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How to Build a Meaningful Life

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How to Build a Meaningful Life

Emily Esfahani Smith’s four pillars of meaning can help anyone dealing with the stresses of daily life.

Smith’s four pillars of meaning — belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence — can help victims recover from severe trauma. They can also aid anyone dealing with the stresses of daily life. These strategies for nurturing the four pillars can guide you through times of adversity.

1. Write about your experiences, emotions, and thoughts regarding the causes and consequences of the trauma. Research shows that those who write about their lives make better sense of their stories, report better grades, display fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, and enjoy more powerful immune systems.

2. Cultivate a sense of belonging. Feeling part of a larger purpose is vital to finding meaning. A survey of 28 janitors at a large Midwestern hospital found that when they felt doctors or nurses acknowledged rather than devalued them, they began to see their work as meaningful. Many even started to view themselves as caregivers.

3. Adopt a “meaning” mindset. High school students who believed their studies would allow them to fulfill a life purpose earned better grades in math and science several months later. (For more on the power of mindset to help you build resilience, see “Change Your Mindset.”)

4. Experience awe. Highly resilient people tap into sources of strength and power greater than themselves. One study noted that college students who spent one minute viewing a grove of 200-foot-tall trees became more altruistic than those who spent a minute looking at a tall building. Awe-inspired people feel a diminished sense of their own importance, researchers concluded, which leads them to be more generous. (For more on awe, visit “Awestruck.”)

This originally appeared as “Through the Fire” in the January-February 2018 issue of Experience Life.

is a journalist who writes about psychology, literature, and philosophy. This article is adapted from her book The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment In a World Obsessed With Happiness. Copyright © 2017. Published by Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

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