Emily Esfahani Smith is a journalist and author whose writing is almost entirely focused on what it is to live a meaningful life. Watch her TEDtalk here for a glimpse into her work. In this talk and her published works, Smith highlights the difference between happiness and meaning. Many believe that a life without happiness is not a meaningful life, which Smith doesn’t disagree on, but she claims it is not that simple. Simply put, “Happiness comes and goes” (Smith, 2017).
Happiness is loosely defined as the subjective feeling of various positive feelings, like joy, excitement, satisfaction, contentment, and so on. Smith found in her studies that the more people tried to be happy, the less happy they actually are. Her research indicated that searching for meaning in life is often more rewarding and better linked to overall happiness. Meaning in life is professionally described as the sense made of, and the significance behind this sense, the nature of one’s existence (Chu & Fung, 2020). On a more personal level, meaning in life is one’s degree of evaluating their life as significant and judging what is or is not significant.
When making the judgement on whether or not our lives are meaningful, we consider what Smith calls “pillars.” Meaning in life features four pillars, or fundamental components, that work together to make every day, even the unhappy ones, worth living. These four pillars are belonging, purpose, transcendence, and storytelling.
When amongst family, friends, teammates, coworkers, or any sort of group you find yourself in, you want to feel like you belong to it. It’s natural to want to be included and accepted for who you truly are. According to researchers Costin and Vignoles (2020), belonging or mattering to your peers is the best way to create a meaning in life. Mattering, or the value, worth, and transcending conditions of our lives is what makes a difference in life. And when we know we matter and belong to others, we are able to combat loneliness.
It seems obvious that an effective way to correct loneliness is to surround yourself with others, but remember it is the belonging part that is important. We’ve previously suggested plenty of solutions to loneliness. However, as outlined in Macià et al. (2021)’s research, there is a strong association between lonely people and the people who don’t believe their life is very meaningful. By making positive adjustments such as establishing connections with others and finding the people with similar values and interests as you, you are then able to create a meaning in life much easier than someone unable to share their life with another.
Smith says that when we use our strengths to serve others, it gives us something to live for. This purpose, or the action of giving/reason for giving, is different from creating an overall meaning in life. For example, a musician makes music so they can share it with others. That is the purpose of plucking at guitar strings or humming new melodies. When the song is enjoyed by others and it genuinely makes listeners happy, the musician knows they’ve done something good. That knowledge of impacting others builds up over time so when the musician reflects on their life, they can see it was meaningful. Humans are capable of many things, but without real intention, why bother? Having a purpose is just as important as having meaning.
Our “strengths,” as Smith called them, often indicate we have positive cognitive functioning. This could be giving other people the benefit of the doubt, having morals, resilience, and staying hopeful when all is not going well. These are also suggestive of good mental health, so it’s safe to assume that someone with a strong sense of purpose is also of sound mind. In fact, Arslan et al. (2020)’s recent study surveying nearly 400 college undergraduate students supports this: the researchers found that those with positive meanings in life, particularly those with a strong sense of purpose, also had better social, emotional, and psychological well-being.
In addition to strong mental well-being, physical and interpersonal well-being helps give our lives purpose, which will eventually contribute to a strong meaning in life. In a study with over 7,000 participants, all over the age of 50, Steptoe and Fancourt (2019) observed that strong relationships, a variety of social engagements, good diets and light but consistent exercise are all simple and achievable ways to eventually create a meaningful life. Consider why we have legs: obviously to get from Point A to Point B. That’s the purpose of being able to walk. When we use our legs to take ourselves on beautiful hikes, kick through water to swim, or to run with our children, we can see that the purpose of walking helps contribute to a larger meaning.
Smith describes the third pillar of transcendence as connecting to a higher reality. For some, like Smith, that’s done by writing. For others, it’s meditating or praying. However you escape this world and enter another one, a better one, it creates meaning because it establishes the notion that something more is out there.
Transcendence can occur during any enjoyable activity so long as it stirs spirituality within you. Spirituality in this context has less to do with a religion or faith and more to do with what makes you content with life. Having a strong spiritual intelligence is helpful in reaching heightened states of consciousness and awareness that overall purify our everyday lives (Skrzypińska, 2021). Research can neither confirm nor deny that spiritual intelligence creates meaning, as living a meaningful life is a personal and subjective judgement, but these moments we find ourselves lost in time certainly help.
Remember that being happy does not necessarily mean you live a meaningful life. Happiness certainly contributes to positively creating a meaning in life, but happiness alone is not responsible. So why do we think it does? Shuv-Ami and Bareket-Bojmel (2021) recently designed an evaluation to try and measure what they call the three indicators of life: sense/coherence, spirit/positive affect, and social satisfaction. They described spirit/positive affect as important to developing a meaningful life because people tend to evaluate their current mood as a “signal” of their overall life (Shuv-Ami & Bareket-Bojmel). This is sort of like you marking your day as bad because you spilled coffee on your shirt, even though you were very productive and crossed everything off your To-Do list.
What researchers like Skrzypińska, Shuv-Ami & Bareket-Bojmel, and even Smith learned from the concept of spirit and transcendence was that one’s meaning of life, like so many other concepts in psychology and philosophy, cannot be measured in a bottle. Therefore the only person who can say for sure they are experiencing a transcendent or positive state is yourself. So, if you find yourself lost in a book, or lose track of time painting, or feel better after prayer/meditation, it’s safe to assume you’ve achieved transcendence.
It may be surprising to most that storytelling is Smith’s fourth and final pillar. Smith says that creating a narrative of your life, understanding how you came to be and where you can direct your story, helps create a meaning in life. And, if you are an active participant in narrative therapy, you can work on your next chapter while also creating a positive meaning in life at the same time.
It’s no secret that those who lack meaning in life are known to have higher levels of stress and anxiety (Trzebiński, 2020). And remember, Smith noted that those who tried to be the happiest people alive were often the exact opposite. The pressures of finding the perfect partner, the perfect job, and having the perfect life is too much on your shoulders. So, while you keep your eyes out, look back on the life you’ve already lived. Where did it start? Where should it go?
We’ve previously written about how narrative therapy, the therapeutic technique of putting your life to page to create a story, is used to benefit those facing generational traumas. But narrative therapy can be useful for anyone at any time. And, as found in Chu and Fung’s 2020 study, it is the search for meaning that positively predicted real meaning in participants who spent 6 months actively trying to understand these four pillars. There truly is an “A” for effort when it comes to living a meaningful life.
LIFE Intelligence is a unique app for self-discovery that helps explore all the complexities of life. The two-part tool encompasses a 9-topic (mission) journey of introspection. Daily 5-minute snippets guide you through helpful psychological information to better understand yourself and others. And, deep prompts help you develop self-awareness about your mind, goals, career path, and relationships, from how to master your mental health to how to better make decisions or manage conflicts. For example, Mission 1 discusses your thoughts and emotions, while Mission 2 discusses your story and narrative therapy. Mission 7 talks about forming strong relationships, while Mission 8 helps you improve communication skills.
The second part of LIFE is its emotional management toolkit. Instead of letting bad moods affect your sense of work or life purpose, address your feelings head-on. After learning these coping and communication skills, you can share them with loved ones. Even passing along these helpful tools can give emotions new meaning and purpose!
The best part about the LIFE app is that you can access these prompts and work through your own revelations whenever you see fit. As Smith said in her closing statement, “Happiness comes and goes. But when life is really good and when things are really bad, having meaning gives you something to hold on to.” LIFE is designed to build a better you ー a science-backed journey to start constructing your four pillars to a meaningful life.
Arslan, G., Yıldırım, M., Karataş, Z., Kabasakal, Z., & Kılınç, M. (2020). Meaningful living to promote complete mental health among university students in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. 1–13. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11469-020-00416-8
Chu, S. T.-W., & Fung, H. H.-L. (2021). Is the search for meaning related to the presence of meaning? Moderators of the longitudinal relationship. Journal of Happiness Studies, 22(1), 127–145.
Costin, V., & Vignoles, V. L. (2020). Meaning is about mattering: Evaluating coherence, purpose, and existential mattering as precursors of meaning in life judgments. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 118(4), 864–884.
Macià, D., Cattaneo, G., Solana, J., Tomos, J.M., Pascual-Leone, A., & Bartres-Faz, D. (2021). Meaning in life: A major predictive factor for loneliness comparable to health status and social connectedness. Frontiers in Research Psychology. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.627547/full#h6
Shuv-Ami, A., & Bareket-Bojmel, L. (2021). What indicates your life is meaningful? A new measure for the indicators of meaning in life (3IML). Journal of Happiness Studies, 22(2), 625–644.
Skrzypińska, K. (2021). Does spiritual intelligence (SI) exist? A theoretical investigation of a tool useful for finding the meaning of life. Journal of Religion & Health, 60(1), 500–516.
Smith, E. E. (2017, April). There’s more to life than being happy [Video]. TED Conferences. https://www.ted.com/talks/emily_esfahani_smith_there_s_more_to_life_than_being_happy
Steptoe, A. & Fancourt, D. Leading a meaningful life at older ages and its relationship with social engagement, prosperity, health, biology, and time use. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,116(4), 1207-1212. https://www.pnas.org/content/116/4/1207
Trzebiński J., Cabański, M., & Czarnecka, J. Z. (2020) Reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic: The influence of meaning in Life, life satisfaction, and assumptions on world orderliness and positivity. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 25:6-7, 544-557. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15325024.2020.1765098