Esfahani Smith, Emily. The Power of Meaning: Creating a Life That Matters. Viking, 2017.
The Power of Meaning by Emily Esfahani Smith explores the ideal of crafting a life that matters. More precisely, it investigates the importance of meaning and how to harness it to add depth of experience to our lives. The primary goal of a meaningful life is to make the world a better place for self and others; that is, a critical dimension of meaning is in our sense of connection, relationship, and belonging to something greater than ourselves. A life that matters is grounded in love and connected to a cause or community that contributes to the greater wellbeing.
This book is part of a trend to redirect some of the perceived excesses of positive psychology and, especially, the pursuit of happiness. The creation of meaning is enduring and viewed as being central to a life well lived. In contrast, happiness is a fleeting emotional state that, like all emotions, cannot be sustained. An important focus is modern self-help is the ability to face adversity and choose to learn from it rather than succumb to it. The idea of learning from adversity is, however, ancient. The Power of Meaning is an interesting contribution to this modern trend in self-help.
The book is designed to provide relief from a number of modern cultural deficits. Smith argues that hopelessness and misery have become epidemic because life, to a significant extent, feels meaningless. Religion is no longer the default pathway to meaning and this has left many people feeling adrift. We are not used to creating meaning for ourselves. Modern philosophy has largely abandoned the question of a good life. Some of the best philosophical material about a good life is found in Aristotle and Plato. Modern education has become instrumental and little more than a step toward a job. And the epidemic of specialization confines people in tunnels of expertise that avoid the more enduring and holistic questions of life. The Power of Meaning offers a possibility for seeking relief from our current cultural malaise.
The main argument in the book is that a life that matters is created by contributing to something beyond self-interest and self-concern. When people feel that their life matters they understand their life course as having significance. They enjoy a sense participation in cultivating the greater good. They feel an innate sense of fulfillment, motivation, and purpose in their efforts and activities. In contrast, happiness is fleeting and fragile and the happiness movement has made people more miserable because they pursue a state of being that can never endure. An expectation of happiness is a pathway toward disappointment and depression.
Smith establishes four pillars of meaning that form the body of the book: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. The synergy created by these four vectors of meaning lead to personal growth, deeper relationships, and a worldview grounded in the greater good. The primary task of living a life that matters is to craft meaning our of our struggles, pain, and suffering as well as our experience of joy, awe, and reverence. The pursuit of meaning means that we turn directly into the full force of all of our emotional states, situations, and circumstances, rather than pursing an imagined ideal state. Life is about constant change, uncertainty, and mystery. This raging confluence is the lifelong and lifewide underlying ground for the pursuit of meaning.
This book, like many other recent publications, focus on self-help as the pursuit meaning, purpose, and wisdom as the pathway to a life well lived. There is a resurgence of ancient philosophy such as Aristotle’s “eudaimonia,” or human flourishing. Other authors have borrowed from the philosophy of stoicism. This is an important direction to pursue because self-help needs strong philosophical roots to be viable, not just psychological perspectives. The shift away from happiness toward the practical realities of meaning and purpose exemplify the need for deeper philosophical roots to counter more narrow, instrumental, and neon forms of self-help.
A trend in modern writing is to focus on telling stories for a variety of good reasons. Some authors collect vast amounts of narrative content and real-life examples that illustrate an important point. There were many interesting stories presented throughout this book. A problem, for me, occurs when the amount of story content outweighs the quality of insight provided by the author. In other words, reporting stories isn’t enough and can sometimes feel long-winded and distracting. Throughout the main body of The Power of Meaning each chapter follows a pattern of presenting with a story or stories followed by some investigation and insight. While the author does offer meaningful insight, the process was predictable and, for me, there was too much weight placed on storytelling.
The Power of Meaning provides an interesting perspective on the connection between meaning and a good life. It reiterates the essential importance of establishing a sense of greater connection, relationship, and belonging in the world. And it retrieves ancient wisdom about how to live a life that matters. Stating that the core of meaning is love is reminiscent of Plato’s thought: You are what you love. The act of love is, like meaning, the act of stepping outside of ourselves in order to connect with the greater good. As Smith says, “That’s the power of meaning. It’s not some great revelation.”