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Seek Meaning First, Then Happiness

Emily Esfahani Smith’s new book, “The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters,” offers a quiet, yet profound insight: seek meaning first before happiness and you’ll have a richer, more sustainable life.

Smith is wary of our quick fix, “happiness-industrial complex” that puts pleasure and comfort ahead of shorter-term discomfort and sacrifice in the service of longer-term gains. Smith was inspired to write the book after observing how obsessed our culture is with happiness. She is skeptical of how our society, especially among young people, strives to maximize positive emotions while minimizing negative ones and expect in that way to stay permanently happy. This is unrealistic, Smith argues, and the pursuit of happiness is a false substitute for meaning. To live a happy life, she argues, one should also strive to live a meaningful life.

Her book focuses on what she describes as four “pillars” of a meaningful life: belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence — pillars she says are accessible to everyone.

“Both with and without religion, individuals can build up these pillars in their lives,” she writes. “They are sources of meaning that cut through every aspect of our existence. We can find belonging at work and within our families, or experience transcendence while taking a walk through the park or visiting an art museum … We may move from one city to another, change jobs, and lose touch with friends as the years go by, but we can continue to find meaning by harnessing the pillars in new ways in our new circumstances.”

Smith is an editor at the Hoover Institution and works with the 92nd Street Y in New York City to promote virtue and civic engagement. Born in Zurich, Switzerland, Smith grew up in Montreal, Canada, the daughter of parents who ran a Sufi meetinghouse—a setting that imbued her with a reverence for wonder. Smith earned a master of applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, and “The Power of Meaning” reflects those studies by appealing to both the head and the heart. Her writing is both wonky sociology and narrative storytelling, mixing colorful stories—like a zoologist who finds meaning in adoring animals, but must endure giraffe dungheaps—with scientific, policy-based university studies.

From a public policy standpoint, as Pew and other research institutions document rise of the “nones” in regards to religious affiliation, many Americans are hungry for meaning and purpose. Sociologists like Charles Murray and Robert Putnam have documented crumbling in social capital in many communities, including low-income areas in rural and urban America.

In his book “Coming Apart,” Murray in particular found that working-class areas have seen a sharp decline in religious participation since the 1960s; he finds this is associated with a collapse in the nuclear family and an increase in crime and incarceration.

Yet Smith argues that one doesn’t necessarily need to turn toward religion to have a meaningful life. The four pillars of religion that she outlines in “The Power of Meaning” can exist in all aspects of life.

“Love, of course, is at the center of the meaningful life,” she writes. “Love cuts through each of the pillars of meaning and comes up again and again in the stories of those I have written about … The act of love begins with the very definition of meaning: it begins by stepping outside of the self to connect with and contribute to something bigger.

Smith tells the story of Viktor Frankl, renowned psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor and author of the bestselling book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” which teaches that the meaning of life is the meaning that we create. Frankl’s work focused on finding meaning in suffering and centering one’s life around meaning.

“That’s the power of meaning,” Smith writes. “It’s not some great revelation. It’s pausing to say hi to a newspaper vendor and reaching out to someone at work who seems down. It’s helping people get in better shape and being a good parent or mentor to a child. It’s sitting in awe beneath a starry night sky and going to a medieval prayer service with friends. It’s opening a coffee shop for struggling veterans. It’s listening attentively to a loved one’s story. It’s taking care of a plant.”

“These may be humble acts on their own,” she concludes. “But taken together, they light up the world.”


Originally published on

Photo by Carmela Nava

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