That oft-quoted “meaning of life” question might be a little more critical than you’d think.
What is the meaning of life? Whether you’re an angst-ridden philosophy major or a parent approaching that midlife crisis, most of us have — at some point or another — asked ourselves some variation of this question.
Most of us land on some type of “happiness” as the ultimate end goal. Still, in reality, people are getting more and more depressed.
Clearly, we’re not achieving the pursuit of happiness. But what if it’s because we’ve set the wrong goal altogether?
That’s what author and journalist Emily Esfahani Smith has proposed in her book, “The Power of Meaning.”
After years of research and countless interviews with people from many walks of life, Smith suggests that it’s meaning — not happiness — that we should aspire to.
Turns out, we were on the right track when we started asking ourselves what the meaning of life was.
Meaning allows us to find a reason to continue on, even when life is difficult. And a lack of meaning and purpose, Smith highlights in her TED Talk, is contributing to our increasing rates of suicide, depression, and loneliness.
Happiness, on the other hand, is a fleeting emotion. While it’s wonderful to experience, it isn’t what ultimately sustains us. Though, Smith notes, joy does tend to emerge as a side effect when you’ve located your sense of purpose.
But where do we find it?
The 4 pillars of meaning
In her book, Smith divides the quest for meaning into four pillars: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence.
Belonging defines a connection to a larger community. Forging and sustaining relationships is how we increase this connection, which in turn makes our lives feel meaningful. If this is your pillar of meaning, your connections with others are a primary source of meaning.
As a part of her interview process, Smith asks respondents what makes their life meaningful. She found that “the first thing [people] always list are relationships. Belonging as a general principle is up there for most people.”
Purpose is defined by long-term goals that give us a sense of accomplishment. Purpose, for many, can be found in their children, their work, or a passionate hobby. Purpose allows us to have something to work toward and work for. If this is your pillar, having a long-term vision for your life imbues it with meaning.
Storytelling is building meaning through your own personal narrative and reflections. Understanding our place within the world, as well as our impact on those around us, is what creates a strong sense of identity. If this is your pillar, you likely find meaning in defining and reflecting on who you are.
Transcendence is based on connection to something bigger than one’s self. Transcendence can be tied to spirituality, nature, or historical ties. Those who prioritize transcendence as a pillar tend to feel awakened in experiences that make them feel connected to something bigger than themselves.
Tip: On her website, Smith provides a quiz that helps you find your primary pillar of meaning.
Smith also notes that one’s primary pillar of meaning may change throughout different stages of life.
Smith states, “[For] emerging young adults, purpose again is important because you’re trying to figure out what you want to do with your life.”
As religiousness increases with age, folks often turn to transcendence for meaning as they become older.
It’s important to note that finding meaning is about more than navel-gazing.
The mental health impact can be significant. Meaning-making can even be used as a crisis intervention tactic.
In pursuing research for her book, Smith came across meaning-centered psychotherapy, also known as logotherapy. Logotherapy practitioners work with people who are experiencing depression, suicidal ideation, or both.
This therapeutic practice is also useful for those who are terminally ill or have substance use disorders. It seeks to provide them with meaning to stabilize the existentialism brought on by these conditions.
Tapping into different pillars of meaning can also aid different demographics.
Smith recalls a time she spoke to a Black religious leader in Louisville, Kentucky: “He was talking about stories younger African Americans were telling themselves, drawing from cultural scripts that were holding them back. He wanted to key them into this great, long history that they have.”
Descendants of the victims of the trans-Atlantic slave trade notoriously have difficulty tracing their ancestry. This leader was able to restore a sense of meaning in younger Black folks by teaching them about the great Black history American textbooks omit.
To add more meaning to our own communities, though, we must begin to cultivate a culture of meaning.
Cultures of meaning encourage folks to seek out purpose, storytelling, belonging, or transcendence.
Cultures of meaning look like The Future Project, in which adults work as “Dream Directors” in schools to guide adolescents toward lifelong goals. They help them map out the steps to pursue those goals, therefore leading them toward a purpose.
The Aspen Institute’s Weave Project aims to combat American individualism by aiding those in strengthening their own communities. Their landing page states: “As humans, we long for honest, deep connection. Weavers make the effort to build those connections and make others feel valued.” In this, weavers exemplify those who seek belonging.
Finding your own pillar of meaning can give you guidance toward the direction your life can take. Meaning gives you a big-picture outlook on life, and life is long. Why not work toward something special?