If you wish your life had more meaning, you probably think you’d need to go on an Eat-Pray-Love-esque quest to find it. And who has time for that?
But the idea that meaning can be found only on ashrams or mountaintops is a cultural myth, says Emily Esfahani Smith, author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters.“There are sources of meaning all around us,” she explains. “They can be as big as ending world hunger but they can also be something on a smaller scale like raising a happy and healthy child.”
Meaning—Smith has distilled from positive psychology, ancient philosophy and her interviews with people who consider their lives satisfying—lies simply in connecting and contributing to something other than yourself, whether that’s people, animals, nature, this country, the world or God.
Four Building Blocks of a Meaningful Life
In her research, when Smith asked people what their sources of meaning were, she kept encountering four things that she now calls the pillars of meaning:
Belonging – “feeling understood, recognized and valued” by family, friends, romantic partners, colleagues and the communities we’ve joined—and helping others feel understood, recognized and valued, too.
Purpose – “a far-reaching goal that motivates our behavior, serves as the organizing principle of our lives and allows us to make a contribution to the world.”
Storytelling – “the process helps us to form our identity and make sense of ourselves and the world.”
Transcendence – “feeling that we have risen above the everyday world to experience a higher reality.”
Though all four pillars are essential to a life of deep wellbeing, the importance of each one depends on the individual. For Smith, belonging and transcendence are most personally significant and she works especially to cultivate them. “I tend to be introverted, so I now go out of my way to reach out to others, whether it’s with the barista at the coffee shop or with someone at a party,” she says. “I also listen to music and meditate more.”
Secret to Feeling Fulfilled
For most people, relationships that enhance their sense of belonging are their largest source of meaning, and so investing time and energy into them will probably have the greatest return, says Smith, who manages an initiative to build purpose and community across the nation called the Ben Franklin Circles Project at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
But she recommends approaching all facets of life with a “meaning mindset”: “When you reframe what you are doing as contributing to something bigger than you, you will become more engaged, feel less stress and experience a sense of peace”—all of which add up to a life that feels rich and meaningful.