There’s more to life than being happy.
As surprised as you might be to hear those words from me, they are wise ones that come from the profound brain of Emily Esfahani Smith. Between her international best-selling book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, and her extremely popular TED Talk, Emily argues that finding meaning in life is even more important than happiness. I recently sat down with her for an episode of my Retire Sooner podcast to find out more.
She studied Philosophy at Dartmouth College, hoping to tackle the big questions about what makes life worth living. After realizing those questions had been relinquished from the program she eventually found her way to the field of Positive Psychology, receiving her Master’s Degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
In particular, Emily wanted to know more about the tension that exists between living a happy life and living a meaningful one. The two aren’t always in opposition, but she warns that at times they can be. “In our culture, there’s so much emphasis on happiness and leading a happy life that I just assumed that’s what we all want. But then when I learned that there’s this whole other way of thinking about having a good life . . . connecting and contributing to something bigger than yourself and not just seeking the things that make you feel good but kind of doing things that are worthwhile and make the world a better place and that fulfill you in a deep way—it seemed to me that what people might be more interested in is meaning but . . . they might not know how to pursue leading that kind of life.”
Emily has since made it her mission to show people how and suggests everyone examines and strengthens 4 Pillars in their life: Belonging, Purpose, Transcendence, and Storytelling.
We all know that relationships are important for well-being, but Emily says belonging is about a particular kind of relationship—one where you and another person intrinsically value each other for who you are. In my latest book, “What the Happiest Retirees Know,” I define a close connection as someone you would call with good or bad news. These are the type of people I think of when Emily defines belonging.
Belonging can exist in any relationship if people are willing to cultivate it. The concise description of belonging is not proportional to its significance. Human beings need to feel a sense of belonging to something.
Not every relationship offers a sense of belonging either. “You could have a relationship to a spouse or a parent or even a close friend that actually isn’t defined by belonging,” she says. “You’re valued for what you’re willing to do or how you look or in the case of gangs and cults—for who you hate and the violent acts you’ll do. And not for who you are.”
She says a lot of people are drawn to gangs or other harmful groups because the promise of belonging is so strong. But this is a cheaper, unreal version, where the value isn’t placed on the person but rather on that person’s allegiance to the group.
According to Emily, purpose is the pillar most people associate with meaning, partly because of the way psychologists define it as “this overarching life goal of value that leads you into the future and motivates you.” It’s the “why” that gets us up in the morning but notes that it comes in all shapes and sizes.
While we might conjure images of Elon Musk heading to space or Mother Teresa tending to the sick when we think of life purposes, Emily has spoken to many people who find great purpose in the more common but no less noble quests of life like raising children. “I think a lot of people think you have to find your capital P purpose or your capital C calling in order to have purpose in life or in your work but that’s not true.” She spoke to a hospital cleaner who said the meaning she found in her work was healing sick people. Whether it’s a grand gesture or an everyday event, there are different ways to find purpose.
In my role of helping people retire, I come across a lot of folks who can afford it financially but worry about what will happen when they no longer have the purpose their career provided. I wanted to know some ways for them to still feel purpose.
Emily said an important thing to understand is that in transition periods, where we might have to give up one source of purpose, it can create an existential vacuum. “You might feel empty and unmoored,” she says, “But the task is to find another source of purpose.” For those retiring, “Work is no longer part of their lives the way it was before. So, what’s going to fill that void?”
She sees a lot of people volunteering in the community or finding a second job pursuing something they wanted to pursue all along. Perhaps they become a teacher, artist, or a docent at a museum. One woman even started volunteering in prisons.
Emily said there was a great organization called Encore which is all about helping people find purpose in the second half of their lives. I absolutely love that idea. Expect to hear more from me about organizations like that in future articles.
To me, transcendence is the most difficult one to wrap my head around. I’ll admit, it sounds important, but what does it mean?
Emily defines it as those kinds of spiritual, ritual experiences that help us feel connected to a higher power. Some of this stems from her religious background in Sufism—a mystical Islamic belief and practice where Muslims seek to find the truth of divine love and knowledge through the direct personal experience of God. One might think of it as a subset of Islam the way Quakerism is a subset of Christianity.
“What I’m really talking about are experiences of awe or wonder or moments where you feel connected to something sacred. And maybe you wouldn’t even call it something sacred but it’s a moment where you feel a sense of peace and stillness.”
She tells the story of people who sought out 200 ft tall Eucalyptus trees so they could stare at them until they felt a sense of awe and wonder. If you’re like me, I’d recommend sitting in the front row of a George Strait concert and letting the music flow. The specific activity can be almost anything, as long as it helps you turn down the volume on your ego and allows you to emerge and experience life in a different way.
The fourth pillar is storytelling. Emily describes this as the narrative that you create of your life, about how you became the person that you are today.
When events happen in our lives, good or bad, how do we interpret them? “The act of storytelling itself is a meaning-making act because you’re taking your disparate experiences and bringing them together into a coherent whole,” she says. But, there is an additional layer of meaning that can be added when you tell a more hopeful story.
She reveals that a lot of times people can tell themselves negative stories that hold them back—I’m no good. I always fail. People hate me. The collection of these experiences can lead a person to conclude that he or she has a meaningless life. “But we know that people who are leading meaningful lives tend to tell stories about their lives that have more positive themes. In particular, themes of redemption, growth, and love.”
Emily points out that a lot of what psychotherapy attempts to do is get people to shift their narratives from a negative self-concept to something more positive.
Much like the habits of the happiest retirees that I write about in my latest book, Emily concedes that most people don’t master all of her advice. It’s rare for someone to nail every single pillar, but the more you have the stronger your sense of meaning will be. Furthermore, the more pillars in your foundation, the more protected you’ll be against depression, anxiety, and despair when one pillar’s strength is challenged with a big life event such as retirement. “If you think about yourself as a building, having meaning is like the framing . . . that architecture that can withstand the earthquake.”
As someone who loves their job, I have to say that it was surprising to find myself so jealous of hers. Much of the world today is focused on reacting to negativity rather than seeking positive fulfillment through meaning.
And just like with retirement planning, it’s never too late to start. If you haven’t yet found meaning in your life, read Emily’s book and put it into practice. Maybe you’ll find belonging and gratitude in your morning discussion with the barista, or maybe you’ll win the Nobel Peace Prize for saving the world. The what is less important than the when. And the when is NOW.
This information is provided to you as a resource for informational purposes only and is not to be viewed as investment advice or recommendations. This information is being presented without consideration of the investment objectives, risk tolerance, or financial circumstances of any specific investor and might not be suitable for all investors. This information is not intended to, and should not, form a primary basis for any investment decision that you may make. Always consult your own legal, tax, or investment advisor before making any investment/tax/estate/financial planning considerations or decisions.