We’re often told that we should make decisions based on what will make us “happy”.
But does operating this way really lead to a more fulfilling life? Not exactly.
In fact, according to modern day philosopher Emily Esfahani Smith, chasing happiness can actually make us unhappy.
Instead, she says that there’s something more powerful we should all be searching for.
Watch the TED talk at the end of the article to find out what that is.
If you haven’t got time to watch the video, don’t fear. We’ve summarized Smith’s brilliant TED talk in text:
Smith believed that the purpose of life was pursuing happiness. That quest led her to look for the “perfect life”: beautiful apartment, amazing boyfriend and the ideal job.
However, instead of feeling fulfilled, this search made her feel anxious and adrift.
She couldn’t get her head around it, so she decided to go to graduate school to learn what really makes people happy. And what she discovered changed her life.
The data showed that chasing happiness actually makes people unhappy. More worryingly, the data also found that suicide rates have been rising around the world and has recently reached a 30-year high in America.
This is in contrast to the fact that life is getting better in terms of our standard of living.
So what’s going on? Why are we feeling more hopeless than ever?
According to the research, what’s causing our despair is not lack of happiness. It’s a lack of having meaning in life.
According to Smith, there’s a difference between happiness and meaning in life.
Psychologists define happiness as a state of comfort and feeling good in the moment. Meaning, though, is deeper.
Psychologist Martin Seligman says meaning comes from belonging to and serving something beyond yourself and developing the best within you.
While our culture is obsessed with happiness, Smith says that seeking meaning is a more fulfilling path.
Studies show that people who have meaning in life are more resilient, do better in school and at work and live longer.
So, the question is, how can we live more meaningfully? Smith spent 5 years interviewing hundreds of people and reading through thousands of pages of psychology, philosophy and neuroscience to work this out.
After all this, she came up with what she calls “the 4 pillars of a meaningful life.”
The 1st pillar: Belonging
This means being in relationships where you are valued for who you are and you values others as well.
Smith says that some groups bring a shallow form of belonging: you’re valued for what you believe, or hate, but not for who you are. True belonging stems from love.
For many people, belonging is the most essential source of meaning: the bonds you have with your family and friends.
2nd pillar: Purpose
This isn’t about finding a job that makes you happy. Instead, purpose is less about what you want and more about what you give.
For example, many parents might say, “my purpose is raising my children.”
The key to using your purpose, according to Smith, is to use your strengths to help others.
For many of us, that might happen through work. That also means that without something worthwhile to do, people flounder.
Purpose gives you something to live for and to drive you forward.
3rd pillar: Stepping beyond yourself
This about “transcendence”. These are states where you are lifted above yourself, away from the hustle and bustle of life and you feel connected to a higher reality.
Some people might say that transcendence comes from art. For others, it might be church or writing or getting in the zone at something you enjoy doing.
The 4th pillar: Storytelling
This one tends to surprise people. This is the story you tell about yourself. Creating a narrative from the events of your life brings clarity. It helps you understand how you became you.
However, Smith says that we don’t always realize that we are in control of the story we’re telling.
You can edit, interpret and retell your story. She says that people who tell stories such as, “my life was good, but now is bad” tend to be more anxious and depressed.
But it doesn’t need to be this way. Overtime you can start to tell a different story. Psychologist Dan McAdams calls this a “redemptive story”, where the bad is redeemed by the good.
People leading meaningful lives tend to tell stories about their lives defined by redemption, growth and love.
You can’t change your story overnight, but overtime you can create a new narrative where all those struggles and pains you went through actually lead to new insights and wisdom, to finding that good that sustains you.
Smith finishes her TED talk with some powerful words describing why searching for meaning really is powerful:
“That’s the power of meaning. Happiness comes and goes. But when life is really good and when things are really bad, having meaning gives you something to hold on to.”