Striving for Meaning


When Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, was in high school, his chemistry teacher declared to the class that “life is nothing more than an oxidation process — a process of combustion.”

Hearing this, Frankl leaped out of his chair and cried out, “But sir, if this is true, then what can be the meaning of life?”

There are a lot of ideas out there about what constitutes “fulfillment.” Some people think being successful will make them fulfilled, while others chase happiness, hoping that will bring lasting peace. But in my research and reporting, I’ve found that the answer lies in a different path: the search for meaning. When people chase and value success and happiness the way our culture encourages us to, they end up feeling miserable. But people who have a sense of meaning and purpose in life, according to research, do better at school and at work, feel more content, and even live longer.

The question is — how can we find our purpose and lead meaningful lives?

The first step is understanding what meaning is and is not. “Meaning” is a vague term, and sometimes people think that meaning is the same thing as happiness. But according to psychologists and philosophers, the two are different. Happiness is a positive mental and emotional state — and it comes and goes: when you feel good you’re happy, and when you feel bad you’re unhappy.

Meaning, though, is bigger. The defining feature of a meaningful life is connecting and contributing to something beyond yourself — whether it’s your family, your school, nature, the world, or God. When people tell psychologists that their lives are meaningful, it’s because three conditions have been satisfied: they feel that their lives are significant and worthwhile, they believe that their lives are driven by a sense of purpose, and they believe that their lives are part of a bigger story.

Sometimes, though not always, meaning and happiness can actually be at odds. One study found, for example, that kids who did chores had a greater sense of purpose in life. The reason is that they felt like they were contributing to their families. Another study found that activities like studying, practicing a musical instrument, or forgiving a friend brought greater meaning in life, while activities like playing video games, eating ice cream, and taking a nap brought greater happiness. The things we do that make our lives meaningful, like studying or doing the chores, don’t always make us happy, because they can be hard or stressful. But they do bring us a more lasting sense of fulfillment and meaning.

Beyond sounding vague, the idea of leading a meaningful life can feel overwhelming. Do I have to find a cure for cancer to lead a meaningful life? Do I have to launch a company like Facebook and change the world? Do I have to travel to distant monasteries and temples?

That’s what I thought at first. But as I wrote my book, The Power of Meaning, I realized that wasn’t the case. Turning to what the research in psychology says about meaning, to what philosophers and sages through time have written about it, and to the stories of the many people I interviewed, I found that there are four specific pillars of meaning that we can each build in our lives to find deeper fulfillment.

The four pillars of meaning are: belonging, transcendence, storytelling, and purpose.


Relationships are certainly important for fulfillment, but belonging is about being in a certain kind of relationship — one in which you are valued for who you are, and where you value others for who they are. Some relationships are defined by false belonging: you’re valued for how you look or what you do, and not for who you are. True belonging requires accepting the other person no matter what, and feeling accepted in turn.

In the age of Instagram and Snapchat, it can be easy to be distracted by our phones and ignore the people around us. It’s possible to build some belonging through our online connections, but true belonging requires actual contact with another person, whether it’s meeting face-to-face or talking on the phone.


Transcendent experiences are those moments when you feel totally absorbed by something beyond yourself. This can happen when you’re in the zone playing sports or a musical instrument, when you become completely absorbed in your schoolwork, when you get lost in a song you’re listening to, or are overwhelmed by awe and wonder in nature or at a religious or spiritual service. These experiences make us forget ourselves and feel connected to something much bigger. When the experience is over, people feel replenished and like they have a better perspective on themselves and the world.


This pillar is about the story you tell about yourself—what kind of person do you think you are, how did you get that way, and where is your life going? Unfortunately, a lot of people tell negative stories about themselves, like “I’ll never fit in,” or “I’m no good,” or “I’ll never be smart enough.” These stories are almost never true. One of the quirks of being human is having what psychologists call a “negativity bias.” When something bad happens, like getting a bad grade, it affects us much more powerfully than when something good happens, and therefore has the power to alter our story more powerfully. If you find yourself telling a negative story — which many of us do; it’s very normal and common — ask yourself what the evidence is for that story, and then see if you can find contrary evidence. For example, if you feel left out and conclude “No one likes me,” try to remember moments you’ve connected and had fun with others. Another strategy is to pretend that you’re talking to a friend. If your friend told you, “No one likes me,” you’d try to comfort them and prove them wrong. Be as kind to yourself as you are to your friends.


I saved this pillar for last because I think it may be the most interesting one for kids to reflect on. Psychologists define purpose as a big goal that organizes your life and involves making a contribution to others. If that sounds abstract, think of it like this: How do you want to make the world a better place? Several years ago, I had the chance to spend some time with high school students from around the country who told me about their purposes. One girl said she wanted to be a law enforcement officer one day. Her purpose, she said, was to make her neighborhood, and therefore the world, a safer place. Another wanted to become a doctor to help people when they’re sick. His purpose was to help reduce suffering. In studies, when students identify how they want to make the world a better place, they end up getting better grades and feel less motivated to be distracted by computer games. This is because purpose gives us a reason to push through the good, the bad, and the boring of life to accomplish our greater goals.

I should mention one more thing: Your purpose can change over time, and some people have more than one purpose. If you’re unsure what your purpose is, don’t worry: part of being young is figuring that out. Keep paying attention to what you enjoy studying and doing, work hard, and reflect on the ways you would like to make your dent, however big or small, on the world.


On my website, there’s a quiz you can take to figure out which pillar of meaning is most important to you. You don’t necessarily need to have all the pillars in your life in order for it to feel meaningful, and over time, different pillars may take center stage in your life, while others fade into the background.

Regardless of which pillar you value most, there are concrete things you can do to build each one in your life. For example, to build belonging, you can choose to spend your lunch period getting to know a friend better or making conversation with one of the teachers or staffers at your school. To build purpose, you can reflect on how you want to make the world a better place and then work hard in school to help you accomplish that goal. To build storytelling, you can begin keeping a journal. To build transcendence, you can go for a walk through the woods or listen to a beautiful piece of music.

You don’t have to do something extraordinary and epic to lead a meaningful life. There is meaning all around us.

Emily Esfahani Smith is a writer, editor, and speaker. In her writing, she draws on psychology, philosophy, and literature to write about the human experience — why we are the way we are and how we can find grace and meaning in a world that is full of suffering. Her book The Power of Meaning, an international bestseller, was published by Crown and has been translated into 16 different languages. She is also an international speaker who has delivered dozens of keynote addresses and workshops at corporations, conferences, non-profit organizations, libraries, universities, and high schools around the country and world. In 2017, Smith delivered a talk called “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy” on the main stage of TED, which was based on her book. It’s been viewed over 8 million times. The former managing editor of The New Criterion, Smith’s articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and other publications. Smith is also a reporter for the Aspen Institute's Weave project, an initiative founded by the New York Times' David Brooks to address the problems of isolation, alienation, and division. At Weave, Smith finds and tells the stories of people who are working to rebuild the social fabric. Smith studied philosophy at Dartmouth College. She received her master’s degree in positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, where she continues to serve as an assistant instructor in positive psychology. Born in Zurich, Switzerland, Smith grew up in Montreal, Canada. She now lives in Washington DC with her husband, Charlie.

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