When Emily Esfahani Smith went to college and embarked on her adult life she thought the key to a happy life was success. She was looking for the perfect job, boyfriend and apartment. But the longer she chased the things she thought would make her happy, the more anxious and adrift she felt. So she decided to go to graduate school to study positive psychology and figure out once and for all what makes people happy. But what she learned was that many people feel hopeless, depressed and alone.
"There's an emptiness gnawing away at people and you don't have to be clinically depressed to feel it," Esfahani Smith said in a TED talk.
And the research shows that what predicts this despair is not a lack of happiness, it's a lack of having meaning in life. Psychologists often define happiness as feeling good in the present moment, whereas meaning gets at something deeper. The psychologist Martin Seligman said meaning comes from belonging to and serving something beyond yourself, and from developing something within you.
Esfahani Smith spent five years reading the research in neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, and interviewing hundreds of people to try to figure out how we can each lead more meaningful lives. She says meaning can be created by focusing on four pillars, although they don't all have to be present for every person.
1. Belonging. "Belonging comes from being in relationships where you are valued for who you are intrinsically and where you value others as well," Esfahani Smith said. She cautions the "cheap" type of belonging that revolves around being valued for what you believe or who you hate, and that real belonging comes from love. She also says belonging is a choice; people can cultivate belonging in a community.
2. Purpose. This is not the same thing as a job that makes you happy. "The key to purpose is using your strengths to serve others," she said. For many people, that happens through work, which means economic problems like low workforce involvement or lack of engagement at work are existential problems too. "Purpose gives you something to live for, some 'why' that drives you forward," Esfahani Smith said. For many people, purpose comes from being a good parent, for example.
3. Transcendence. Transcendence is when "you're lifted above the hustle and bustle of daily life, your sense of self fades away and you feel connected to a higher reality," Esfahani Smith said. For some that might be looking at art, or worshipping at church or maybe taking a walk in the woods.
4. Storytelling. She says this one often surprises people, but the story we tell ourselves about ourselves is powerful and can change. "Creating a narrative about the things in your life brings clarity. It helps you understand how you became you," Esfahani Smith said. "But we don't always realize that we're the authors of our own 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."
In other words, we can all reflect on the experiences that shaped us, the things we lost, and the things we gained and tell a story about who we became from those experiences. The psychologist Dan McAdams has found that people who lead meaningful lives tend to tell stories about themselves defined by redemption, growth and love.
These pillars can be used in communities both good and bad. They're the qualities of gangs and cults that lead people to live and die for them. But they could also be incredibly positive in learning communities like schools.