How does one live a meaningful life? This is the question that author Emily Esfahani Smith has obsessed over for years and has thoughtfully written about in publications such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, The Atlantic and TIME. “I used to think the whole purpose of life was the pursuit of happiness,” she opens her massively popular TED Talk, before going on to explain why she’s come to believe that there is something much more important. This is also a theme in her wonderful book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. Certainly, a purposeful life was of the highest priority to the Stoics—and they spoke clearly about the emptiness of pursuing mere happiness and pleasure. We reached out to Emily after her fantastic article in the New York Times this month, which was a warning to young people today on the perils of chasing fame, to ask her a number of questions that she was kind enough to answer. Below you’ll find daily exercises to help cultivate meaning in one’s life, book recommendations, and much more. And if you want to learn more about her work, her website is emilyesfahanismith.com and you can also follow her on Twitter. Enjoy!
We first connected after your wonderful New York Times piece warning millennials against chasing fame—saying essentially that there is all sorts of important, meaningful work to be done and not all of it is going to be exciting and glamorous. Obviously Marcus Aurelius talked a lot about fame—call it worthless clacking of tongues and pointing out how few people remembered even the emperors who preceded him. Talk to us a little bit about the allure of bigness and world-changingness with people these days and why you believe that might be the wrong thing to chase.
I think people have always yearned for greatness and recognition. We all want to know our lives matter and are significant in the grand scheme of things, after all. But today, this idea that a meaningful life must be an epic life is being inflamed, I think, by social media. On the internet, extraordinary lives look like the norm, and so we aspire for such lives ourselves. And yet, most of us will lead ordinary lives. Many of us won’t live out our dreams or accomplish all of our major life goals. But that doesn’t mean we can’t lead profoundly meaningful lives.
The 20th-century psychologist Erik Erikson said that in order to lead a flourishing life, we must master a particular developmental task at each stage of life. When we’re young, we’re supposed to figure out who we are and what our purpose is. As we get older, we’re supposed to shift the focus from ourselves to others and be “generative.” That is, we’re supposed to give back, especially to younger generations, by doing things like raising children, mentoring colleagues, creating things of value for our community or society at large, volunteering, etc. We each have the power to be generative. Fame and glamour are about the self—aggrandizing yourself. But generativity is about connecting and contributing to something bigger, which is the very definition of leading a meaningful life.
Your widely popular TED talk, articles and book The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters argue for the pursuit of meaning over happiness. What’s the difference? Why should we pursue the former over the latter?
Happiness is a positive mental and emotional state—the presence of positive emotions and the absence of negative ones. Meaning is bigger—it lies in connecting and contributing to something beyond the self. When people say their lives are meaningful, according to psychologists, it’s because they believe three things about their lives: They believe their lives have worth and value; they believe their lives are driven by a sense of purpose; and they believe their lives are coherent.
I don’t have any problems with happiness, of course. I like being happy and I want the people I love and care about to be happy, too. But I think the unending pursuit of happiness has led us astray. The real goal shouldn’t be maximizing our own happiness, but leading a meaningful life. Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, said that happiness cannot be pursued—that it ensues from leading a meaningful life. I think that’s right—and certainly modern psychology research bears him out. When people devote themselves to doing meaningful things, like caring for a sick relative or studying hard for a test, they may not be as happy in the moment, but they experience a deeper kind of well-being down the road.
You’ve recommended looking up at the night sky to feel awe and transcendence. It reminds us of a line from Marcus Aurelius, “Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” What are other exercises and ideas would you recommend our readers implement in their day-to-day to help them find meaning?
I’d recommend creating habits of meaning in your daily life. In my book, I talk about 4 pillars of meaning—belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. So find ways to build these pillars in your life. For example, after writing my book, I realized that storytelling—crafting a narrative about my life and life in general—was an important source of meaning for me, so I started keeping a journal where I process different experiences I’m having. For transcendence, I make sure to regularly spend time in places that inspire awe in me, like in nature or at the art museum. I’ve found that technology can be a real barrier to both transcendence and belonging, so I’m trying to get some control over my addiction to it. Instead of checking social media or the headlines before I go to bed, I try to read a poem or listen to some music as I meditate. I don’t always succeed, but no one said trying to live a meaningful life is easy!
You’ve mentioned the worrying trend of increasing suicide rates in the U.S.; more and more people feel like their lives simply don’t matter. What would be the one or two things you’d tell someone who is apathetic and feels that their life is devoid of any meaning?
I went to a conference a few years ago where high school students presented meaningful projects they were working on. One group of girls was putting together a book called “Dear Billy.” Their friend Billy had recently committed suicide and so, to honor him, they had different people in his life write him letters as if he were still alive. The girls wanted this book to be a resource for despairing individuals to see that there are people who love and admire them—that they matter to their community. So I’d encourage an apathetic and hopeless person to remember their community—their friends, family, teachers, and neighbors. Think about the letters those people would write to you if they had the chance. Think about the letter you’d write to others if you had the chance. Well, come to think of it, why not write that letter this week and give it to them? In positive psychology, there’s an exercise known as the “gratitude letter.” You write a heartfelt letter of gratitude to someone and then present it to that person. It’s a really powerful activity that lifts both people up and brings them closer together. Suicide and depression are often problems of alienation and isolation. So anything that strengthens those critical bonds of belonging will, I hope, remind people that their lives matter.
I’d also say this: I had a professor in graduate school who said the best cure for depression is volunteering. So much of meaning comes from knowing you have a role to play, that you’re needed and valued by others. So engage with the world. Try on different roles. Adopt the one that fits you best. And remember what Erikson said about generativity. Doing good in the world, even if on a small scale, can ripple out and make a difference.
At one point Epictetus makes an appearance in your book—you mention how Albert Camus was reading him bedridden and trying to find solace. Have you read the Stoics? Can you tell us the story of your introducing to them if so? Any favorites?
Yes I’ve read the Stoics. The first one I heard of was Marcus Aurelius. In high school, a thoughtful friend told me he was reading Meditations. This is embarrassing, but I’d never heard of Aurelius or his book so I looked it up, found out that Aurelius was a Roman emperor, and thought “Huh, I wonder what my friend likes about that book.” I filed the book away in my head, but didn’t come back to it until years later researching my own book, The Power of Meaning. The next stop was college, where I majored in philosophy. I also studied positive psychology in graduate school, so I encountered Stoic ideas in my studies. In classes, though, they were usually presented as an afterthought to Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato. But I remember being more intrigued by their ideas than those of the other philosophers we were learning about. I liked that they emphasized living a life of virtue over hedonism, and I also admired the idea that your mindset creates your reality. It was so prescient—so much modern research has borne out their wisdom. Plus, Stoicism seemed to acknowledge that life can be hard and messy, but still worthwhile, and that also appealed to me. I think part of my attraction to the Stoics was temperamental, too. Some people burn hot—they have passionate, fiery personalities. I’m not like that. I’m more, well, stoic!
We’ve strongly recommended Viktor Frankl’s very Stoic Man’s Search for Meaning, which of course you’ve studied and written about in The Atlantic. Most of our readers have read and loved Frankl’s book, so what are some other books they should follow up with? You’re clearly extremely well-read and we always love to ask for book recommendations.
There are so many to choose from! Where to begin. George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch is long and at times dense, but so worth the time and effort. It’s about (among other things) a group of young people who are searching for meaning. They think they need to do something grand, but the lesson of the book is something we discussed earlier: Ordinary lives are full of meaning in the goodness they put into the world. Tolstoy is another author to read. The question of meaning is at the center of many of his works. I’d recommend his novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which is about a shallow man who, on his deathbed, realizes his life was meaningless. That sounds depressing, but there’s a ray of hope at the end of the story. Before Ilyich dies, he learns what truly makes life meaningful. The Life of Pi by Yann Martel is also a beautiful commentary on meaning. In the novel, something horrible happens—and the question is: How does Pi make sense of it? What narrative does he craft? Our lives aren’t just the way they are, as Pi points out. We make meaning out of them from the stories we tell. I also recently read a biography of Leonard Cohen, I’m Your Man by Sylvie Simmons, which was wonderful. Cohen was a real spiritual seeker, a man who cared about meaning. That comes across in the biography and, of course, in his music.
*this post originally appeared on THE DAILY STOIC