How To Find Lasting Meaning and Purpose

I just devoured The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters by Emily Esfahani Smith and have added it to my All-Time Reading List.

It’s easily one of the best books I’ve read about finding purpose and meaning. And very honestly it came at the ideal time in my life.

I found the book originally through my friend Kristen and also Emily’s excellent article titled Pursue Meaning over Happiness.

Here are some of my highlighted notes and comments from the book:

“Global suicide rates have spiked 60 percent since World War II.”

“In the United States, the rate of people suffering from depression has risen dramatically since 1960, and between 1988 and 2008 the use of antidepressants rose 400 percent.”

“Each year, forty thousands Americans take their lives, and worldwide that number is closer to a million.”

“Wealthier nations, it turns out, had significantly higher suicide rates than poorer ones.”

“Happy countries like Denmark and Finland also have some high rates of suicide.”

“The countries with the lowest rates of meaning, like Japan, also had some of the highest suicide rates.”

“Four in ten Americans have not discovered a satisfying life purpose.”

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

1. Belonging

“We all need to feel understood, recognized, and affirmed by our friends, family members, and romantic partners. We all need to give and receive affection. We all need to find our tribe.”

Research shows the a “sense of belonging” rates as the most important benefit in a relationship or a group.

Belonging is about two thing: mutual care and “frequent pleasant interactions” with others.

Even “small moments of intimacy” matter called “high quality connections,” which are “positive, short-term interactions between two people, like when a couple holds hands on a walk or when two strangers have an empathetic conversation on a plane.”

2. Purpose

It’s not about saving baby seals.

“Living purposefully requires self-reflection and self-knowledge.”

Researchers found that “knowing oneself is one of the most important predictors of meaning in life.”

“Living with purpose may make us happier” but ultimately it’s about making the world a better place.

In studies about finding meaning in work, the people who see their jobs as a way of helping others rank their jobs as more meaningful.

Although research shows raising kids can make for unhappy parents … it’s also a powerful source of meaning. (Amen to that!)

Parenting is often tough, stressful work, but extremely rewarding.

3. Storytelling

Storytelling is a fundamental way we make sense of the world and the things, people and events in our lives.

We use stories to help others understand us, and to help understand others better.

It’s all in how we tell our stories.

Redemptive stories tell about the transition from bad to good.

Contamination stories tell about transitions from good to bad.

People who tell contamination stories “tend to be more anxious and depression and to feel that their lives are less coherent compared to those who tell redemptive stories.” They are also less inclined to “contribute to society or younger generations.”

“We are all the authors of our own stories and can choose to change the way we’re telling them,” and in fact, can “edit, revise, and interpret the stories.”

4. Transcendence

My new bucket list item is go to a Star Party at the McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis, Texas.

“A transient, or mystical, experience is one in which we feel that we have risen above the everyday world to experience a higher reality.”

Two things happen in transcendent states, “our sense of self washes away along with all of its petty concerns and desires,” and we feel “deeply connected to other people and everything else that exists.” The result is a sense of peace and well-being.

“Awe challenges the mental models that we use to make sense of the world. Our mind must then update those models to accommodate what we just experienced.” And we are transformed.

The paradox of transcendence is that we can “feel insignificant and yet connected to something massive and meaningful” at the same time.

One unique and rare transcendent experience is called the “Overview Effect” that astronauts get when they travel into space.

Astronaut Jeff Ashby said, “You cannot view the thin blue arc of our atmosphere from space without developing a great concern for the protection of that fragile band of life and a desire to contribute to its preservation.”

“The self-loss felt during a transcendent experience is sometimes called ‘ego death,’ and it prepares us for the final loss of self we will all experience: death itself.”


I’ve been digging in on practical ways to use these four pillars to finding meaning in my life and I’ll have more to share on the subject very soon.

Be sure to go get The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters by Emily Esfahani Smith – it won’t disappoint and you’ll get to read all the stories and things I didn’t mention here.

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