The Power of Meaning - Four Pillars

We all want our lives to matter and find the purpose behind our existence. A worthy addition to the literature in this genre is The Power of Meaning by Emily Esfahani Smith. I found it to be deeply engaging and got me reflecting on what I want my life to stand for. The two questions most people have are what is the meaning of existence and how can I lead a meaningful life. The people who have found meaning have three conditions that are satisfied 1. They evaluate their lives as significant and worthwhile, 2.they believe their lives make sense and 3.they believe their lives are driven by a sense of purpose.
Here is a wonderful quote by John Stuart Mill “Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way. Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation, exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, without either forestalling it in imagination, or putting it to flight by fatal questioning.”
Camus wrote about Sisyphus who was condemned to carry the boulder to peak of mountain only to have it tumbling back to do it again. Most of us think his life was meaningless. However he does not lament his life and keeps doing it without compliant as he found meaning in the ordinary. He embodies three qualities revolt, passion and freedom which are fundamental to a meaningful life.
There are four pillars of meaning which are belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence here they are with my take on each
Belonging – People feel great when they belong to an organization that has a larger cause. They love communities which provide them the feeling that they are making a contribution to the world and gives them a feeling of significance. Belonging involves caring for others and having pleasant Interactions. One example in the book is the Society for Creative Anachronism which is an international organization dedicated to researching and re-creating the arts and skills of pre-17th-century Europe. Their “Known World” consists of 20 kingdoms, with over 30,000 members residing in countries around the world. Members, dressed in clothing of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, attend events which feature tournaments, royal courts, feasts, dancing, various classes & workshops, and more.
Purpose – This is finding the higher meaning of your work. Sometimes we think that purposeful life means impacting the world and building something remarkable. While that is great we can also find meaning in ordinary existence. One example provided is Ashley Richmond who cleans poop out of stalls. She is a zookeeper at the Detroit zoo where she cares for giraffes and kangaroos. She says “I can't imagine doing anything else.” She wants to make lives of animals richer, happier and more exciting. She says “I can help them live somewhat normal lives.” Finding your purpose requires self-reflection and self-knowledge. Define your mission statement, write your eulogy, define your values and you might find your purpose.
Storytelling – Story telling is fundamental to the human search for meaning. Whether we tell tales of the creation of the earth or of our own there are redemption stories and contamination stories. Redemption stories lift us whereas contamination stories are less generative. You can also reflect on the pivotal moments of your life like asking what if I could walk or what if I could still play football. This is called counter factual thinking and you reinterpret the earlier events of your life.
Transcendence– This is finding the higher meaning of your existence beyond just your day to day activities. It is going beyond the petty things of your life. William James tried to get transcendence by inhaling nitrous oxide laughing gas to stimulate the mystical consciousness. He said “No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question,—for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.” Find the purpose beyond yourself and transcend reality.
Growth – There is a chapter on growth which talks about the dinner party a national community which helps in organizing dinners where people talk about losing someone loved and what it means to them. Tedeschi and Calhoun say there are five ways people grow after a traumatic experience. First their relationships strengthen, second they discover new paths and purposes in life, third the trauma allows them to find inner strength, fourth their spiritual life deepens and finally they have a renewed appreciation of life. Social psychologist James Pennebaker says writing about an upsetting experience also helps in first getting wisdom from the experience, second a shift in perspective occurs and third people find positive meaning in a traumatic experience.
Cultures of Meaning - Post industrial nations are in midst of cultural transformation moving from materialistic wants to more meaning. For example the future project unlocks the limitless potential of every young person. Another is the life is good business where the purpose is to leave a positive mark on the lives of others. This is what entrepreneur Aaron Hurst calls the Purpose Economy. She says “the Purpose Economy is defined by the quest for people to have more purpose in their lives,” explaining that “it is an economy where value lies in establishing purpose for employees and customers – through serving needs greater than their own, enabling personal growth and building community.” Encore org inspires older adults to craft a new purpose for themselves during retirement. Story corps in 2003 was formed to give ordinary people opportunity to tell their stories and be heard two people go to a booth and talk for 40 min. A copy of the recording is sent to American folklore center at the library of congress where it is archived giving participants some measure of immortality. It is of course shared with permission.
The conclusion talks about the ground breaking research of William Breitbart who says that while death often leads people to see life as meaningless it can also be a catalyst for them to work out the meaning of their lives. He developed an eight session therapy where in first session they are asked to reflect on one or two experiences of when life had felt meaningful, the second session deals with identity before the cancer and who they are after, the third and fourth sessions they share the story of their life, the session five is where they confront life's limitations and understand what they consider good death, in the next two sessions they dwell on their creative and experiential sources of meaning where they discuss any unfinished business they have and in the final session they consider their hopes of the future and their legacy the part of them that will live on after their death.
Finally take the death bed test where you look back at your life from the end and question yourself. Some good questions are did you live a meaningful fulfilled life? Is it a life you are glad that you live? And if you could live your life again what would you do differently?
Taking the death bed test can truly identify what your life should stand for. I hope you enjoyed reading this review and find true meaning in your life.
The views expressed here are my own and do not represent my organization.


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