The Skill Set: 8 Ways to Create a Meaningful Life
Author of "The Power of Meaning,” Emily Esfahani Smith sheds light.
Growing up Sufi, a branch of Islam associated with mysticism, was enchanting, colorful and eye-opening for Emily Esfahani Smith. From a young age, the Zurich-born and Montreal-bred writer for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Time was surrounded by meditation, spiritualism and those who practiced love and kindness. It fostered her love of philosophy and the notion of the good life, written about by great thinkers from Aristotle to John Stuart Mill. Noticing that modern-day philosophers weren’t so interested in big questions like human existence anymore, she decided to attend graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania for positive psychology, the science of well-being. It was there that she heard a researcher speak about the difference between a happy life and a meaningful life. Whereas a happy life is associated with being a “taker,” a meaningful life corresponds with being a “giver.” The activities of happy people include shopping and other instantly gratifying endeavors while those leading with meaning enjoyed cheering up friends, taking care of children and more other-oriented focuses. "So much of our culture is trumpeting this idea of happiness, but I realized that some of the most content people in my life weren’t necessarily chasing happiness or obsessed with with being happy like our media says we should be,” says Emily. “I knew people dealing with sadness and grief, stress and anxiety. Some of them were dedicated to challenging pursuits like starting a business, working on cures for diseases, raising children. Yet when I thought about it, their lives were meaningful. The stories of people leading meaningful lives were being left out of the cultural conversation on well-being and what a good life is.” Inspired to research the topic further, Emily wrote an essay, There’s More to Life Than Being Happy, in 2013 for The Atlantic. It quickly went viral. Its popularity suggested that Emily wasn't the only one interested in exploring the concept of meaning. Working with Crown, a division of Penguin Random House, Emily scribed The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. From visiting a fishing village in Maryland to stargazing in West Texas, Emily learned what it looks like to put aside the pursuit of happiness and focus on leading a meaningful life. “Just because something isn’t making you happy doesn’t mean it’s not meaningful,” she says. “Meaning is something you can craft, no matter who you are and what your job is.” Here's how you can do just that in eight thoughtful steps:
1. Find your purpose
Figure out what you’re good at, what your gifts are and how you can contribute those to the world in some way. Pay close attention to what you love, the subject matters that you enjoy in school, the books and articles you like reading, the things you would do in your spare time if you had the time to just explore. If you’re having a hard time figuring out your skills and interests, develop relationships with people who are older and wiser than you, who can have a greater sense of clarity about who you are and what you’re good at than you do yourself. Then, ask yourself what is the contribution that you want to make to the world to make it a better place—either today or in general.
2. Set top-level goals to put your purpose to use
There are immediate goals like getting to work on time, exercising or going grocery shopping. Those are just dictated to us by the requirements of day-to-day living. We also have higher level goals which represent our aspirations, our hopes and help us achieve our purpose. My purpose is to be a writer and inspire people with ideas so goals that help me get there are writing for different publications to test out ideas and see how others respond, interviewing people to see if I can incorporate their views in my writing and reading as much as I can to get a full sense of what I’m researching. If your purpose is to be a good friend or person, some goals you might set are to make sure you’re calling your friends regularly or reaching out to those who seem like they’re struggling or suffering.
3. Pursue activities and relationships that are important to you
Reflect on the experiences and connections that you cherish and see what it is about them that’s meaningful to you. Is it the fact that you’re getting to use one of your abilities to give back to others? Is it because in a relationship you feel that someone really understands you and you understand them?
4. Exercise your giving hand
Human beings are social and moral animals. There’s this myth in American culture of individualism and that humans can be self-sufficient, but we need one another. I think we derive most meaning from giving to others because we’re fundamentally creatures that belong to a social unit.
5. Review your past
One of the pillars of a meaningful life is storytelling. It’s how we take all of our various experiences and weave that into a coherent whole or narrative that explains who we are and how we got to be that way. That can also help us with purpose. One way you can figure out what your strengths are is by reflecting on your past and thinking of the times when you felt at your very best, what you were doing and what characteristics you exhibited during those moments.
6. Foster a sense of belonging
Make other people feel valued and value yourself. Being in a relationship or a part of a community where you feel like you matter helps you find meaning. The next time you’re in line at Starbucks, instead of paying for the drink and not really interacting with the barista, initiate conversation, pay a compliment and make them feel appreciated.
7. Be inspired by something greater
Look for opportunities to experience transcendence or instances of awe in nature, art or music. These are moments when we feel small compared to the big, wide world—but at the same time, we feel linked to everything around us.
8. Connect the dots
For millennials, the number one thing they want from a job is meaning. Understand that it is something you can craft. A career doesn’t just have meaning or not have meaning—you can find it by framing your activities a certain way and remembering how they contribute to something that’s beyond yourself. I tell a story in my book about a janitor who has an encounter with President John F. Kennedy visiting NASA in 1962. In the hallway, President Kennedy asked the janitor what he did and he replied, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.” He probably wouldn’t have said, “my passion is sweeping floors,” but he found meaning in his job because he was able to connect it to something bigger than himself.
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Image courtesy of Ivanka Trump Illustration by Jonny Ruzzo.