What does it mean to live a good life?
Like many people, Emily Esfahani Smith thought the answer was being happy. But every time she achieved or acquired something that made her happy, she soon felt unfulfilled.
All the intense pressure to feel bliss is making us chase the wrong thing, Smith argues in her new book “The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters.” With suicide rates soaring in the U.S. and studies showing that the pursuit of happiness actually makes people unhappy, we seem to be yearning for something deeper.
What makes life truly worth living is meaning, Smith said.
“If you’re chasing happiness, you’re building your castle on a very shaky foundation because the feeling can slip away easily,” Smith told TODAY. "Meaning is something that endures, that you can seek out and find."
Here’s how to get started:
Why meaning is so important for us
Human beings are meaning-seeking creatures, Smith noted.
“When you’re on your death bed and reflecting back on your life, what you are going to be proudest of are the things that made your life meaningful. You won’t necessarily regret not being happy, but you’ll regret if you didn’t lead a meaningful life,” she said.
Meaning often comes from doing hard things
The happy life is associated with being a taker, whereas the meaningful life is associated with being a giver, Smith noted.
Raising children or starting a business can be a struggle, but it can give you a deep sense of satisfaction over time. You see the fruits of what you do and realize: That was hard, but it was worth it.
“It requires sacrifice and requires us to put our own needs and desires on hold,” Smith explained.
“But that ultimately leads to meaning because there’s something in us that wants to know that we’ve made a difference in the world and that our lives amounted to something. We weren’t just kind of here for this short period of time, chasing our own goals.”
How do you create a meaningful life?
Smith says it’s cultivating the four pillars of meaning:
Belonging: This may be the most important part because we’re social creatures and our relationships are deeply important to us. Look for micro-moments of connection with other people — perhaps chatting with your barista every morning — that lift you up. When it comes to friends and lovers, choose people who make you feel like you matter.
“We get a lot of our cues about how our lives are going by the way people treat us,” Smith said. “If people treat us like we don’t matter — if they ostracize us, bully us, reject us — that communicates to us, ‘Oh, maybe my life isn’t worthwhile.’”
Purpose: The first step is to realize what your strengths are. If you’re having trouble, Smith suggested taking a VIA Character Strengths Test.
Once you know your strengths, your purpose is about using them to give back and serve others. Living with purpose can mean mentoring kids or tending a community garden.
Research has found that when you re-frame your work tasks as an opportunity to help others, you end up being more motivated and purposeful, Smith said. It can be as basic as: “My work gives me purpose because it helps me support my family.”
Storytelling: It’s the story you tell yourself about yourself. It requires you to reflect on your life and to understand how your experiences shape you.
For many of us, those defining moments are painful, yet almost everyone reports that something good emerged from the adversity, Smith said. Keep a daily journal to help you reflect.
Transcendence: Cherish moments that lift you above the hustle and bustle of daily life and make you feel connected to something bigger. For some people, that happens in church; for others, at the art museum. You don’t have to travel to India to find transcendence; it can be in your own backyard, Smith said. One study found students who were asked to gaze at a grove of towering eucalyptus trees for a minute felt less self-centered and more generous, Smith said.
Preparing for a good death
Living a life of meaning allows you to leave a legacy, whether it’s through the work that you accomplished or the love you shared with others.
“People who die in peace die knowing that their lives are meaningful,” Smith said. “If you want to have a good death, you should be working right now to have a meaningful life.”