The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters by Emily Esfahani Smith

Published: 2016; 280 Pages (including Notes)

Category: Psychology, Philosophy, Meaning, Personal Growth

Why I read this book: It was recommended to me by a friend, Michael Bowen

Quick Takeaway: The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters by Emily Esfahani Smith is a very thick description of the human search for meaning. The book explores a brief history of meaning seekers from Sufi darvishes to Tolstoy, Albert Camus, and modern-day researchers. After a brief discussion regarding why the search for meaning in current times is so elusive, Esfahini Smith outlines four basic pillars of meaning that she claims are accessible to both people with or without faith.  These four pillars are: Belonging, Purpose, Storytelling, and Transcendence. With detailed examples of how people have found meaning in these pillars, Esfahani Smith allows the reader to see how finding meaning for themselves is possible.

Notable Quotes: For millions both with and without faith, the search for meaning here on earth has become incredibly urgent – yet ever more elusive. -Emily Esfahani Smith

There are sources of meaning all around us, and by tapping into them, we can all lead richer and more satisfying lives – and help others do the same. -Emily Esfahani Smith

Book Report: From the first pages of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, I knew that I was going to like the book. Sensing that it was going to be a book that weaves multiple layers together to form an entire product, I forced myself to slow down and really take everything in as I read. I’m glad I did this, and the book didn’t disappoint.

Near the very beginning of the book, Emily Esfahani Smith highlights two human questions, “What is the meaning of existence?” And, “How can I lead a meaningful life?” She states that “religion was once the default path to meaning,” but today, with fewer people adhering to a religious base, the search for meaning has become more urgent, yet also more elusive.  Esfahani Smith furthers this point by highlighting that at universities prior to the twentieth century, students participated in a “great conversation” of how to live life through literature and philosophy, but a twentieth century shift in specialization of scholarship removed many students from conversations of broader meaning.

Happily, Esfahani Smith shows that with the work of psychologists like Martin Seligman, Baumeister, Huta, and philosophers like Robert Nozick, and organizations such as Life is Good and Storycore, there exists a movement whereby certain individuals are inserting Meaning back into the conversation, and near the end of her book, Esfahani Smith states that this trend might actually end up to be a major positive cultural development of our age.

One of the first striking distinctions Emily Esfahani Smith points out in The Power of Meaning is an experiment showing that if given the choice, pretty much no one would choose to live in a (fictitious) “happiness tank”, filled with joy, for the rest of their lives.  Rather, people would choose to take what comes in their lives, and this quickly debunks the idea that happiness and meaning are the same. Meaning is somehow beyond and more fulfilling than happiness. Near the end of the introduction, Esfahani Smith states, “there are sources of meaning all around us.” And, she claims that The Power of Meaning will reveal those sources of meaning and show how the reader can harness them to add meaning to their lives.

The first chapter looks at The Meaning of Crisis with examples of great tragedy, paralysis from accidents, for example, that ended in positive, meaningful, fulfilled lives. This chapter is followed by four chapters each dealing with what Emily Esfahani Smith describes as the four pillars of meaning, and these pillars are: Belonging, Purpose, Storytelling, and Transcendence.  Esfahani Smith shows that these pillars of meaning are central to religious and spiritual systems, but they are accessible to everyone who can find meaning by harnessing meaning with these pillars in mind.

It is here that I have to avoid my temptation to write all about everything Esfahani Smith outlines in these chapters because it was so fun to read all the examples, and it was exciting to be part of the “ah ha” moments in these chapters, but for your, and my, benefit, I’ll simply state a few points. Belonging, for example, is shown to be even more important than food or shelter, and meaning isn’t something we create for ourselves, but with connections with others, we build meaning for both ourselves and others.

Similarly, the pillar of Purpose is largely exhibited by helping others, and a job can be something totally different depending on a person’s outlook. A janitor for NASA, for example, might look at his job as cleaning toilets, or he can look at it as helping get a human into space. Purpose is shown in this chapter to focus on a broader mission of helping others than a narrow idea of doing another day-to-day task.

In the chapter on the pillar of Storytelling, Esfahani Smith shows many examples of how storytelling adds meaning to people’s lives, and she highlights different groups or organizations that have helped people find meaning by revealing moments that have shaped them. In the end, as moths are attracted to light, humans have been attracted to telling each other stories for thousands of years, and this action acts as a powerful tool to allow one to feel a sense of lasting self-recognition, but a powerful story can add meaning to others too, and when a speaker and a listener connect on some level, both are comforted that they are not alone.

Transcendence was a fun chapter to read. Examples of transcendence ranged from stargazing to meditation to hallucinogenic drug use, and examples of experiments showed that just after experiencing a moment of “Awe”, a person’s perception of themselves is more positive. And, from John Muir staring at a grove of trees to a monk meditating to Timothy Leary taking LSD, the key component is that The Self washes away and “ego death” occurs. This connects a person to others and to everything. Strangely, the moment when one seems to realize what a tiny, insignificant speck of the universe they are, they don’t feel meaninglessness or angst, but rather they feel a connected sense of peace.

Although Growth isn’t listed as one of the pillars of meaning, Esfahani Smith dedicates a chapter to how growth is a key component of the pillars as growth is often the catalyst to action whereby a person who might had forged meaning through suffering would dedicate their lives to helping others in similar situations.

In a chapter called Cultures of Meaning, Esfahani Smith highlights great examples of people coming together to discover meaning, but she also warns that not all cultures of meaning are positive. Rather cults, hate-groups, etc. might use the same four pillars of meaning to create a sense of belonging, purpose, etc., but hate is hate, and evil is evil, so although the same exact pillars are used, the contribution to society is not healthy. However, positive movements like “Conscious Capitalism” show that purpose-driven entities can make the world a better place with more meaning in more people’s lives.

Near the end of The Power of Meaning, I was really faced with a moment of existential anxiety. For some reason, a statement by end-of-life psychiatrist William Breitbart really struck me: “Meaning and death are two sides of the same coin.” As I read this, I was immediately struck with a confrontation of the finite and infinite at the same time, and for some reason, I wanted to keep thinking of them as separate. It wasn’t the only time The Power of Meaning made me take a deep breath over a concept, but it was, for me, the most striking, and as I began to process meaning from both the finite and infinite perspective, my mind immediately was drawn to the tapestry that The Power of Meaning wove. The book somehow provided small answers that made the existential question, “What is the meaning of existence?” and the practical question, “How can I lead a meaningful life?” a lot easier to process. For me, with a cultural-religious perspective believing in the existence of life on earth and life after death, I was reminded that I grew up with the four pillars of Belonging, Purpose, Storytelling, and Transcendence, but I wasn’t conscious of these nor of the exact characteristics of them. The Power of Meaning showed how easily one can consciously orchestrate meaning by simply intentionally putting ourselves in situations surrounded by these pillars.

The conclusion of The Power of Meaning, very appropriately, re-visits the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl and shows that if we understand the Why of our existence, we could understand the How, and the Why for Frankl, while he was in the Nazi concentration camps, was that “life was still expecting something from him” and that “love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire.” Emily Esfahani Smith seems to agree, and she ends The Power of Meaning by stating that Love is at the center of a meaningful life and that Love is part of all the pillars of meaning. She expresses this thought so beautifully in the last three paragraphs of her book that I won’t try to reproduce it. It would be a disservice to anyone who decides to read the entire book because it so nicely wraps up the eloquent narrative of her work and shows how entirely simple it all is.

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