Our culture is obsessed with happiness. And yet, despite millions of dollars invested in the happiness industry, many of us feel aimless, alienated, even despairing. Well, what if we’ve been chasing the wrong thing? Psychological research shows that the pursuit of happiness can actually make us less happy—that the key to a richer, more satisfying life is the pursuit of meaning.
So, how do you live a meaningful life? And what are its effects? To answer those questions, I interviewed dozens of meaning-seekers, immersed myself in classic works of philosophy and literature, went stargazing in Texas, and attended an ancient monastic service in Seattle. In the end, I turned my findings into a book: The Power of Meaning. The foundation for a meaningful life—the principles upon which everything else is built—is what I’ve come to call the four pillars of meaning: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. Here are the basics of each pillar:
We all need to find our tribe, to feel understood, recognized, and valued—we need to feel that we matter to others. The way we satisfy our need to belong transforms over the course of our lives. In our early years, the love of a caregiver is essential; later we find belonging in our relationships with friends, family, colleagues, and romantic partners. We also join communities of like-minded people to satisfy our need to belong—whether it’s a group of yoga enthusiasts, bereaved parents, or a book club.
Purpose is a far-reaching goal that motivates our behavior, serves as the organizing principle of our lives, and allows us to make a contribution to the world. People who have such a purpose are more resilient and motivated, with the drive to muddle through the good and the bad of life in order to accomplish their goals. Purpose sounds big—ending world hunger big or eliminating nuclear weapons big. But it doesn’t have to be. Living with purpose can also mean mentoring children, creating a more welcoming environment at your office, or tending a community garden.
We are all storytellers whether we realize it or not; we take our disparate experiences and assemble them into a narrative that allows us to understand our lives as coherent. This storytelling process helps us to form an identity and to make sense of the world: why things happen the way they do, who we are, and how we got that way. Reflecting on childhood experiences, on pivotal moments in our lives, and reading or listening to other people’s stories can help us make meaning. According to researchers, being able to tell stories defined by themes of redemption, growth, and love is associated with more meaning in life.
During a transcendent or mystical experience, we feel that we have risen above the everyday world to a higher reality. Whether these moments take place beneath the stars, in front of a gorgeous work of art, during a religious ritual, or in the hospital delivery room, they wash away our sense of self and leave us feeling connected to something vast and meaningful. Our anxieties about existence and death can evaporate, and life seems, for a moment, to make sense, leaving us with peace and well-being. Transcendent experiences imbue our lives with meaning.
All of us have the capacity to make meaning in our lives and to join together to create a larger culture that values meaning over self-gratification. The most important thing I discovered in writing this book is that pursuing meaning doesn’t require a pilgrimage to the top of a mountain in Tibet or to the most ancient library in the world. Meaning is available to us here and now if we can only recognize it, cultivate it, and embrace it.