The Power of Meaning

In Emily Esfahani Smith’s first book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters we hear the counter intuitive view that what our world needs now is less happiness and more meaning. It’s a fascinating point of view to hold in an age where personal happiness seems to be the driving force behind every cultural endeavor; be it a healthier lifestyle, yoga, meditation, Freedom 55, our appearance, etc… But Smith has a different approach, she says happiness is important and wants everyone, including herself, to be happy. But she says happiness comes and goes, it can be fleeing and what sustains us throughout our lives, and more importantly at the end of our lives, is living a life of meaning.

Smith chronicles the life of Ashley, a zookeeper in Detroit, who spends a great portion of her day shoveling the feces of giraffes, and other very large animals, out of cages. The pay is not great and throughout most of the work day Ashley does not feel happy. But when the day is over Ashley feels she is fulfilling a calling, that is caring for animals and building a bond with them. Ashley feels her labour has a purpose and that it contributes to something bigger than herself.

In her research and interviews with various persons attempting to create lives of meaning Smith has come to believe that a life of meaning has four pillars; belonging, purpose, story-telling and transcendence. In summary lives of meaning include the feeling of relationship and connection to those around us, a plan to do and be who we are in aid of a larger purpose, the need to use story-telling and narrative to make sense of one’s life and powerful moments of transcendence, which can include beauty and awe. Smith even provides a short quiz to help us to know which of these four pillars motive us most in our desire to live a life of meaning.

When I took the quiz my strongest pillar was purpose, connecting to a larger purpose with all the small acts and experiences I participate in throughout my life. As I look at my life I see that I am good at helping people to feel like they belong while I myself seem to have lost some of that intimacy in my relationships over the last ten years. Curious! I would say I live a life of purpose and help others do so as well. I think I excel at the act of storytelling, both about myself and others. And I would say I was slow to the experience of transcendence, only recently coming to value those experiences and find meaning in them. This is a growing edge in me.

I think this is why I have been so disappointed in the way churches have dealt with the stress and burnout I hear from my colleagues in ministry. There the focus seems to always be on happiness, more time off, better pay, more appreciation, etc… My response, which has been largely ignored, has been to focus instead on meaning, reminding ourselves how we participate so intimately in helping others live purposeful and meaning lives. If at the end of the day we took account of how we served a purpose larger than self, how we made a difference, how our labour helped others find meaning, I think we might find that which lowers stress and builds resiliency.

Some of the people I know who live lives of meaning and purpose are not the best paid, many work long hours and are not very affirmed throughout the day. Still at the end of the day they have something few do, the peace of mind in knowing they are about something larger than self, touching a transcendent reality that makes all the difference in the world. What a blessing. What a gift. It helps me sleep well at night.