Emily Esfahani Smith is a columnist for The New Criterion and an editor at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Her writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Time, and The Atlantic, among other publications. In her recent book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, she argues that, contra much pop self-help advice, meaningful living is about serving others.
ECM: Your book responds to a “meaning crisis” in modern life. How would you characterize that crisis, and what inspired you to respond in this way?
EES: There are all kinds of signs of a crisis of despair. The suicide rate in the United States reached a thirty-year high recently—and the suicide rate has risen 60 percent worldwide since World War II. For decades we have also seen a rise in depression, anxiety, and loneliness.
This shouldn’t make sense. Life is getting better by so many objective measures: The world is a less violent place, people are being lifted out of poverty in record numbers, and the world is much wealthier than it ever has been before. And yet, there’s so much misery and hopelessness. When I looked at the data to figure out what was going on, the research suggested that the problem is a lack of meaning in people’s lives. People feel like their lives lack meaning, so they are falling into despair and hopelessness.
I thought this was really heartbreaking. If this is a crisis of meaning, then what is meaning? How do we define it, and how can people go about finding it?
What I discovered is that we can all create lives with meaning, no matter who we are, where we are, or what we do. I wrote this book because I wanted to bring hope to those who might be struggling, either in a severe way with depression, or who just feel unmoored and adrift from time to time and are wondering what it takes to make their lives meaningful.
ECM: In the beginning, you say a bit about your childhood in a Sufi community.
EES: Right. I grew up in a Sufi meetinghouse, and that meant that twice a week dervishes would come over to our home to meditate, tell stories, and drink tea. There was just a real sense of community. For the Sufis, the goal was to diminish their egos so that they could grow closer to a higher reality that we might call God. Part of the way that they got there was by practicing love, kindness, compassion, and service toward all of creation.
And that wasn’t always easy. It’s hard to respond with love to a relative who is driving you crazy or to the person at work who is really mean, but that’s what they were called to do—to practice love and to engage in other spiritual disciplines such as meditation so that they could transcend themselves. As I got older, and started tuning into our culture’s messages about wellbeing and the good life—messages that are so focused on happiness—it occurred to me that, for the Sufis, the pursuit of their own happiness wasn’t really the point. They were devoted to leading meaningful lives, which is different from a happy life. Ultimately, it’s the meaningful life that brings you a lasting sense of contentment and satisfaction.
ECM: You identify four “pillars” of meaning: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. How did you arrive at these four, and how do they combine to generate meaning?
EES: I wanted to figure out how exactly people can go about finding meaning in their lives. Are there certain sources of meaning that we can all tap into? Or do we just need to go out on our own to find meaning?
So I traveled all over the place and interviewed dozens of people about their own stories of how they found meaning. I also read through thousands of pages of psychology, sociology, philosophy, religion, and literature. As I organized and synthesized the research, I noticed a few themes arising again and again. When people talked about what makes their lives meaningful, they mentioned their most important relationships; they talked about doing something worthwhile with their time; they mentioned crafting narratives about their lives that helped them understand themselves; and they talked about having experiences of transcendence and awe. Those are the four pillars of meaning—belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence.
Read the whole thing at Religion and Politics.