emily relates this back to Frankl: our purpose is our ‘why’ that motivates us and guides our futures.
Storytelling concerns how we make sense of our experiences and lives through the stories we tell ourselves about how and where our lives are going. It concerns the narrative we create about ourselves and our lives, which contributes to our overall sense of meaning.
By transcendence, Emily means experiences of wonder and awe, where we encounter something that takes our breath away. Experiences such as these help to put our lives into perspective and are ways we can connect with something much greater than ourselves. Ways to have transcendent experiences are looking at the stars at night and reflecting on the vastness of the universe; spending time in nature; meditation; and religious rituals – through all of these through which we can put our lives into perspective.
Transcendent experiences can have significant and lasting positive impacts on our physical and psychological well-being. Research suggests that experiences of awe have potential long-term health benefits, improve feelings of connection with other people, elevate your mood, improve your sense of life satisfaction, develop critical thinking skills and cultivate humility.
Emily points out that these pillars are interconnected and support one another. For example, it’s difficult to have a sense of purpose in your life without feeling a sense of belonging, and the story we tell about our lives will be guided by our sense of purpose.
Is each pillar necessary for meaning and are any pillars more significant?
Emily clarifies that while meaning is made up of these four pillars, you don’t have to a strong sense of all four of them to experience meaning in your life. It’s possible to find meaning by focusing on less than all four or perhaps even only one of them. Some people are more oriented to some of the pillars than others – for example, people who are more spiritual or religious are often more oriented towards transcendence than other pillars.
So, to some degree, our orientation towards a particular pillar or pillars is subjective. Yet, Emily’s research suggests that one of the pillars, belonging, is perhaps the most important for meaning. Emily reports that belonging came up time and time again with nearly everyone she spoke to when doing the research for this book. Her research suggests that if you don’t have a sense of belonging, even if with just one or two people, it’s extremely difficult to experience a sense of meaning in your life.
Each pillar can function as a means of support when we encounter difficult experiences, including those when one of the pillars may collapse in our lives. For example, the loss of a loved one or end of a relationship can have a major negative impact on our sense of belonging; in such difficult times, Emily says that turning to another pillar can help rescue and rebuild our sense of meaning, and help us avoid or get out of what she describes as the “meaning vacuum” that can be brought about by such major life changes. For example, we can look for ways to cultivate transcendent experiences in our lives by going for "awe walks" in nature, which research suggests increase our emotional well-being. Turning to another pillar, Emily says, “gives more stability to the meaning structure if you have more than one pillar in your life”.
Emily has developed a quiz on finding your pillar of meaning, based on her research, which you can take here.
Spirituality, religion and the "meaning vacuum"
In this episode and in her book, Emily also suggests that a meaning vacuum has been created by increasing secularity in the world, with many people no longer turning to religion or spirituality as sources of meaning. Emily thinks that a widespread lack of meaning for many people today is due to an absence of religious belief.
In writing The Power of Meaning, Emily spent a lot of time researching why religion and spirituality are such powerful sources of meaning for people historically, and world religions are one of the central areas of focus in the book. She points out that throughout history, one of the main ways people have found meaning in their lives is through connection to the sacred – for example, through spiritual practices. But over the past few centuries, the world has become increasingly secular and this source of meaning is no longer as central to people’s lives as it once was. This has also brought about what Emily describes as a ‘meaning vacuum’.
Emily argues that what religion provides is a life structure consisting of the four pillars of meaning. Religion provides a deep sense of purpose; a sense of belonging – for example, to your religious or spiritual community; opportunities for transcendence; and a story through which you can make sense of the world and your place in it.
“Increasingly, especially over the last several hundred years, the world, especially the developed world, has become more and more secular. And so that source of meaning that grounded our ancestors for thousands of years is no longer essential to people’s lives today.”
Work and the meaning vacuum
How might we fill the meaning vacuum, if not through spirituality or religiosity? Emily argues that work has become a substitute for many people. She draws attention to research on meaning in work and organizations shows that seeking a ‘calling’ through our work – that what we do for work reflects or captures the purpose of our lives – has been promoted worldwide, particularly in the secular world.
A ‘calling’ is more than a career: if you’re pursuing what you believe is your calling, you’re doing work that resonates with you emotionally, aligns with your values and your sense of purpose in life. The word ‘calling’ refers to the idea that what we spend our time doing is something we believe is what we were, on some level, meant to be doing with our lives. As Emily points out, the word “has a religious connotation to it”. While research shows that people who see their work as a calling are often the most satisfied with their professional lives, the increasing number of people who see their work as the main source of meaning in their lives puts a lot of strain and expectation on work to fill the meaning vacuum.
“Work has become a substitute for a lot of people. … In the absence of religion as a source of meaning, people are increasingly turning to work and expecting that work might give them that sense of meaning.”
On this point, Emily refers to the work of Amy Wrzesniewski, Professor of Management at Yale, whose work looks at how in the absence of religion as a source of meaning, people are increasingly turning to work and expecting that it might give them a sense of meaning. While it’s of course good to find a deep sense of meaning and purpose in our work and all kinds of work can give us this sense, Emily points out that nowadays we are increasingly putting a lot of pressure on work to fill the meaning vacuum, which can lead to a lot of expectation and disappointment if it doesn’t, as well as increasing the risk of workaholism.
Emily’s next book, which she is currently writing, discusses the role of work in our lives and its relation to meaning. The book critically examines our relationship to work and how the success culture prevalent throughout much of the world today has warped this relation. The book will argue that a preoccupation with success can cause people to lose themselves and their own path. There’s a deeper way to understand what it means to be successful and accomplished than just reaching extrinsic goals of wealth and fame.
Drawing upon ideas from philosophy and psychology, the book will consider what it means to lead a flourishing life and how this connects with what we need to be a successful adult. The book will argue that work and unpaid work are places we can find meaning, but when we find ourselves in the rat race and our work focuses on incentives, raises and promotions, this can cause us to lose sight of meaning and get alienated from our work and from ourselves.
The "meaning mindset"
One of the key concepts Emily coins in The Power of Meaning is what she calls the ‘meaning mindset’: the attitude we take towards our actions in terms of their meaningfulness to us. This mindset concerns and affects how we interpret and frame our experiences in relation to meaning. It functions as a kind of filter through which we view the world and our experiences. Emily points out that the attitude we take towards the things we do and what happens to us can help us build meaning in our lives or cause meaning to disintegrate. She argues that a meaning mindset is vital for us having a strong sense of meaning in our lives.
To illustrate the importance of a meaning mindset, in the research for her book, Emily interviewed many people across a variety of professions about how they viewed their work. Emily refers to a research study by Wrzesniewski on how hospital cleaners viewed their work. Emily tracked down one of the cleaners to interview her about how she saw the meaningfulness of her work. A hospital cleaner she interviewed, Candice, told Emily that she sees her work not as simply a matter of mopping floors, taking out trash and cleaning up mess after people, but as healing sick people. Candice sees her work as part of the wider mission of the hospital and work sector she works for, and interprets her work as part of a highly significant source of meaning and purpose: caring for those who need medical attention and support, and helping to save and improve lives. Reflecting on this point, Emily points out that this “is an attitude we can all adopt, whether we’re washing the dishes and doing chores or dealing with paperwork or, going through emails or whatever tedious things that take up a lot of our day”.
Cultivating a meaning mindset involves constructing a narrative about our work and lives. It involves a sense of hope about where we can find meaning – that we can find meaning in, for example, even the most quotidian areas of life. A meaning mindset can help us control how we respond to the things happening to us day to day. Emily points out that Candice could interpret her experiences in many ways, but the story she chooses to tell really affects how she experiences her work and her life.
This relates to the importance of storytelling: telling a story about everything we do is key to developing a meaning mindset. Storytelling can function as a means of framing our experiences to create meaning. A meaning mindset involves recognizing that there are many untapped sources of meaning around us. Emily recommends that each of us take time to introspect to make sense of our experiences and the kind of person each of us is. She points out that we each have to find a personal way to our path to meaning, and some of the methods she describes will help us find this path.
To cultivate a meaning mindset, Emily recommends journaling your life experiences. There is much research showing the benefits of journaling for our well-being. During journaling, Emily recommends that we practice ‘expressive writing’, reflecting on the upsetting experiences in our lives. She points out that researchers have found that doing 15 minutes a day of expressive writing over 3-4 successive days leads to people developing a greater sense of meaning about their experiences. This research suggests that people develop a greater ability to find a silver lining in what’s happened to them. Emily recommends reflecting on your story and how it frames your life, through which we can develop what she calls a ‘meta-awareness’ of our lives in terms of the stories we journal.
In her discussion of this research, Emily refers to the work of psychologist Dan McAdams at Northwestern, who has conducted research on the narratives people craft about their lives. In his studies, he asks people questions such as, “What was a high point of your life?”; “What was a low point of your life?”; “What were the turning points of your life?”; “If you had to divide your life into chapters, what would those chapters look like?”; and “What are the themes you see running through your life?” Emily recommends that we ask ourselves these questions, and journaling is a powerful way to unpack our answers to them.
Education’s role in cultivating meaning
In The Power of Meaning, Emily recommends a range of texts we should read to learn more about what it means to lead a meaningful life and how to find meaning in life. These include novels, works of philosophy and religious texts. Some books, she says, “function as manuals about how to live.” Examples she discusses in the book include Tolstoy’s A Confession (1882), Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-2), Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus (1942), Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (c. 350 BCE) and various works by Shakespeare. Middlemarch, for example, she says offers an excellent “statement” on how to lead a meaningful life.
In her book and this episode, Emily connects this point with arguments she puts forward on how education could better teach students about and cultivate a greater sense of meaning for students. Emily points out that schools used to aim to teach students how to live a meaningful life more seriously than they do today. Texts such as the above provide rich sources of study for learning about meaning, because writers such as Aristotle and Shakespeare take up the question of how we lead a meaningful life throughout the work in various ways – for example, by addressing questions concerning how we find meaning in life when we’re faced with loss.
Emily also recommends that we should read religious texts to learn more about culture and meaning, and these are rich sources for education. In the episode, she says that to provide children with a multicultural education and an education in multiculturalism, we should educate children about the world’s religions, because this is “where you really learn about culture and meaning.”
“I think that schools, especially in higher education, used to take the idea of helping students figure out how to lead a meaningful life more seriously. Part of how they did that was educating them in the ideas of philosophers like Aristotle and writers like Shakespeare – in these great works where they’re really taking up the question of how do you lead a good life?”
The Flourishing Question
We ask all our guests “the flourishing question”:
What’s one lesson on flourishing you want our listeners to walk away with, and what might be a practical step for putting that lesson into action?
Emily recommends making time for stillness or silence every day, away from technology, work and the busyness of our everyday lives, even if only five minutes. This practice is a source of some of the pillars of meaning. The introspection it involves helps with our construction of stories and reflecting on our sense of purpose. Practicing being silent and slowing down helps us be more present in our relationships, which builds belonging. And it’s a source of transcendence, because it involves stepping away from the hustle and bustle of daily life and just being for a moment. “In those moments of silence and stillness,” Emily says, “we learn about ourselves.”
About our guest
Emily Esfahani Smith is a writer in Washington DC. In her writing, she draws on psychology, philosophy, and literature to write about the human experience — why we are the way we are and how we can find grace and meaning in a world that is full of suffering. Her book The Power of Meaning, an international bestseller, was published by Crown and has been translated into 16 different languages. The Wall Street Journal called the book “persuasive,” “elegant,” and “valuable” while the Prospect (UK) dubbed it “an intelligent page-turner.”
She is also an international speaker who has delivered dozens of keynote addresses and workshops at corporations, conferences, non-profit organizations, libraries, universities, and high schools around the country and world. In 2017, Smith delivered a talk called “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy” on the main stage of TED, which was based on her book. It’s been viewed over 9 million times.
The former managing editor of The New Criterion, Smith’s articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and other publications. Her articles for The Atlantic “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy” (about the Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl) and “Masters of Love” (about romance and marriage) have reached over 30 million readers. In 2017, the New York Times published her article about rethinking success called “You’ll Never Be Famous — And That’s OK.” And her profile for the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine of Joe Rago, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who tragically died at the age of 34, was shortlisted for a Folio magazine award in 2018. In 2019, she was a Poynter Journalism Fellow at Yale University.
Smith studied philosophy at Dartmouth College. She received her master’s degree in positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Born in Zurich, Switzerland, Smith grew up in Montreal, Canada. She now lives in Washington DC with her husband, Charlie.
Emily’s website, social media and recent work
2017 TED talk, ‘There’s More to Life than Being Happy’ (over 9 million views)
Articles for The Atlantic
Selected articles from the past year:
‘Teenagers are struggling, and it’s not just lockdown’ - NYT, May ‘21
‘We want to party and travel. Hold that thought.’ - NYT, June ‘21
‘Hope is the Antidote to Happiness. Here’s How to Cultivate It.’ - Aeon, Sept ‘21
Selected interviews from the past year:
‘Searching for Lasting Happiness’ - BBC Positive Thinking, Feb 21’
‘What the Pandemic Meant for the Mental Health of Teenagers’ - The Takeway, June ‘21
‘Rethinking our Relationship with Work’ - Harvard Business Review IdeaCast, August ‘21