Consider Montreal-raised Emily Esfahani Smith’s new book The Power of Meaning: Crafting A Life That Matters (Random House) the anti-Secret. It’s the antithesis of the shiny, oft-ridiculous happiness industry of the early 2000s kicked off by Rhonda Byrne’s crazy-popular 2006 guide to happiness, The Secret, which boldly proclaimed, “The shortcut to anything you want in your life is to BE and FEEL happy now!” Did you read it and think “Wheeeeeeeeeeeee! Being happy is so easy, you just have to think about being happy and you’ll be elated! ‘Kay, but, like, how?” Same here. Smith, author of The Atlantic’s most shared article ever, “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy”, argues in this new book that not only does happiness not come so easily, but that a life of constant joy isn’t (or shouldn’t) be our ultimate goal. Our ultimate goal should be a life of meaning. She makes the rigorously researched case—with back-up from a team of chic, super-smart academics and philosophers like neurologist Viktor Frankl, philosopher and “happiness skeptic” Robert Nozick and palliative care pioneer William Breitbart—that a meaningful life is what we should be chasing and that to get it, we need to look outside ourselves.
So what exactly is a life of meaning? According to Smith, much of the pursuit (and power) of meaning boils down to love. “Love, of course, is at the center of the meaningful life,” she writes. “The act of love begins with the very definition of meaning: it begins by stepping outside of the self to connect with and contribute to something bigger.” An example of this is how a person can live through tremendous trauma or hideous heartbreak—like caring for an ailing loved one—and still find meaning in their life, thus being more fulfilled and satisfied. Holocaust survivor Frankl based his life and life’s work on this principle, writing, “The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is.” In simpler terms: you can go through something really hard and be sad but still feel enriched, which, both Smith and Frankl contend, is way better than leading an ostensibly happy but meaningless existence that merely ticks the boxes of money, possessions, vacations and career moves but fails to go deeper. It’s heavy stuff, but the takeaway from this big, beautiful, important book is this: do shit for others—even, hell, ESPECIALLY if it’s hard—and your life will be p. fulfilled (and probs healthier—recent research also suggests that having meaning or purpose in life is associated with better immune function and decreased chance of a heart attack, among other benefits). Here are five tangible ways to live a more meaningful life RN.
Take care of a plant (seriously)
In her book, Smith takes inspiration from Sufism, the school of mysticism associated with Islam whose believers’ daily lives are governed by humbling rituals (like kissing one’s fingers and touching them to the ground when coming and going from the meditation room or eating in silence). Humbling rituals, Smith explains, are key to Sufis because they helped them break down the self, which they consider a barrier to love. In concrete terms: create simple rituals for yourself that put your attention on the here and now and the well-being of something or someone else. Taking care of a teeny living organism may seem like a small, somewhat insignificant act, but tons of these tiny acts combine into a more meaningful world.
Buy a gift for someone
The results from a 2013 research study led by Florida State University’s Roy Baumeister suggested that the pursuit of happiness was linked to selfish behaviour—being a “taker”—while the meaningful life was defined by being a “giver.” So give. Whether that’s a donation to a cause you really believe in, a small token to a friend who really needs a boost, or a deliberate and friendly “how are you?” to your barista, commit small acts of generosity often.
Mentor a kid
This one takes the main principle of being a giver and adds in another key to a meaningful life: sharing your legacy. Whether that’s talking life lessons with a little human you’re mentoring or writing it down in a journal as you live, sharing the stories of your life will enrich it.
Forgive a friend
Baumeister’s study, which asked 400 Americans from 18 to 78 whether they were happy and whether they thought their lives were meaningful, used tons of examples, with something as simple as “forgiving a friend” ranked highly in terms of creating a meaningful life. Similar acts include calling up the old friend you lost touch with but still think about, and trying to cheer up someone who needs it; bonus points if it’s someone you don’t know well, like a colleague at work, because that takes you even further outside yourself.
But also argue (really)
Researchers said arguing was an indication that a person had ideals they were willing to fight for, so put up your dukes for something you care about on the reg. (Tell your SO it’s good for your health, too.)
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