In her Ted Talk, author and journalist Emily Esfahani Smith says that like many others, she thought that the objective of her life was to pursue happiness. One that involved having the perfect job, the perfect apartment, the perfect boyfriend… and yet while seeking that goal, she was getting increasingly anxious, perhaps succumbing to the pressure that she had put herself up to. A master’s degree in Positive Psychology soon pointed out one thing – there was conclusive data to show that relentlessly chasing happiness made people unhappy. While the standard of living was continually getting better for most Americans, the suicide rate was also reaching a 30-year-high.

Emily Esfahani Smith
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This sense of emptiness gnawing in most people’s lives is perhaps not a sense of unhappiness but a lack of meaning in life – something which gives our life purpose. Smith’s book The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed With Happiness speaks astutely about the human experience while also reflecting on psychology, philosophy, and literature. We ask her why humans have a tendency to become obsessed with happiness.

The author says that one way of attaining a semblance of meaning in our lives is by sharing our life stories.

“There are a lot of complicated reasons. In the West, the idea of happiness changed over time to mean leading a flourishing life to feeling positive emotions and not feeling negative emotions, and along with the transformation came another change: the idea that everyone could pursue happiness, rather than happiness being the reserve of a select few. (The root of the word happiness, hap, means luck, interestingly). Those transformations created in people an expectation that they can and should be happy, and that they could pursue happiness. Another contributing factor has been the rise of positive psychology, which created a flood of empirical research on happiness starting about 20 years ago that got picked up in the media and popularized in books.”

“Being surrounded from a young age with people leading meaningful lives left its mark on my imagination and planted in me a yearning to understand, as I got older, how to lead a meaningful life both inside and outside of a religious or spiritual tradition.” 

Smith grew up in a Sufi meetinghouse in downtown Montreal, Canada, following the mysticism associated with the whirling dervishes and the poet Rumi. Living in the Sufi meetinghouse meant that twice a week, spiritual seekers would come to their house to meditate. The purpose of the practice was to grow closer to God, and meditation was one way to do that. Another way was practicing loving-kindness and performing acts of service. She says, “Being surrounded from a young age with people leading meaningful lives left its mark on my imagination and planted in me a yearning to understand, as I got older, how to lead a meaningful life both inside and outside of a religious or spiritual tradition.”

The author says that one way of attaining a semblance of meaning in our lives is by sharing our life stories. She feels we all are involved in the process of crafting a narrative about our lives whether we realize it or not. Some of those narratives are healthy, some are unhealthy. She informs, “For example, one person might cast themselves as a victim in their life story (“my life is horrible and nothing I do matters”) while another person takes similar events and interprets them more heroically (“my life was horrible, but I was resilient and overcame my circumstances). That second story, which researchers called a ‘redemptive story,’ is more empowering and leads people to rate their lives as more meaningful.”

Social media can be a distraction from leading a meaningful life and can interfere with our ability to form true and deep connections with other people.

At her talks, Smith gets asked a lot about the role of social media in a good life. She feels that social media can be a distraction from leading a meaningful life and can interfere with our ability to form true and deep connections with other people. It also presents unrealistic expectations for what a meaningful life is about. People often post their most extraordinary deeds and successes.

“But most of us are leading ordinary lives, and that’s ok. Those lives can be profoundly meaningful as well in the small acts of goodness they put into the world. There’s a myth in our culture that to lead a meaningful life you have to do something extraordinary, like find a cure for cancer or start a major company, but some of the most meaningful lives are plain ones, lives with dignity. That message gets lost in our social media cultures sometimes.”

Writing her book was a big help in Smith realizing her own meaning in life. It taught her that there are wellsprings of meaning all around us, and that she can create meaning in her life by building up what she calls the four pillars of meaning: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence – “My relationships are my most important source of meaning, followed by my work as a writer, which I see as a way to connect with others and share ideas with them that I hope are helpful to them.”

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We live in a world where instant gratification reigns supreme. How does one get past social media posts, likes, and comments and work towards being their best possible selves?

Smith, who is currently working on a book about modern love and relationships says, “I think you simply have to decide to not take part in that game of evaluating your self-worth based on the number of likes you receive. This goes back to the point I made about belonging: what matters is who you are intrinsically, not whether people happen to like something that you’ve posted on social media.”

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