Psychologist Emily Esfahani Smith challenges our fixation on happiness and maintains that true satisfaction comes from creating a life of purpose.
Emily Esfahani Smith spent much of her childhood living in a Sufi meetinghouse that her parents ran in Montreal. She was surrounded by people devoted to carrying out the ancient spiritual practice’s core principles, which emphasize serving others.
Her world changed significantly when she and her family moved to the United States, where “the busyness of everyday life trumped the rituals of meditation, singing, and tea,” she explains in her 2017 book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters.
The transition was a challenge. She had grown up in a selfless culture that focused primarily on the practice of loving-kindness, and suddenly found herself in a country where pursuing one’s own happiness is so important it’s enshrined in one of its founding documents. Through it all, she struggled to answer a fundamental question: How do we live a meaningful life?
Looking for clues to this puzzle led her to the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied positive psychology, a field of research she says has inadvertently added to what she calls America’s “happiness frenzy.” “Though the happiness industry continues to grow, as a society, we’re more miserable than ever,” she writes.
But positive psychology has helped her grasp a simple truth: Happiness alone doesn’t define a satisfying life; it’s meaning and purpose that matter most.
Q&A With Emily Esfahani Smith
Experience Life | What’s the distinction between happiness and meaning?
Emily Esfahani Smith | Happiness is a state of comfort and ease. Meaning is when people feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves. They feel driven by a sense of purpose — what they do matters — and they believe their lives make sense.
EL | How does shifting from pursuing happiness to creating meaning affect our well-being?
EES | Research indicates that when you pursue happiness, you do feel happy immediately after doing whatever elicits that feeling, but that boost fades away. Other studies show that fixating on feeling happy — the way American culture encourages us to — actually makes us unhappy.
But it’s different with meaning. When you do meaningful things or activities that help you live out your values — like study for an important test or take care of someone who is sick — you may not necessarily feel happy in the moment, but you end up with a more enduring form of well-being and a deeper sense of contentment.
“Happiness without meaning,” to quote one study about the distinction between the two, “characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed, or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.”
Leading a meaningful life, on the other hand, involves doing things for others and even arguing with them — which shows you have values and convictions you’re willing to fight for. It is defined by being a “giver.”
EL | You describe four pillars of meaning — belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence — that help us overcome what you call a “meaning crisis.” Can you explain how one of these building blocks works?
EES | People have told me that storytelling is the pillar that surprises them the most. Interestingly, it can have the most profound impact.
We read stories in books and go to movies, but many of us don’t see our lives as stories. We think life is a series of events, but we tell stories about them to ourselves and to others. We make narrative choices about the events that explain who we are and how we got to be a certain way.
How we tell our stories affects how much meaning we feel. Psychologist Dan McAdams studied people living meaningful lives, people who tend to be generous and contribute to others. They tend to tell a “redemptive story” about their lives — one that moves from bad things happening to good things happening. In contrast, people who feel like their lives are less coherent, who are depressed, sometimes tell “contamination stories,” or those that move from good to bad.
For example, I interviewed a man who was paralyzed from a football injury. He spent a lot of time thinking about his new life, and the story he told was, “My life was great. I was a football player and experiencing success doing that. But, with my injury, now I wonder if I’ll ever get married, have a job, or even walk again.”
As he thought more about it, he started telling a different story. He realized that before the injury he was more concerned about having a good time than leading a purposeful life. But his injury made him realize he could be a better man.
Telling this new story to himself led him to start mentoring kids at his church and eventually get a college degree in counseling so he could continue helping others. Changing how he told his story ended up changing his life and helped him find his purpose.
EL | Once we recognize our pillar of meaning, how can we use it?
EES | Make regular time for doing so. In other words, create habits of meaning. If storytelling is your pillar, take 10 minutes a day and write about the defining moments of your life and what you learned from them.
For belonging, remember it exists in any moment with another person, not just loved ones. If you’re at a store, treat the cashier with dignity, and ask how he or she is doing. These small moments — what psychologist Jane Dutton calls “high-quality connections” — are potent sources of meaning.
Purpose is all about contributing, so ask yourself, What’s one thing that I can do today to make someone else’s life better? It can be as small as emptying the dishwasher or as big as deciding to change the culture of your workplace.
With transcendence, there’s a study that found that looking up at a grove of trees for a minute inspired awe. That one minute helped participants step outside of themselves. So go for a walk around the block and leave your phone at home so you really take in the world around you.
EL | How has your life changed as a result of writing this book?
EES | For a while I got off track from the lessons I learned from the Sufis and focused more on being a successful person and pursuing my own happiness rather than focusing on leading a good, meaningful life. Having done this research, I know that I find meaning in helping people lead more fulfilling lives by sharing these ideas with them.
Of course, the sources of meaning can change as your life changes. So later, I might find more meaning in raising the kids I hope to one day have.
I’ve also learned that creating meaning is a struggle — that’s the point. A meaningful life is not easy; it’s a life in which you’re always searching and aspiring for something higher, for some bigger ways to make a dent in this world.
To find your pillar of meaning,visit www.emilyesfahanismith.com/quiz/whats-your-pillar.