The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters

The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters

This wise, stirring book argues that the search for meaning can immeasurably deepen our lives and is far more fulfilling than the pursuit of personal happiness.There is a myth in our culture that the search for meaning is some esoteric pursuit that you have to travel to a distant monastery or page through dusty volumes to figure out life s great secret. The truth is, there...

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Title:The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters
Author:Emily Esfahani Smith
Rating:
ISBN:0553419994
Format Type:Hardcover
Number of Pages:288 pages

The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters Reviews

  • Vikki
    Sep 15, 2016

    This is one of those books that can change the way you look at life and change your life if you let it. Ever wonder why some of the richest/first world countries are rated the "happiest" countries but have the highest suicide rates as compared to some of the poorest/third world countries? Meaning. People in poorer countries see their lives as more meaningful even if they have to work harder and suffer more. Having focus on other people versus yourself (like in individualistic -centered societies

    This is one of those books that can change the way you look at life and change your life if you let it. Ever wonder why some of the richest/first world countries are rated the "happiest" countries but have the highest suicide rates as compared to some of the poorest/third world countries? Meaning. People in poorer countries see their lives as more meaningful even if they have to work harder and suffer more. Having focus on other people versus yourself (like in individualistic -centered societies) has made people feel like their lives are more meaningful. Just because your life is easier and you do not have to worry about day to day survival doesn't always mean you see a purpose or meaning to life. There are studies and research throughout this book as well as stories to illustrate the point of having a meaningful life versus a happy life. It gives you ideas and inspires you to make your life more meaningful as well.

    This book took me a long time to read for such a short book but I was constantly looking things up or just thinking about what I read that I felt that it was well worth the read. I will definitely be rereading this book for ideas and inspiration.

    I gave this book 5 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.

    I received an advanced copy of this book from a NetGalley for review consideration.

  • Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance
    Oct 16, 2016

    People are often in search of happiness, but Emily Esfahani Smith argues that people would do well to search for meaning instead. Smith looks closely at the research that has been done on four areas of finding meaning: relationships to others, contributing to society, making sense of experiences, and connecting to something bigger than one's self. The book is, happily, both readable and based on research, and that doesn't often happen.

  • Leland Beaumont
    Oct 24, 2016

    For many years a good friend of mine hung a sign in his office advising him to find: “Something, to do, someone to love, and something to hope for.” Perhaps we all seek meaning in our lives; “for as long as human beings have existed, they have yearned to know what makes life worth living.”

    As more people realize that religious dogma is not the path to meaningful lives we may be cast adrift, or we may seek effective paths toward meaning. Author Emily Esfahani Smith provides useful insights as we s

    For many years a good friend of mine hung a sign in his office advising him to find: “Something, to do, someone to love, and something to hope for.” Perhaps we all seek meaning in our lives; “for as long as human beings have existed, they have yearned to know what makes life worth living.”

    As more people realize that religious dogma is not the path to meaningful lives we may be cast adrift, or we may seek effective paths toward meaning. Author Emily Esfahani Smith provides useful insights as we seek our own meaningful path through life. “With meaning no longer imposed on us from and outside source, we have to create it for ourselves.”

    Paths to meaning cannot run directly through happiness. Paradoxically, chasing happiness actually makes people unhappy. Unearned happiness does not bring us joy. A chief research finding is that there is a distinction between a

    life and a

    life. While

    refers to happiness, Aristotle used the ancient Greek word

    to refer to “human flourishing.” “Leading a eudaimonic life, Aristotle argued, requires cultivating the best qualities with you both morally and intellectually and living up to your potential.” If

    is defined by feeling good, then researchers argue that

    is defined by being and doing good.

    In searching for the essential elements of meaning, Smith studied Sufi rituals, the work of several philosophers, great literature, positive psychology, student interviews, mythology,

    magazine, and other sources. Four themes presented themselves again and again throughout her search. She identifies these four pillars of meaning as: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. Each chapter dedicated to exploring one of these pillars brings the ideas to life through the experiences of real people.

    Tiny Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay provides a prototype for the pillar of

    . As one resident explained, “There are 480 people on this island, and we all know each other.” People feel they belong when they are in relationships based on mutual care, and they have frequent pleasant interactions with other people. “Close relationships and high quality connections share an important feature in common: both require us to focus on others.”

    The second pillar is

    —a “stable and far-reaching” goal we are constantly working toward that involves a contribution to the world. Although zookeepers spend much of their day mucking out stalls, they have an unusually strong sense of purpose. Zookeepers are willing to sacrifice pay, time, comfort, and status because they believe they have a duty to use their gifts to help vulnerable creatures in captivity lead better lives. You may find purpose “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

    —the third pillar of meaning— “is fundamental to the human search for meaning, whether we tell tales of the creation of the earth or our own early choices.” Storytelling helps us understand our lives as coherent. When crafting our stories we have the chance to focus on the most extraordinary events of our lives, both good and bad. People who believe their lives are meaningful tend to tell stories defined by growth, communion, and agency. Our stories endow mere facts with meaning.

    is the power “to go beyond” or “to climb”. One night at the McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis, Texas hundreds of people gazing at thousands of stars in the night sky felt awe as they recognized they were one small part of an unimaginably vast universe. “The abject humility we experience when we realize that we are nothing but tiny flecks in a vast and incomprehensible universe paradoxically fills us with a deep and powerful sense of meaning.”

    In the final chapters, Smith draws on her background in positive psychology to explore how these pillars of meaning can help up is overcome adversity, grow through resilience, and create cultures of meaning.

    Pleasant stories and rigorous research meld into this readable and authoritative treatment of an important and timely topic.

  •  Lisa A. ✿
    Dec 01, 2016

    This non-fiction book draws heavily on the precepts of positive psychology, but with a twist. Instead of the past focus on the ever elusive feeling of

    there has been a recent shift in this school of thought, with a new interest in what it means to live a

    life. That personally made the subject matter more palatable and I tried to approach it with an open mind.

    The book was well researched and provided many anecdotal stories; perhaps too many in some instances. Although I agre

    This non-fiction book draws heavily on the precepts of positive psychology, but with a twist. Instead of the past focus on the ever elusive feeling of

    there has been a recent shift in this school of thought, with a new interest in what it means to live a

    life. That personally made the subject matter more palatable and I tried to approach it with an open mind.

    The book was well researched and provided many anecdotal stories; perhaps too many in some instances. Although I agreed with some of the broader points made by the author (E.g. the need to feel connected to others and finding a personally meaningful way to contribute to society) the whole positive psychology slant still bothered me. Within some of the examples given, it still seemed the only stories worthy of being included were the ones with an overall happy ending after the individuals overcame some huge obstacle. In other words, they usually lived happily ever after.

    Overall, a well written book but I had problems relating to some of the Cinderella stories.

    Final rating: 3.5 stars

    Thank you to Crown Publishers and Penguin Random House for providing me with this Advance Reader's Edition to review.

  • Sarah Brodsky
    Jan 23, 2017

    In Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, Martin Seligman recalls visiting his father in a nursing home and witnessing his father’s despair after being disabled by a series of strokes. Then as a student and later a professor of psychology, Seligman saw helplessness again and again, in lab animals that had been inadvertently conditioned not to attempt control over their environment, and in depressed people who reported feeling empty. Seligman went on to prove that it was possib

    In Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, Martin Seligman recalls visiting his father in a nursing home and witnessing his father’s despair after being disabled by a series of strokes. Then as a student and later a professor of psychology, Seligman saw helplessness again and again, in lab animals that had been inadvertently conditioned not to attempt control over their environment, and in depressed people who reported feeling empty. Seligman went on to prove that it was possible to lift people out of despair by changing their beliefs about their circumstances; you can teach optimism and resilience. Seligman’s work helped divert psychology from cataloging mental aberrations and toward the study of psychological strengths, and positive psychology was born.

    While Learned Optimism is an illuminating look at the founding of positive psychology, it’s not the best introduction to the field for laymen, as it alternates between verbatim schema from Seligman’s research and anecdotes about his children and ex-wife. Emily Esfahani Smith gives a much more accessible overview of positive psychology in The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. With generous hand-holding, Smith describes studies on the importance of community, transcendent experiences, and other “pillars of meaning” for psychological well-being.

    Smith has interviewed many people who have found some kind of purpose or meaning in life, and some of the stories of overcoming adversity begin to blur together. A few stand out, such as that of a man who was imprisoned for dealing drugs, got in a fight, and ended up in solitary confinement. He was given a pen, an envelope, paper, and a Bible. He wrote a letter to his family, but without a stamp, he was unable to send it. Then he received a letter from his sister recommending that he read Psalm 91. When he opened the Bible to that psalm, he found a stamp between its pages. He was able to mail his letter, and after he was released, he opened a personal training business based on a fitness program he had invented in prison.

    Also moving is a story from Smith’s own life. In the introduction, Smith explains that she grew up in a Sufi meetinghouse. She writes nostalgically of the devotion of the darvishes, who often traveled great distances to come to her house and meet a visiting mystic. Every act of the Sufis’ religious practice was imbued with meaning, and Smith would try to imitate their manner of drinking tea and meditating. But when Smith was a teenager, her family “drifted away” from Sufism and left her searching for another source of meaning to replace it.

    Smith assures us that the precepts of positive psychology are an ample substitute for her lost childhood faith, but it’s hard to believe her. That’s not to say that the research isn’t valuable. Some of the studies she cites are genuinely clever or instructive, such as one that induced awe in an experimental group by positioning the subjects beneath a large replica of a dinosaur skeleton, and another that tracked the effects of a purposeful job description on fundraisers at a university call center. After they learned how their work was helping a scholarship recipient, the fundraisers spent more time on the phone and raised more money than their coworkers in a control group.

    What’s unconvincing about the idea of a meaningful-but-not-religious life based on Smith’s four pillars is that the advice presented here has no encompassing narrative, despite the fact that one of the pillars is storytelling. Each of the studies that Smith writes about examines an isolated aspect of a meaningful life, and the examples often feature adherents of religions or philosophies. But since psychologists are not concerned with choosing between cultures, their recommendations can be applied to any beliefs and are kind of vacuous in the aggregate.

    It appears that Buddha, existentialism, and a jousting club all have equal claims to creating meaning, as long as they can clear a few easy hurdles like forming a community and motivating people to act. Choosing from the available meaning sources for the purpose of maintaining psychological health is not a very significant choice, then, since any other option could have been just as therapeutic. This could be even more of a problem for the people who sample the suggested meaningful activities without settling on a belief system at all. Chasing after meaning through incidental attendance at stargazing night or StoryCorps could prove just as unsatisfying as chasing after happiness, which Smith rightly concludes is a way to disappointment.

    The absence of a frame of reference also means that there is little acknowledgement that meaning sources can conflict with each other. In Smith’s telling, meaning is almost always good. Only in the final chapter does Smith briefly mention that people can find meaning in evil, as for example recruits find meaning in ISIS. It’s clear from just a passing reference to ISIS that meaning is not sufficient for either individual or societal well-being and that meaning sources must be measured against other values. But Smith doesn’t explore what those values might be and merely trusts readers to pursue meaning virtuously.

    The Power of Meaning has some sensible suggestions for people who want to do something fulfilling: be involved in a community, find a purpose, and seek transcendence. The advice will be much easier to follow if you already have a philosophy or faith in which to carry it out. It probably won’t teach anyone to craft a meaningful life from scratch, although it may give you some ideas for adding meaning on the margins.

  • Melora
    Dec 01, 2016

    Nothing revolutionary here, but, then, as the author reminds us with an early reference to

    , people have been writing about what makes for a meaningful life for thousands of years. Still, Smith

    do a really nice job of pulling together ideas, poetry, and research on the topic from around the world and through history, organizing her book around the idea of “four pillars of meaning: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence.” This structure allows for coherence

    Nothing revolutionary here, but, then, as the author reminds us with an early reference to

    , people have been writing about what makes for a meaningful life for thousands of years. Still, Smith

    do a really nice job of pulling together ideas, poetry, and research on the topic from around the world and through history, organizing her book around the idea of “four pillars of meaning: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence.” This structure allows for coherence while allowing her to range through various fields – sociology, psychology, theology, metaphysics, biology – and to gather information and anecdote, story and song, in an exploration of the ways that philosophers, poets, scientists, soldiers, and many, many others have weighed in on the question of what makes a life worth living. In each section, a source of meaning is examined from various angles through recent or current sociological/psychological studies which she describes, telling the stories of participants and of how the “pillar” allowed them to find meaning in their lives. Smith is a fine and engaging storyteller, relating the stories of the individuals involved with compassion and respect, and the insights she offers, if familiar, are persuasive and often inspiring. By pointing out the ways in which the woes of many individuals in modern society – loneliness, depression, aimlessness, etc. – may stem from a lack of

    , Smith reminds readers of the centrality of this need, and by focusing on realistic ways in which ordinary people find meaning in their lives her book can fairly be said to help readers in, as the title claims, “Crafting a Life that Matters.”

    I received this book from LibraryThing through their Early Reviewers program with the understanding that the content of my review would not affect my likelihood of receiving books through the program in the future. Many thanks to Crown Publishers, Emily Esfahani Smith, and LibraryThing! 

  • Jake
    Jan 16, 2017

    I won a copy of this from a goodreads giveaway and I'm glad I did. I suspected that this book might be too cheesy for me, being a hater of self-help books and all, but I smelled no cheese. Smith uses philosophy, literature and anecdotes from individual lives to show the importance of finding meaning in having a healthy and fulfilling life. Meaning is differentiated from happiness. The rich tend to be happier, but also are more prone to killing themselves, while the unhappy poor when they find me

    I won a copy of this from a goodreads giveaway and I'm glad I did. I suspected that this book might be too cheesy for me, being a hater of self-help books and all, but I smelled no cheese. Smith uses philosophy, literature and anecdotes from individual lives to show the importance of finding meaning in having a healthy and fulfilling life. Meaning is differentiated from happiness. The rich tend to be happier, but also are more prone to killing themselves, while the unhappy poor when they find meaning keep living. An unexpected thing happened while reading this; I actually changed some behaviors and attitudes for a few days and things worked out pretty well. Hmm. This is a well written and highly functional book.

  • Lissa
    Jan 17, 2017

    4.5 stars. I picked up this book intending to dip in and out as the mood fit, however, I ended up reading it from start to finish rather quickly. Emily Esfahani Smith begins with the assertion that studies have shown that fleetingness and fickleness of happiness has very little to do with depressed or suicidal thoughts, but rather is greatly effected by whether one's life is perceived to have meaning. She then provides chapters on different interpretations of meaning and snippets from people who

    4.5 stars. I picked up this book intending to dip in and out as the mood fit, however, I ended up reading it from start to finish rather quickly. Emily Esfahani Smith begins with the assertion that studies have shown that fleetingness and fickleness of happiness has very little to do with depressed or suicidal thoughts, but rather is greatly effected by whether one's life is perceived to have meaning. She then provides chapters on different interpretations of meaning and snippets from people who have overcome great odd by finding meaning in their lives. I thought this was incredibly well researched and written with very interesting and inspiring ideas that are especially relevant in our current, somewhat toxic, environment. I would highly recommend this to people who are still suffering the affects of the 2016 election cycle. I received this book from the LibraryThing giveaway in exchange for an honest review.

  • Kristina
    Jan 22, 2017

    While I seriously struggled with the introduction and chapter one of this book, once I got past those I gained a lot of insight from this book. I thought this would be a "self-help" book, but for those looking for that, it is really more informational about what gives life meaning from a scientific perspective. Each chapter on the "pillars of meaning" (belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence) goes into examples of studies conducted and how certain individuals found meaning through on

    While I seriously struggled with the introduction and chapter one of this book, once I got past those I gained a lot of insight from this book. I thought this would be a "self-help" book, but for those looking for that, it is really more informational about what gives life meaning from a scientific perspective. Each chapter on the "pillars of meaning" (belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence) goes into examples of studies conducted and how certain individuals found meaning through one of these pillars.

    More than anything I enjoyed the stories about how people were gaining insight to the meaning of their lives. I guess there is an innate desire to tell our stories (storytelling) and for some people (like me) a desire to hear those stories.

    I had to go with three stars instead of more though because I seriously didn't think I was going to make it though the first 42 pages.

    *** I received this book for free through Goodreads First Reads ***

    THANK YOU GOODREADS FIRST READS AND CROWN PUBLISHING GROUP!

  • Bob
    Feb 05, 2017

    The question of what a life well-lived is one that philosophers and baristas, young and old alike have considered from the earliest records we have of human musings. Emily Esfahani Smith introduces us to the importance of this in describing the beauty of the Sufi community gatherings in which she grew up and the findings of positive psychologists Martin

    The question of what a life well-lived is one that philosophers and baristas, young and old alike have considered from the earliest records we have of human musings. Emily Esfahani Smith introduces us to the importance of this in describing the beauty of the Sufi community gatherings in which she grew up and the findings of positive psychologists Martin Seligman and Robert Nozick. At one time, it was at the heart of university education and considering the great ideas was to consider how people through history found meaning. No longer. And yet now as ever, people face a crisis of meaning as they try to answer the question of what they are living for.

    Smith does not offer a single answer, recognizing that people have answered this in numerous ways in different religions, philosophies, or ways of living. What she does instead is draw upon contemporary research and a wide range of writers and extra-ordinary people who have grappled with questions of meaning to identify four pillars or necessary elements upon which a meaningful live is built or as she puts it, "crafted."

    She writes of the close knit community of the Tangier Island watermen and the Society for Creative Anachronism as two examples of communities that foster a high sense of belonging and thus meaning for their participants. From infants to old people, isolation is deadly to health and one's sense of well-being.

    We meet a young zoo-keeper and an ex-con who launched a fitness enterprise after helping first himself and other prisoners get fit. And she gives the example of the NASA janitor who told President Kennedy that it was his purpose to "help put a man on the moon." Whoever we are, we need some big goal around which we organize our lives.

    This caught me by surprise at first. Yet we all need to be able to see the course of our lives as a coherent narrative that makes sense of the world. She tells the stories of The Moth and the Story Corp projects and how significant the telling of stories are for both storytellers and their audiences.

    She describes the "Overview Effect," the experience of astronauts having scene the planet as a whole and not being able to ever approach life the same way again. For many, transcendence comes through some form of religious experience, but whatever it is, it is this sense of being part of something vastly greater than oneself.

    Her concluding two chapters are on "Growth" and "Cultures of Meaning." She writes of how often the discovery of meaning comes through adversity, using the examples of the Dinner Party, a gathering for those who have lost loved ones who are trying to find meaning in the midst of their grief, and Dryhootch, a coffee house for veterans suffering from PTSD founded by a vet whose struggles with PTSD led to a drunk driving accident where he killed another man. In "Cultures of Meaning" Smith describes how people have found meaning in communities emphasizing each of the pillars, ranging from a church to an apparel company.

    Emily Esfahani Smith's approach, as you may be able to tell is to mix a bit of research, insights from thoughtful writers like Viktor Frankl, and real life stories. It makes for a highly readable account. She honors both those whose sources of meaning are found in religious faith, and those for whom it is not. While some who are committed to a particular way of defining meaning might find this to "relativistic," I would contend it is a great way to discover the ways people find meaning besides one's own way. I could see the book being used for discussions where the object is learning about how others find meaning by exploring where each of us finds belonging, what gives each of us purpose, how each of us would narrate the story of our lives, and where we have experienced transcendence.

    It raises good questions, particularly for those in religious traditions, about how one might go deeper in those traditions. We may embrace certain formal beliefs and practices, yet for our faith to be something alive both for us and others, the elements of belonging, purpose, story, and transcendence are indeed essential to living out lives that matter. To whom we belong and who we love, how we translate what we believe about God or whatever Ultimate we affirm into purposeful action, how we make sense of our story as part of a larger Story, and how we cultivate an attentiveness to God or the Ultimate are the things that bring beliefs to life. Ultimately, the "four pillars" must rest on some foundation and not thin air, but a foundation alone does not make a house to live in, but only something on which to build the meaningful life. This book may help us reflect on how well we are building.

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    Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via LibraryThing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.