Episode 96: Emily Esfahani Smith – The Power of Meaning

Episode 96: Emily Esfahani Smith – The Power of Meaning

Are you confusing comfort with happiness? Emily Esfahani Smith furthers our discussion on happiness with her book The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. Discover the four pillars of meaning, why our culture has an obsession with happiness, and why happiness can’t be pursued.

Website: EmilyEsfahaniSmith.com
Book: The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters
Bio: Emily Esfahani Smith is a journalist and the author of The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed With Happiness (Crown). In this book, Smith argues that the unending pursuit of happiness has distracted us from what really matters—the search for meaning in life. Smith draws on psychology, philosophy and literature—as well as her own reporting—to write about the human experience. Her writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Criterion, and other publications.

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Peter: Before I start the podcast, I have a quick message for all the coaches who are listening. This November, I’m running a master level coach training. And, we’re looking for great coaches to join us. The training is where I share with a small group of coaches my most successful coaching techniques and strategies. It’s also where Bregman Partners looks to recruit new coaches for our coaching team. Every time we run this training it is such a powerful reminder to me of how meaningful a chance to learn, practice, and build a coaching community can be. I would love to meet you there. To register, visit http://peterbregman.com/leadership-coach-training/ or check out the URL in the iTunes store.

Okay, now on to the podcast.

Welcome to the Bregman leadership podcast, I’m Peter Bregman; your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.

Emily Esfahani Smith is with us today and she has recently written the book “The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters”. Emily is an excellent writer. She writes about culture, relationships, and psychology for The Atlantic, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. She holds an MA in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania and lives in Washington DC. She’s got this understanding of the psychology of what gives us joy and pleasure and positivity in our lives. She’s also a scholar of writing. If you’re going to read a book, both of those things are really useful, especially if it’s a book about meaning and purpose and what’s going to make us happy.

Emily, welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Emily: Oh, thanks for having me, and thanks for all the kind words.

Peter: It’s my pleasure. It’s well deserved.

Emily, let’s start with this critical distinction that you make between happiness and meaning.

Emily: Right, so I think this distinction is a big reason why I ended … why I was inspired to write this book. Our culture is obsessed with happiness. It’s hard to go to a bookstore or navigate to your favorite website online without seeing articles about how to be happier, 10 steps to a happy life. There is this assumption that a good life is a happy life. We’re constantly getting the message that happiness is the most valuable thing that we should aspire to. But, I grew up surrounded by people, and maybe we can talk about this later, who were leading meaningful lives and weren’t necessarily devoted to the pursuit of their own happiness.

When I got to graduate school for positive psychology, I saw that there was this new research growing up around this distinction between happiness and meaning. It was really interesting to me because it suggested that there are some downfalls to pursuing happiness and that we should be aspiring to lead a meaningful life. The way this research distinguishes between the two is happiness, and this also I should say is kind of there is philosophy that supports these distinctions and this separation between the two as well.

Happiness, psychologists and philosophers say, is a state of feeling good. It’s a positive mental and emotional state. If you feel good, you’re happy. If you feel positive emotions, you’re happy. And when you feel bad, you’re unhappy.

Meaning, though, is bigger. It’s about connecting and contributing to something beyond yourself. When people say their lives are meaningful, it’s because they’re in three conditions to that entire side. The first one is that they think that their lives have significance, which means that they think their lives have value and worth. The second one is they think their lives are driven by a sense of purpose. So, some kind of valued goal or aim that motivates you and that makes a contribution to the world, and gives you a role to play in society. The final thing is coherence. People don’t think that their lives are just a series of disconnected events, they don’t think the world is senseless. But, they see their lives as a coherent whole and the world makes sense to them.

Peter: So, these are ultimately things that lead to happiness that we don’t pursue. This is what I wanted to clarify. We don’t pursue happiness for happiness’ sake because the pursuit of happiness often leads to dissatisfaction and unhappiness. But, the pursuit of these things and you talk about four areas; belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence, is really a path to meaning, and that path to meaning ultimately brings on happiness. Am I thinking about this correctly?

Emily: Yes. I think that that’s fair to say. Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor is … he’s a giant in psychology when it comes to meaning. He said that happiness can’t be pursued, it must ensue, it’s the byproduct of leading a meaningful life. There is research that shows that when we chase happiness and value it in this obsessive way as our culture encourages us to do, that we actually end up feeling unhappier, it makes us feel lonelier. Whereas if we do things that we think are meaningful, we’re left with this deeper sense of well being and contentment.

Peter: I’m wondering if you’ve been in … and I don’t want to put you on the spot here and that, of course, you always say that right before you put someone on the spot. But, you don’t have to commit any personal stories or anything. But, I’m curious if you’ve been in debates or conversations with Gretchen Rubin and with all these people who have been really focused on happiness and Harvard researchers and people who have been on this podcast who talk about happiness and what it takes to be happier; and whether that because they’re also based on research and whether that false pursuit, whether they’re trying to get at the same thing you’re trying to get at, but they’re just using the label of happy because people are attracted to that? Or are they really trying to get to something different?

Emily: Right. I think that … and I haven’t … I’ve had a conversation with Gretchen Rubin. I think she is a wonderful writer and I’ve read her book and it seems to me like its … there is all this psychology research showing that if you do certain things, it will make you happier. What’s interesting to me is that those things are really, they’re kind of the pursuit of meaning. It’s like writing a gratitude letter. It’s practicing … counting your blessings every day. It’s doing good for others. Being kind to others. These are all meaningful things that we do.

I think that … I’ll say two things. One is that there is a debate within psychology; an academic debate about whether meaning and happiness are really different because they, when you try to look at people who say that their lives are happy and meaningful and things like that, they correlate very closely. People who have meaningful lives tend to be happy and vice versa. But, there are also … So, it’s a lot of people saying you can’t pull these two apart. But, I follow the philosophical tradition that goes back to Aristotle that says that actually these two are different pursuits. It brings me to the second point I want to make, which is that it has to do with what motivates you and what your orientation is. Some people I think are really motivated by the pursuit of happiness and so they think, “Oh, if I do this, it’ll make me happy.” That’s great.

Other people are motivated by the pursuit of meaning. I think that what the research shows is that the people who are motivated by the pursuit of happiness it’s a little bit more of a self-involved endeavor because you’re worried about your happiness. That happiness is literally how I feel in the moment. But, meaning is about there is this service element. It’s giving to others. I think that the orientation changes your behavior. There is studies showing that when you tell people to go out and pursue happiness, they do things like sleep in, go to the spa; whereas if they pursue meaning, they’re like they volunteer, they go visit a sick relative. I think that it changes our mindset, and I think that the distinction is real.

Peter: I think it’s a great point. The example of the spa and the sleeping in, it’s almost like a confusion of comfort with happiness or the pursuit of positive emotions. I have to say that when you were saying being happy is all about having nice emotions and not negative emotions. We have a lot of coach training, and we run leadership work, and we bring people to really heightened emotional states because that’s part of the process. When I’ve seen someone get super angry, and there is tons of energy coursing through their body, and I’ll pause, and I’ll say,”How do you feel right now?” They’ll say,”I actually feel really great.” That anger is a very empowering feeling. There are some of these emotions that we might try to stay away from in order to be “happy” and yet those are emotions that actually give us a sense of energy in our lives.

Let’s talk about belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. I have some questions related to each. But, in terms of belonging … I think they’re relatively self explanatory in terms of each categories. But, explain whatever you feel like you need to in order to answer the questions.

Emily: Okay.

Peter: In terms of belonging, I often feel a push and pull. Like, I definitely have a sense of belonging with various groups. But, I also have a feeling of difference, of not quite fitting in. I mean, I’m Jewish and there is a tremendous amount of sense of community and belonging in Judaism and I’m married to a Christian minister. In there, there is an immense amount of ostracizing from that. How do we belong while also living in this in-between place?

Emily: If I can just step back for a second and say these four pillars, when I was trying to figure out … So, the first step in this journey that let me to write this book was just figuring out this distinction between happiness and meaning and trying to understand what the definition of meaning was. Next thing was how can we actually lead meaningful lives? Like people who say that their lives are meaningful, what do they have in their lives that makes them so. So, I did all these research, interviewed people, and these themes came up that I call the four pillars of meaning. When people say their lives are meaningful, it’s because they have these four pillars or some of the four pillars, and belonging is one of them.

To your question, I think that it’s … I would define belonging in the following way; you feel a sense of belonging in your relationships or in your community when you’re valued for who you are intrinsically and where you, in turn, value the other person or the people in the community for who they are intrinsically. You gave the example of you’re Jewish, your wife is Christian, there is a lot of community within Judaism. I think that a lot of times, people think that belonging is a form. It’s like a form of groupishness or group identity. I think that groups can certainly provide belonging, but that a lot of times, we can think of a group like if you think of gangs or if you think of a group like ISIS, that it’s a false belonging that they provide because you’re not being valued for who you are intrinsically, you’re being valued for what you’re willing to do, what you believe, who you hate, and not for who you are.

So, I think that as you try to navigate that in between, it’s recognizing that it’s really about connecting to someone as a human being regardless of what these group identities and labels that we adopt.

Peter: This is so interesting, Emily, because it’s, I think it’s one of the hardest things. I love your description of it and I would say I don’t know if I can come up with examples where I think it’s done well. Organizations, they value us and we’re valued in them; but for what we’re able to produce and how we’re able to perform. Families should be an area where you totally belong no matter what, and yet if you make a choice that is out of sync with the family, then ultimately maybe it ends up in belonging. But, there is a lot of stress in families because they make choices that their parents or their siblings don’t like. It’s very hard for me to come up with an example of a group where really who you are is what I care most about.

We care so much about our own happiness that when what you do affects my happiness I would rather just strong arm you into making a choice that makes me happy, versus saying,”I fully want you to completely be yourself.” I mean, you see that in examples of people who come out as gay or transgender and the challenges that they face in their communities or in their families often. Not always. I’m just wondering how we manage that; how we belong without giving up a part of ourselves and really find those kinds of communities.

Emily: I think that it’s … they’re … I’ll say two things. The first one is I think, I mean, you’re absolutely right that there is this tension between the individual trying to express who they are and hopefully they’re trying to express the best within them and not the worse and have that be accepted and there is not always acceptance from the group. I think that, though, the group … So, if you’re in an organization, yes, as an employee you’re valued for what you produce, the quality of your work, your talent. But, that’s, I think a separate matter from this, I guess I would say moral question of how you’re treating one another as individuals. So, if somebody messes up, that might take a hit to their professional status. But, it shouldn’t lead them to be treated with contempt and spite. I think that this recognition that the individual is the unit that we should value might lead to a more compassionate, empathetic response even if something happens and it’s not good for the organization as a whole.

That’s one thing I would say. The other thing I would say is I don’t think what I’m necessarily saying is that belonging needs to be a case where like,”I want to be who I am. I want to be free to be who I am, and you have to accept me.” I think that it’s a two way street because the two way street because it’s not just about your sense of belonging, it’s about the other person’s sense of belonging as well. I think we need to contain our own behavior in a way that’s respectful to others too. I’ll just say I know that in families, this is a lot … there is a lot of tension with these kind of stuff.

But, one of the things I remember so powerfully is my childhood. My parents were Sufis, which is this form of mysticism that’s associated with Islam. It’s a spiritual hat. My dad told me once that … I couldn’t have been more than 10 years old, but he said whatever religious path you choose to pursue, we will be 100% okay with that. I felt like this freedom that led me to go off and explore. Interestingly, I never rejected my parents’ spirituality the way so many people do. Maybe it was because I had that freedom and that sense of belonging that was this secure base for me.

Peter: You’re saying something profound that I’m just putting together now also, which is that when I’m asking you this question about belonging, it’s actually a very self referential question. It’s a question that says,”Do I feel belonging?” What you’re also saying, and this is important in relation to the conversation around meaning, is “how am I helping others feel their belonging?”

Emily: Right.

Peter: That actually gives me a sense of purpose in a sense, which is to say it may be hard for me to do that with my children, with my employees, with clients even and yet what parenting, and leadership, and connection calls us to do is to connect with people on that human level and to help them feel their belonging and in a way that that ends up creating meaning for us, and that belonging may threaten us in some ways. But, it shouldn’t in any way detract from our sense of respect and connection to them as human beings. It’s profound.

Emily: No, well, thank you. I think that’s exactly right. I’ll just add an addendum, which is that when the researchers that when you do reject someone, or when you ostracize them, or when this connection of belonging is frayed in some way, it’s not just them that literally feel like their lives are less meaningful. In studies, rejection leads people to think that. But, it’s also you that thinks your life is less meaningful. It is this dynamic connection.

Peter: A friend of mine who’s depressed was recently given advice to pursue purpose. I’m talking about purpose now. To look for ways in which he could be of service to others. He hasn’t done it yet. He’s stuck. I realized that part of why he is stuck is that when you don’t have purpose, it’s hard to well up the energy to pursue purpose. That pursuing purpose in and of itself is driven by purpose. What advice do you have for him? What advice do have for someone who’s not necessarily focused on purpose and can’t quite figure that out?

Emily: Yeah, it’s really interesting. I had a professor in graduate school, Martin Seligman who said that one of the best cures for depression is going out and volunteering in our community. I think there is really something to that because depression is so much. You’re ruminating so much about I’m not good enough, my life is awful, or the world is awful. It’s all these … You’re very much in your own head. The ability to get outside the bed, I think, really helps heal the pain. For somebody who is having trouble taking that first step, though, I would recommend reframing purpose as lower p purpose and capital P purpose because I think that they’re … we put so much weight on this idea of purpose, that you have to go find your purpose, or find a purpose or your calling and if you’re not doing that, then you’re failing at the whole purpose thing.

But, actually purpose can come in really small ways too. There is a study that I talk about my book, which I love, which shows that adolescents who do chores around the house actually end up feeling a stronger sense of purpose. The reason is because they’re serving and they also have these role to play and are contributing to something bigger, which is their family. I think that maybe as a first step, recognizing could be really small. If you’re at home doing the dishes or making breakfast or something like that.

Peter: It’s the idea of little ways in which you can do something that helps you feel accomplished in a certain way or you’ve added value or you’ve created that. That could be small or it could be big.

Emily: Yeah.

Peter: One of the things that I found so interesting about your storytelling focus is that it’s not just about finding meaning or highlighting meaning, it’s about creating meaning. That choosing to tell a story is an act of creating meaning. Can you just talk for a minute or so about that?

Emily: Right, so we have belonging, purpose, and a third pillar; storytelling. This is an interesting one because it’s like when we think about stories, we think about the stories we tell each other or the stories we read in novels or see on TV or at the movies. But, this is really about the story you’re telling yourself about yourself. I think that we not always realize that we’re the authors of our own stories and can change the way that we’re telling them. If I tell you to tell me a story from your childhood, that really encapsulates who you are, the choice of story is a narrative choice. You’re choosing a particular story and you’re choosing to tell it in a particular way.

These all have really profound consequences for how meaningful you think your life is. The first thing is that, I had mentioned earlier that part of meaning is believing that your life is coherent. The act of weaving the story and bringing your experiences together in this bigger narrative makes meaning for you because you come to a deeper level of understanding about who you are, why the things happened, how you grew from these experiences, how they changed you, so on and so forth. The other thing is that certain types of stories that we tell, they lead us to having more meaning and to leading more meaningful lives. Dan McAdams, a psychologist at Northwestern has found that people who tell redemptive stories, stories that move from bad things happening to good things happening are more generative, which means that they are more likely to contribute to society, mentor the young, things like that.

Another study, which I love by Adam Grant at Wharton and Jane Dutton at the University of Michigan shows that when you tell a story, when you break people … break a group into two and tell half of them to tell a story about themselves as somebody who is a giving person and you tell the other half to tell a story about themselves as somebody who receives a lot of generosity from others; the people who tell the story of themselves as givers later on end up behaving in a more generous way. These stories can actually change our behavior to be more consistent with living a meaningful life.

Peter: Because I see myself as someone who …

Emily: Exactly, yeah. It’s an identity thing. Exactly.

Peter: It’s great. Transcendence is your fourth. I love what you write about it. It does seem to be a critical element of meaning. Here is the challenge that I thought of as I was reading it; which is in some ways the exact opposite challenge of purpose. That pursuing transcendence may naturally block it, and that in some ways when you talk about that we don’t have to fully change our lives in order to find meaning, we find these little ways. A lot of the examples that you give are people who spend 14 hours a day meditating or who are on a spaceship overlooking the earth. How do mundane people like you and I reach transcendence without the pursuit of transcendence getting in the way of the feeling of transcendence.

I just mentioned this on a previous podcast. I think of Martin Buber who talked about I-thou moments versus I-it moments in the sense of when you’re really deeply connected, the connection takes on this transcendent experience versus an I-it moment where the relationship is one, which is mediated by your thoughts. By your analysis, transcendence is about really being in that moment. How do we get there without pursuing it?

Emily: I give examples of people doing it in nature, which I think is one way that is accessible to everyone. Emerson, the American transcend analyzed walking in the woods, he felt his sense of self dissolve and he got this connection that was something beyond himself, which he might have referred to as the divine or something like that. That’s what transcendence is as you define it. It’s these moments when you are lifted above the hustle and bustle of daily life and you feel connected to something bigger. I love the Martin Buber example because it shows that you can achieve it in relationships as well.

I’m sure, most scenarios have had these conversations where you’re just so connected to the other person that you’re in flow. You lose off that sense of time, where you’re not checking your phone, you’re not worried about anything and there is that … it’s like a transcendent moment. It’s a beautiful example. I think one … and I’ll say this to you, I think transcendence can exist on a spectrum. You have those moments where the person who is meditating 14 hours a day has a major transcendent experience, where his sense of self completely washes away and you realize this, that it’s an illusion. Same with the astronauts who go into space and experience what’s called the overview effect where seeing the earth from space is just so … it just shifts their mind completely and changes the way they think about the world. That’s one extreme.

I think on the other extreme it can be, again, these small moments. You watch your child learning to do something new and it’s just like,”Wow, the wonder of life. The miracle of life.” For me, I live in Washington and I live very close to Rock Creek Park and just being in the woods is an experience that just helps me clear my head. I think meditating, praying, going to church or a service or whatever it is that engages you spiritually, these are other ways. They might not be here in this spectrum, but they’re over here and over here, and they get you there.

Peter: Right. We’re running out of time, but I would love … this is an absurd request, a couple of moments or sentences about love where you end the book.

Emily: Oh, love. Love is my other favorite topic aside from meaning. When I was looking back at what I had written about these four pillars and trying to figure out what it was that united a meaningful life? Was there something bigger that really defined a meaningful life? It seemed to me that it was love. Time and time again the stories that I told were of people serving others. These small acts of love. I told a story about a guy who was a drug dealer, who put that aside to start a fitness company in his community because he wanted to go back and make his community better with this work and not worse through drug dealing. That was one of it.

I talk about a zoo keeper who cares for her animals, who is willing to clean up poop for 80% of her time each day, because she loves her animals and that’s what her calling is. I think that at the bottom of a meaningful life, it’s these small acts of love that we put into the world and we might not ever know how they affect others, but they end up spiraling out and affecting others in ways that are profound even if you don’t know it.

Peter: Is love underlying the drive for meaning? Or is love the outcome of a life lived with meaning through these four pillars?

Emily: I think that what I was saying is certainly the latter, which is that when you live with meaning, your kind of putting this love in the world. I think that you can also say the former, which is that our yearning for love and our yearning for meaning. Some might say that those are the same thing. Think of a spiritual seeker who in Sufi poetry and I wonder if it’s like this in Jewish mystical poetry. I know it’s like basing Christian mystical poetry that the God is always talked about as the beloved. So, the seeker is trying to devote himself to the beloved and his life is made meaningful in that pursuit of trying to go closer to God. I think that it works both ways.

Peter: Yeah. That is true in Jewish mystical poetry. What I want to say also is that a lot of Jews that I know actually rely on Sufi mystical poetry. Rumi is very, very present in a lot of our traditions. We share a tradition in that way. I think that when you get to all these traditions, you end up pointing probably in a very similar direction. Not just similar from your book and the idea of belonging and purpose and story telling and transcendence. I mean, that’s the kindling that makes the religious fire in many ways.

Emily: No, I think that’s so true. I think that if you look at what makes religion such a powerful source of meaning for people is because these pillars are there. One thing that all these religions share is this ideal of love that they hold up.

Peter: Emily Esfahani Smith. Her book is The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters. It was a delight to read. It’s terrific to be in conversation with you, Emily. Thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Emily: Thanks for having me, Peter. It’s great talking to you.

Peter: I want to remind you again that my master level coach training is happening in a few short weeks. I’d love to see you there. To register, visit http://peterbregman.com/leadership-coach-training/ or check out the URL in iTunes.

I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast. If you did, it would really help us if you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review.

A common problem that I see in companies is a lot of busyness, a lot of hard work that fails to move the organization as a whole forward. That’s the problem that we solve with our big arrow process. For more information about that or to access all of my articles, videos and podcasts, visit peterbregman.com. Thank you Clare Marshall for producing this episode and thank you for listening.


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  • […] Are you confusing comfort with happiness? Emily Esfahani Smith furthers our discussion on happiness with her book The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. Discover the four pillars of meaning, why our culture has an obsession with happiness, and why happiness can’t be pursued. Listen here. […]

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