Without necessarily referencing any orange-haired tyrants, surely there has never been a better time to think about finding meaning in your life than right now? Emily Esfahani Smith, a psychology writer based at Stanford University, stumbled across people’s obsession with happiness when she wrote about the pursuit of fulfilment – and the article because the most shared in Atlantic magazine’s history. There’s a desperation to our need to know the answer to this. “It’s not happiness that makes life worth living,” she argues, “It’s meaning.” We have been chasing the wrong thing, apparently. Goodbye, happiness. Hello, er, purpose?
Not quite, apparently. “Purpose sounds big,” Esfahani Smith admits, “Ending world hunger or eliminating nuclear weapons big.” (Hang on. I have just thought of someone she could send her book to.) “But it doesn’t have to be. Living with purpose can also mean mentoring children, creating a more welcoming environment at your office or tending a community garden.” As she explains in her new book The Power of Meaning, a life that matters is about the simple things: being nice to people, appreciating what’s around you, taking a moment now and again to take it all in.
OK. I get it. But it all sounds very worthy. Unless “creating a more welcoming environment at your office” means constructing a very beautiful Post-It sculpture mountain because you are procrastinating. I am very good at that. What is she really talking about here? How do you “find meaning” without having to become a Neighbourhood Watch volunteer? (Not that there is anything wrong with that. But seriously.)
Make a difference in the tiniest of interactions by being kind, thoughtful, patient and generous. This is what meaning is. This is what purpose is
Make peace with your own story
Esfahani Smith says that your life is your main “act of creation” with all its highs and lows. Getting it written down, journalling or talking to someone about pivotal moments in your life (whether to a friend or a therapist) can help you see how far you’ve come. But don’t dwell on past mistakes or “what might have been”. Focus on the positive moves you made and how they can fuel your future decisions. She quotes University of Missouri research that shows that “the more people thought about their current future self, the happier they were”.
Define your purpose
“Purpose is a far-reaching goal that allows us to make a contribution to the world.” This sounds terrifying if your main contribution to the world some days is boosting the profits of Starbucks. (Guilty.) Reframe your tasks as opportunities to help others, advises Esfahani Smith. What do you do in your life and your work that improves the lives of others? Make a difference in daily life in the tiniest of interactions by being kind, thoughtful, patient and generous. This is what meaning is. This is what purpose is.
Leave room for “transcendence”
“During a transcendent or mystical experience, we feel that we have risen above the everyday world to experience a higher reality.” Steady on. This sounds airy-fairy but Esfahani Smith is right. How many of us take a moment to feel awe in front of a beautiful work of art, to have a quiet gulp when looking up at the stars on a clear night or to surrender to an extraordinarily perfect ice cream? Anxiety dissolves, you experience appreciation of life, you feel part of a bigger something. Meaning found. No nuclear weapons required.
Emily Esfahani Smith's The Power of Meaning: Crafting a life that matters is published by Rider.