Lately, I’ve been thinking about what it takes to live a good life. With all the challenges that we face, with regard to our family, work, health, finances or political situation, it can be difficult to carve out a life that feels satisfying, fulfilling and worthwhile. Fortunately, I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to interview an expert on living a meaningful life for my Ruthless Compassion podcast series.
Emily Esfahani Smith has a master’s degree in positive psychology and writes about culture, psychology and relationships for a variety of publications. Recently, she published The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters (Viking Press). Ms. Esfahani Smith wrote in her book that meaning is what will enable us to live a good life, so I was particularly interested to talk with her about how we can go about doing this.
In her definition of a meaningful life, Ms. Esfahani Smith includes belonging to a community, making a contribution and living with a greater sense of purpose. In her definition of happiness, Ms. Smith includes seeking comfort, pleasure and enjoyment.
I’ve noticed that there seems to be a lot of unhappiness going around today, and a lot of social disconnection leading to loneliness and isolation. People are pursuing happiness more than ever, but they seem to be more miserable and alienated than ever before.
It’s not difficult to see how the pursuit of happiness can leave us with only fleeting moments of pleasure or relief from pain, but might fail to satisfy in the long run. If, on the other hand, we look to create meaning, we can seek out relationships and experiences that will deeply nourish us over the course of our lives.
In my discussion with Ms. Esfahani Smith, and in reading her book, it’s become clear that the secret to finding happiness is to stop looking for it directly and instead, work on creating a meaningful life. When we’re living a life filled with meaning, moments of happiness will come to us instead of our having to chase after this illusory goal.
So how do we live lives filled with meaning? We focus on giving to others, rather than accumulating more money and things for ourselves. We deepen our sense of belonging to our families, community and world. We connect to others through acts of loving-kindness and altruism. We open our hearts and share what we have.
Instead of pursuing wealth, popularity, fame or more influence, we can choose to live with greater purpose; to be part of something bigger than ourselves. This can mean becoming a social activist, deepening our spiritual practice, or becoming a better friend, spouse or parent.
Living with greater purpose, according to Ms Esfahani Smith, is having a goal that we’re always working toward, and that always involves making a difference in the world, our family and/or our community.
Life can be painful at times. There’s loss, disappointment, failure. Often, we feel out of control of the events going on around us, be they political, economic or environmental. It can be tempting to focus on pleasure-seeking activities to distract us from these overwhelming issues. Unfortunately, these distractions won’t make us feel any less hurt, angry, frightened or frustrated, and they could create further problems to our lives.
If we focus instead on creating a meaningful existence, it will help to put into perspective the painful parts of our lives. We can feel better about ourselves, other people and the world when we’re participating in relationships and activities that are positive and beneficial. When we pursue meaning, we can be less stressed, more fulfilled and yes, even find a measure of happiness.
Click here to purchase Emily Esfahani Smith’s new book, The Power of Meaning.
Ms Esfahani Smith will be appearing at the Curious Minds Weekend in Toronto on March 5th at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, 506 Bloor Street West, from 5:15–6:15 pm, discussing The Secrets to a Meaningful Life.
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