Here is the full transcript and summary of journalist and author Emily Esfahani Smith’s Talk: There’s More to Life than Being Happy at TED conference. Emily Esfahani Smith is the author of the book: The Power of Meaning.
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Emily Esfahani Smith – Journalist and author
I used to think the whole purpose of life was pursuing happiness. Everyone said the path to happiness was success, so I searched for that ideal job, that perfect boyfriend, that beautiful apartment.
But instead of ever feeling fulfilled, I felt anxious and adrift. And I wasn’t alone; my friends — they struggled with this, too. Eventually, I decided to go to graduate school for positive psychology to learn what truly makes people happy. But what I discovered there changed my life. The data showed that chasing happiness can make people unhappy.
And what really struck me was this: the suicide rate has been rising around the world, and it recently reached a 30-year high in America. Even though life is getting objectively better by nearly every conceivable standard, more people feel hopeless, depressed and alone. There’s an emptiness gnawing away at people, and you don’t have to be clinically depressed to feel it. Sooner or later, I think we all wonder: Is this all there is?
And according to the research, what predicts this despair is not a lack of happiness. It’s a lack of something else, a lack of having meaning in life. But that raised some questions for me. Is there more to life than being happy? And what’s the difference between being happy and having meaning in life?
Many psychologists define happiness as a state of comfort and ease, feeling good in the moment. Meaning, though, is deeper. The renowned psychologist Martin Seligman says meaning comes from belonging to and serving something beyond yourself and from developing the best within you. Our culture is obsessed with happiness, but I came to see that seeking meaning is the more fulfilling path.
And the studies show that people who have meaning in life, they’re more resilient, they do better in school and at work, and they even live longer. So this all made me wonder: How can we each live more meaningfully?
To find out, I spent five years interviewing hundreds of people and reading through thousands of pages of psychology, neuroscience and philosophy. Bringing it all together, I found that there are what I call four pillars of a meaningful life. And we can each create lives of meaning by building some or all of these pillars in our lives.
The first pillar is belonging. Belonging comes from being in relationships where you’re valued for who you are intrinsically and where you value others as well. But some groups and relationships deliver a cheap form of belonging; you’re valued for what you believe, for who you hate, not for who you are.
True belonging springs from love. It lives in moments among individuals, and it’s a choice — you can choose to cultivate belonging with others. Here’s an example. Each morning, my friend Jonathan buys a newspaper from the same street vendor in New York. They don’t just conduct a transaction, though. They take a moment to slow down, talk, and treat each other like humans.
But one time, Jonathan didn’t have the right change, and the vendor said, “Don’t worry about it.” But Jonathan insisted on paying, so he went to the store and bought something he didn’t need to make change.
But when he gave the money to the vendor, the vendor drew back. He was hurt. He was trying to do something kind, but Jonathan had rejected him. I think we all reject people in small ways like this without realizing it. I do.
I’ll walk by someone I know and barely acknowledge them. I’ll check my phone when someone’s talking to me. These acts devalue others. They make them feel invisible and unworthy. But when you lead with love, you create a bond that lifts each of you up. For many people, belonging is the most essential source of meaning, those bonds to family and friends.
For others, the key to meaning is the second pillar: purpose. Now, finding your purpose is not the same thing as finding that job that makes you happy. Purpose is less about what you want than about what you give. A hospital custodian told me her purpose is healing sick people. Many parents tell me, “My purpose is raising my children.”
The key to purpose is using your strengths to serve others. Of course, for many of us, that happens through work. That’s how we contribute and feel needed. But that also means that issues like disengagement at work, unemployment, low labor force participation — these aren’t just economic problems, they’re existential ones, too.
Without something worthwhile to do, people flounder. Of course, you don’t have to find purpose at work, but purpose gives you something to live for, some “why” that drives you forward.
The third pillar of meaning is also about stepping beyond yourself, but in a completely different way: transcendence. Transcendent states are those rare moments when you’re lifted above the hustle and bustle of daily life, your sense of self fades away, and you feel connected to a higher reality.
For one person I talked to, transcendence came from seeing art. For another person, it was at church. For me, I’m a writer, and it happens through writing. Sometimes I get so in the zone that I lose all sense of time and place. These transcendent experiences can change you.