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The Power of Meaning
Cover of The Power of Meaning
The Power of Meaning
Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness
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In a culture obsessed with happiness, this wise, stirring book points the way toward a richer, more satisfying life.
Too many of us believe that the search for meaning is an esoteric pursuit—that you have to travel to a distant monastery or page through dusty volumes to discover life's secrets. The truth is, there are untapped sources of meaning all around us—right here, right now.
To explore how we can craft lives of meaning, Emily Esfahani Smith synthesizes a kaleidoscopic array of sources—from psychologists, sociologists, philosophers, and neuroscientists to figures in literature and history such as George Eliot, Viktor Frankl, Aristotle, and the Buddha. Drawing on this research, Smith shows us how cultivating connections to others, identifying and working toward a purpose, telling stories about our place in the world, and seeking out mystery can immeasurably deepen our lives.
To bring what she calls the four pillars of meaning to life, Smith visits a tight-knit fishing village in the Chesapeake Bay, stargazes in West Texas, attends a dinner where young people gather to share their experiences of profound loss, and more. She also introduces us to compelling seekers of meaning—from the drug kingpin who finds his purpose in helping people get fit to the artist who draws on her Hindu upbringing to create arresting photographs. And she explores how we might begin to build a culture that leaves space for introspection and awe, cultivates a sense of community, and imbues our lives with meaning.
Inspiring and story-driven, The Power of Meaning will strike a profound chord in anyone seeking a life that matters.
In a culture obsessed with happiness, this wise, stirring book points the way toward a richer, more satisfying life.
Too many of us believe that the search for meaning is an esoteric pursuit—that you have to travel to a distant monastery or page through dusty volumes to discover life's secrets. The truth is, there are untapped sources of meaning all around us—right here, right now.
To explore how we can craft lives of meaning, Emily Esfahani Smith synthesizes a kaleidoscopic array of sources—from psychologists, sociologists, philosophers, and neuroscientists to figures in literature and history such as George Eliot, Viktor Frankl, Aristotle, and the Buddha. Drawing on this research, Smith shows us how cultivating connections to others, identifying and working toward a purpose, telling stories about our place in the world, and seeking out mystery can immeasurably deepen our lives.
To bring what she calls the four pillars of meaning to life, Smith visits a tight-knit fishing village in the Chesapeake Bay, stargazes in West Texas, attends a dinner where young people gather to share their experiences of profound loss, and more. She also introduces us to compelling seekers of meaning—from the drug kingpin who finds his purpose in helping people get fit to the artist who draws on her Hindu upbringing to create arresting photographs. And she explores how we might begin to build a culture that leaves space for introspection and awe, cultivates a sense of community, and imbues our lives with meaning.
Inspiring and story-driven, The Power of Meaning will strike a profound chord in anyone seeking a life that matters.
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Excerpts-
  • From the book Chapter 1

    The Meaning Crisis

    On a fall day in 1930, the historian and philosopher Will Durant was raking leaves in the yard of his home in Lake Hill, New York, when a well-dressed man walked up to him. The man told Durant that he was planning to commit suicide unless the popular philosopher could give him "one good reason" to live.

    Shocked, Durant attempted to respond in a way that would bring the man comfort—but his response was uninspired: "I bade him get a job—but he had one; to eat a good meal—but he was not hungry; he left visibly unmoved by my arguments."

    Durant, a writer and intellectual who died in 1981 at the age of 96, is best known for his books that brought philosophy and history to the public. The Story of Philosophy, published in 1926, became a bestseller, and his multivolume work The Story of Civilization, cowritten with his wife, Ariel Durant, over the course of forty years, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for its tenth volume, Rousseau and Revolution. During his life, Durant was known as a thinker with far-ranging interests. He wrote fluently about literature, religion, and politics, and in 1977, he received one of the highest honors bestowed by the U.S. government on a civilian, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

    Durant was raised Catholic, attended a Jesuit academy, and planned to join the priesthood. But in college, he became an atheist after he read the works of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer, whose ideas "melted" his "inherited theology." For many years following his loss of religious faith, he "brooded" over the question of meaning, but never found a satisfactory answer to it. An agnostic and empirically minded philosopher, Durant later came to see that he was unsure of what gives people a reason to go on living even when they despair. This wise man of his time could not offer a compelling answer to the suicidal man who came to him in 1930—the year after the stock market crash that inaugurated the Great Depression.

    So Durant decided to write to the great literary, philosophical, and scientific luminaries of his day, from Mohandas Gandhi and Mary E. Woolley to H. L. Mencken and Edwin Arlington Robinson, to ask them how they found significance and fulfillment in their own lives during that tumultuous period of history. "Will you interrupt your work for a moment," Durant begins his letter, "and play the game of philosophy with me? I am attempting to face a question which our generation, perhaps more than any, seems always ready to ask and never able to answer—What is the meaning or worth of human life?" He compiled their answers into a book, On the Meaning of Life, which was published in 1932.

    Durant's letter explores why many people of his time felt like they were living in an existential vacuum. For thousands of years, after all, human beings have believed in the existence of a transcendent and supernatural realm, populated by gods and spirits, that lies beyond the sensory world of everyday experiences. They regularly felt the presence of this spiritual realm, which infused the ordinary world with meaning. But, Durant argued, modern philosophy and science have shown that the belief in such a world—a world that cannot be seen or touched—is naïve at best and superstitious at worst. In doing so, they have led to widespread disenchantment.

    In his letter, he explains why the loss of those traditional sources of meaning is so tragic. "Astronomers have told us that human affairs constitute but a moment in the trajectory of a star," Durant writes; "geologists have told us that civilization is but a precarious interlude between ice ages; biologists have told...
About the Author-
  • Emily Esfahani Smith is an author and writer who draws on psychology, philosophy, and literature to write about the human experience—why we are the way we are and how we can find grace and meaning in a world that is full of suffering. Her writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, The Atlantic, TIME, and other publications. She is also an instructor in positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as an editor at the Stanford University Hoover Institution, where she manages the Ben Franklin Circles project, a collaboration with the 92nd Street Y and Citizen University to build meaning in local communities. Born in Zurich, Switzerland, Emily grew up in Montreal, Canada. She graduated from Dartmouth College and earned a masters in applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. She lives with her husband in Washington, DC.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    November 7, 2016
    Journalist Smith, who has an M.A. in applied positive psychology, issues an enlightening guide to discovering meaning in one’s life. She states that despite a culturally ingrained appreciation for the pursuit of happiness, Americans report being more miserable than ever. Paradoxically, pursuing happiness for its own sake often leads to unhappiness, whereas studies show that meaningful endeavors instill a deeper sense of well-being. Smith shares evocative stories of individuals who chose to focus on meaning, including famous authors such as Leo Tolstoy and Albert Camus; a zookeeper who spends much of her time with giraffes, kangaroos, and wallabies; and members of the Dinner Party, a national support group for young adults who have lost loved ones. Additionally, she explores the concept of growth through adversity, asking why some people grow after trauma while others do not. She also examines the obstacles that stand in the way of meaning, such as the fast pace of modern life. This survey concludes with the moving story of Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist who survived imprisonment in the Nazi concentration camp where most of his family died and went on to write Man’s Search for Meaning. Smith persuasively reshapes the reader’s understanding of what constitutes a well-lived life. Agent: Bridget Matzi, Zachary Shuster Harmsworth.

  • Library Journal

    November 15, 2016

    According to Wall Street Journal writer Smith, Americans are beginning to shift their focus from the pursuit of happiness to a life of purpose that can be found by being useful to others and connecting with something larger than themselves. She draws from the writings of philosophers, historians, and authors who describe, in various ways, how doing "what feels good" can lead to depression and suicide, and how concentrating only on the self can result in feelings of emptiness and isolation. The advice to seek the company of others, step outside oneself, and have a worthy mission in life permeate the text. Many points are repeated for emphasis. Verdict While Smith makes thorough points, her work tends more toward a doctoral dissertation than general self-help, making this quality discussion material for philosophically inclined readers.

    Copyright 2016 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • SUSAN CAIN, author of Quiet "Beautifully written and rigorously researched, The Power of Meaning speaks to the yearning we all share for a life of depth and significance. In a culture constantly shouting about happiness, this warm and wise book leads us down the path to what truly matters. Reading it is a life-transforming experience."
  • EMMA SEPPÄLÄ, author of The Happiness Track; Science Director, Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism "A powerful invitation to live a life that is not only happy but filled with purpose, belonging, and transcendence. By combining scientific research and philosophical insights with moving accounts of ordinary people who have deeply meaningful lives, Smith addresses the most urgent questions of our existence in a delightful, masterful, and inspiring way."
  • PROSPECT (UK) "An intelligent page-turner... In a world that seems caught between pure hedonism and divisive sectarianism, the book mounts a timely challenge."
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Emily Esfahani Smith
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