Who could argue with happiness? Count the journalist Emily Esfahani Smith as one. Happiness is not itself a problem, of course, but she worries that its relentless pursuit—and the self-help industry that’s grown up around that mission—has left us feeling empty, dislocated and, well, unhappy. Instead she it would be wiser to pursue “meaning,” a thesis she lays out in her new book, The Power of Meaning. She answered questions from Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook

Emily Esfahani Smith. Credit: Jonathan Durling

How did you become interested in writing about “meaning”?
When I was a child, I grew up surrounded by spiritual seekers. I lived in a Sufi meetinghouse that my parents administered in Montreal. Sufism is a school of mysticism associated with Islam, and twice a week, Sufis came over to our home and gathered in a large room, where they sat on the floor and meditated as classical Iranian Sufi music played in the background. The Sufis practiced loving-kindness and service to all—and though they didn’t all lead happy or easy lives, they all led lives of meaning, dedicating themselves to something bigger.

When I grew older, we moved out of the Sufi meetinghouse, but the question of how to lead a meaningful life remained with me. Answering that question first led me to study philosophy in college and then to study psychology in graduate school. In graduate school, I discovered that a new and growing body of research was emerging about meaning and the difference between a meaningful life and a happy life. Because I was working as a journalist at the same time, I started writing about those studies on meaning and happiness—and one of my articles, “There’s more to life than being happy,” which was published in The Atlantic, struck a chord with readers and became the basis for my new book, “The Power of Meaning.”   

What do you see as the problem with happiness?
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with feeling happy, but I think that setting happiness as your goal and relentlessly chasing it can lead to problems. Research shows that being fixated on happiness can actually make people feel lonely and unhappy—and that the happy life is associated with being a “taker,” to use the language of Wharton’s Adam Grant. But it’s different with meaning. Leading a meaningful life leads to a deeper sense of contentment and peace, and it’s linked to being a “giver” rather than a “taker.”

The happiness frenzy distracts people from what really matters, which is leading a meaningful life. Human beings have a need for meaning. We’re creatures that seek meaning, make meaning, and yearn for meaning. The question is—how can we lead a meaningful life? The route to meaning lies in connecting and contributing to something bigger than yourself—and not in gratifying yourself and focusing on what you, yourself, need and want, as the happiness industry encourages us to do.

You talk about storytelling as one of four “pillars of meaning.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
Storytelling is the act of taking our disparate experiences and weaving them into a coherent whole—a narrative. Psychologists say that one of the building blocks of a meaningful life is coherence or comprehension. That means that people leading meaningful lives don’t conceive of their experiences as random and disconnected. They have worked hard to understand how their experiences fit together into a narrative that explains who they are how they got to be that way.

In my book, I tell the story of Carlos Eire, who grew up in Havana and was a child during the Cuban revolution. After the revolution, he was forced to flee to America without his parents. The revolution, he said, was the point where his life story broke into two—a before and after. Before the revolution, he led a pampered life in Havana. After the revolution, he was essentially a poor orphan who had to fend for himself in a foreign country where he was discriminated against for being Cuban. Carlos spent a lot of time reflecting on the revolution and how it had changed the arc of his life. Eventually, he realized that the adversity he endured, though difficult and painful, ultimately made him a more compassionate person. So that’s how he made sense of a difficult experience—that’s the story he told about it. Storytelling helped him understand himself more deeply and gain more perspective on his life.

If you look at how Americans live today compared with, say, 50 years ago, one striking difference is the amount of time spend consuming media and, most recently, social media. I wonder if you have any thoughts on the role that might be playing?
One thing I think about a lot is what I call “the meaning crisis” in my book. Research shows that there are millions of people who are unsure of what makes their lives meaningful—and that rates of suicide, depression, anxiety, loneliness, and drug addiction have been rising for decades. Because so many of us are struggling to understand our “why,” I think we’re turning to false substitutes for meaning—like technology and the pursuit of happiness—to fill our existential vacuum, or what Louis CK once called “the forever empty” feeling that lurks inside us and rears its head from time to time.

Don’t get me wrong: I think technology has been a powerful force for good in the world. I even think it can build meaning by cultivating connections and opening us up to the stories of others. But there’s a dark side, too, with all of the addictive behaviors that come with it. Leading a meaningful life requires being reflective, being present and aware of others, and being of service to others—and I don’t see how we can do those things when we’re walking around with headphones on, lost in our own little worlds, and constantly checking our phones for updates or filling our minds with dribs and drabs of meaningless stimuli.

But when we look up, when we unplug and engage with the world around us, we’ll see that there are sources of meaning everywhere. Let’s be sure we’re not missing out on these experiences! One of my favorite quotes of all time is by Virginia Woolf, which speaks to this theme. She wrote: “What is the meaning of life? That was all—a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.” Meaning is everywhere. It’s up to us to build it into our lives.