Emily Esfahani Smith, The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness (Broadway Books, 2017).
Heading by train to New York City, I read Emily Esfahani Smith’s The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness. Smith’s weaving of research, interviews and stories validates the deep human need for something more than a life of comfort, ease and pleasure. As I read, I realized the importance of not avoiding, but rather “embracing the awkward,” difficult, and even painful situations in order to experience greater meaning.
Smith identifies four themes prevalent in the lives of those who live meaningful lives: First, knowing a deep sense of belonging; second, having a purpose in life that is tied with contributing to society; third, making sense of one’s own journey through storytelling; and, finally, recognizing transcendence, which is to say, connecting to something bigger than the self.
These pillars—belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence—are central to all the major religions, and, according to Smith,
they are the reason why those traditions historically conferred (and continue to confer) meaning in people’s lives. They situate individuals within a community. They give them a purpose to work toward, like growing closer to God, or serving others. They offer them explanations for why the world is the way it is.… And they provide them with opportunities for transcendence through rituals and ceremonies. (41‒42)
In developed countries such as the United States, shared experiences of communal life are dwindling. Many of us have hundreds of connections on social media yet do not attempt to know our neighbors or the person next to us in the pew. Smith’s four pillars show that this path to meaning, which may have played a greater part for communities in the past, is still possible. Even though “we may move from one city to another, change jobs, and lose touch with friends as the years go by,” we can choose “to harness the pillars in new ways in our new circumstances,” (42). In my own work as founder of Well-Read Mom book club, I’m seeing a revival of sorts. With the diminishing of community, women are being intentional in seeking out face-to-face community that feeds their souls. WRM book clubs parallel Smiths’s four pillars as we read stories, compare them with our own life experiences, and accompany one another in our personal growth. Women are faithful to their book club because of their shared sense of belonging.
In the chapter entitled “Belonging,” Smith verifies this need for connection, saying that, quite literally, we need connection with others or we die. From the orphanages of old where babies went untouched and died, to our highly developed countries today where isolation and suicide are on the rise, the need for relationship and belonging is essential.
In “Purpose,” she talks about the power of a “service mindset” to give meaning to jobs that don’t seem objectively rewarding. Smith recounts an anecdote about John F. Kennedy: “When the president asked [the janitor at NASA] what he was doing, the janitor apparently responded, ‘helping put a man on the moon’” (95‒96). This ability to see seemingly mundane tasks as connected to a broader purpose is critical to finding purpose. If we can see the persons behind day-to-day tasks, we too can experience the power of a service mindset to make our lives meaningful.
In “Storytelling,” one particularly interesting study cited the power of a story to reframe the experience of loss. Researchers asked individuals to imagine “what could have been.” Despite the pain of imagining these “lost selves,” the process helped the participants in the study to reconcile their present lives to their past and move to a deeper place of acceptance. Somehow, this careful examination of ourselves in the context of a story is critical to our own development and fulfillment, something I see many of our Well-Read Moms experiencing.
In the chapter entitled “Transcendence,” Smith talks about looking at the night sky and feeling insignificant in the face of it. But in fact “a brush with mystery—whether underneath the stars, before a gorgeous work of art, during a religious ritual, or in the hospital room—can transform us” (131). It brings forth questions like, Who made us? How is it that the universe is so vast and I’m so small? What is the reason for it all? This is the power of transcendence, to “go beyond” or to “climb.” That is, the veil is lifted for a moment from our everyday reality and we experience a glimpse of something, or dare we say, Someone greater.
After a chapter on each of these four pillars, Smith addresses “Growth,” and how it is that some people experience increased meaning in life while others seem to lose hope in the face of loss, trauma, or adversity. Offering a blueprint for those struggling to find hope and purpose, Smith shows how reframing adversity as opportunity can make one more resilient. Individuals who are able to see opportunity, rise above the struggle by essentially finding ways to work their trauma through the four pillars.
In Smith’s concluding chapter, she brings her story full circle with Viktor Frankl’s revelation in Man’s Search for Meaning: “Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.” As Smith says, “Love, of course, is at the center of the meaningful life. Love cuts through each of the pillars of meaning” (229).
As I read Smith’s book I understood that seemingly small, but intentional everyday interactions matter. Making eye contact with the checkout lady at the gas station or engaging in a conversation with the person next to me at the ball game or in the pew is not insignificant. Smith makes the point that these simple exchanges enhance the quality of our lives. They increase our participation in meaning.
I closed the book and exited my train amidst the bustle of Grand Central Station. There, in the middle of the rush stood a homeless woman on a pile of newspapers. Her feet were swollen, cracked and bleeding. With her over-sized coat, flowered hat, and heap of bags she was impossible to miss, as she hollered out crazy things from her pedestal. Yet people scurried by as if she were completely invisible.
Because I had been reading Smith’s book I was more aware than usual. I stopped and looked at this woman. Our eyes locked. She saw me and I saw her. Both of us knew we had been seen. Her ranting quieted. After a few seconds, I waved to her and turned to catch the next train. She cupped her hands and shouted at me, “You’re precious, you’re precious!” I turned, and again we locked eyes. Being seen by another person is powerful. Even if brief, it is a moment of meaning.
Walking on the streets of Manhattan, I looked up at a billboard showing a teenage boy inserting his Air Pods. The headline read, “Avoid the Awkward.” I was aware of Smith’s advice which was just the opposite. She encourages one to “embrace the awkward,” not avoid it. The modern temptation to isolate ourselves from one another is prevalent. On the other hand, where I live in a small Minnesota town, the awkward is hard to avoid even with Air Pods. It is impossible for me to go into the local grocery store without talking to someone I know by name. I understand this is a gift for me.
Becoming aware of ways we might, even unknowingly, construct barriers to avoid awkward exchanges in the name of efficiency or personal space is the first step toward change. Cultivating connections, even small ones, can make a difference, not just personally but in the community as a whole.
In her conclusion, Smith quotes from George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch:
But the effect of her [Dorothea’s] being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
A surprising thing about small interactions where we connect with and affirm another person is that these exchanges have the potential to ripple out, becoming, as Eliot wrote, incalculably diffusive.
In my own life, I find that if I chase happiness, it usually eludes me. If, instead, I seek meaning and invest in relationships of belonging and purpose, my day-to-day tasks take on a broader mission. Surprisingly, in the process, happiness finds me. This is what Smith’s research confirms. The shift from a happiness mindset to a meaning mindset is at the heart of living a fulfilling life. The genius of her work is sharing the hope and truth that everyone can experience an increase in meaning, and that “humble acts...taken together, light up the world.”
Marcie Stokman, M.A., is founder and president of Well-Read Mom, an international movement and book club. Her new book, The Well-Read Mom: Read More. Read Well, released in 2019. As a former clinical nurse practitioner in mental health and longtime homeschooler, she writes and speaks to encourage women and share the power of reading. She and her husband Peter have seven children and eleven grandchildren and reside in Northern Minnesota.