Being happy is the goal in life, isn’t it? Isn’t that what we all aim for? For most people it looks something like this: good grades, popularity at school, good education, great job, ideal life partner, beautiful home, money for great vacations.
Yet, many people have achieved exactly this and still feel empty and unfulfilled.
Is there something wrong with expecting happiness to result from success in life? Clearly it’s not working.
The suicide rate is rising around the world, and even though life is getting objectively better by nearly every conceivable standard, more people feel hopeless, depressed and alone.
Is there more to life than trying to be happy?
Writer Emily Esfahani Smith thinks so. In her popular 2017 TED Talk, viewed by almost 3 million people, she explains what she learned from spending five years interviewing hundreds of people and reading through thousands of pages of psychology, neuroscience and philosophy.
In her search she found out that it’s not a lack of happiness that leads to despair. It’s a lack of having meaning in life.
What is the difference between being happy and having meaning in life?
“Many psychologists define happiness as a state of comfort and ease, feeling good in the moment. Meaning, though, is deeper. The renowned psychologist Martin Seligman says meaning comes from belonging to and serving something beyond yourself and from developing the best within you,” says smith.
“Our culture is obsessed with happiness, but I came to see that seeking meaning is the more fulfilling path. And the studies show that people who have meaning in life, they’re more resilient, they do better in school and at work, and they even live longer,” she adds.
Her five-year study led her to the discovery of four pillars than underpin a meaningful life. The first three I might have guessed, but the last one caught me off guard. And it’s really a crucial aspect of the meaning we give to our lives.
“The first pillar is belonging. Belonging comes from being in relationships where you’re valued for who you are intrinsically and where you value others as well,” says Smith.
But she warns that not all belonging is desired belonging. “Some groups and relationships deliver a cheap form of belonging; you’re valued for what you believe, for who you hate, not for who you are.” This is not true belonging.
For many people, belonging is the most essential source of meaning. Their bonds with family and friends gives real meaning to their lives.
The second pillar or key to meaning is purpose, says Smith, and it’s not the same thing as finding that job that makes you happy.
The key to purpose says Smith is using your strengths to serve others. For many people that happens through work and when they find themselves unemployed, they flounder.
The third pillar of meaning is transcendence. Transcendent states are those rare moments when you lose all sense of time and place and you feel connected to a higher reality.
“For one person I talked to, transcendence came from seeing art. For another person, it was at church. For me, I’m a writer, and it happens through writing. Sometimes I get so in the zone that I lose all sense of time and place. These transcendent experiences can change you.”
So we have belonging, purpose and transcendence.
Now, the fourth pillar of meaning is a surprising one.
The fourth pillar is storytelling, the story you tell yourself about yourself.
“Creating a narrative from the events of your life brings clarity. It helps you understand how you became you.
“But we don’t always realize that we’re the authors of our stories and can change the way we’re telling them. Your life isn’t just a list of events. You can edit, interpret and retell your story, even as you’re constrained by the facts.”
This is so true. It boils down to perspective and that can make all the difference: the difference between a miserable life plagued with misfortune or an inspirational life filled with gratitude and insight.
No matter what has happened in your life to break you, you can heal again and find new purpose in life like so many people who have allowed the bad in their lives to be redeemed by the good.
To learn more, watch Smith’s recounting of such a redemptive story and her touching retelling of a powerful experience she had with her dad when he almost died of a heart attack.