In The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, author Emily Esfahani Smith reports a telling statistic on the explosion of interest in happiness: By 2014, there were more than 10,000 studies of happiness published every year.
But that’s not what The Power of Meaning is about. Happiness, according to Smith, is something rather superficial. In attempts to be happy, people sometimes do things like go shopping and eat sweets, but ironically, end up less happy than if they had not been so preoccupied with their pursuit of happiness.
Meaning, in contrast, is deeper than happiness. It is more about doing good than feeling good.
The fascination with happiness, along with the attempts at monetizing people’s obsession with seeking it, are part of the crisis of meaning in contemporary society. Rates of depression are increasing, as are rates of suicide — in wealthier nations even more so than poorer ones. Many universities have turned away from the mission of helping students learn how to live a meaningful life in favor of a focus on careerism and financial success.
Smith, who has a master’s degree in positive psychology, follows the typical template for nonfiction books in the social sciences that are written for readers beyond the academy. She draws from a variety of disciplines, including literature and history as well as the social sciences, and travels to interesting places where meaning-making is happening. She garners insights as a participant-observer or an interviewer of the key players, and writes about her discoveries in an engaging style.
Meaning, she concludes, arises in four ways: from belonging, or “our relationships to others;” purpose, or “having a mission tied to contributing to society;” storytelling, or “making sense of our experiences and who we are through narrative” and transcendence, or “connecting to something bigger than the self.”
One by one, the chapters at the center of the book address each of these pillars of meaning. One more chapter on growth is also included, as well as a chapter about cultures of meaning.
The places Smith visits and the people she finds there are fascinating. They include, for example, a tiny fishing village of just 480 people, accessible by ferry; an Observatory in a remote section of Texas; the Detroit Zoo, where she visits with a zookeeper; St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, where she attends a monastic prayer service and Times Square, where teens get guidance in pursuing their dreams at DreamCon.
As is fitting for a book about meaning, many of the questions Smith addresses are profound. For example, how is it that some people emerge from horrendous life experiences feeling strengthened rather than broken? How do some people find meaning on death’s doorstep, and how do they differ from those who just want to be done with life as soon as possible? The answers she finds take us to heartening places. Instead of just reiterating what we already know about post-traumatic stress disorder, for instance, Smith introduces us to the concept of post-traumatic growth and to some of the people who exemplify it.
The story of the quest for meaning is not just about specific individuals or the inhabitants of one-off quaint fishing villages. It is also about social movements. The Dinner Party, for example, is a gathering that happens in cities around the country. Young adults jolted by the sudden loss of someone they love come together for dinner, conversation and meaning-making in someone’s home.
The Power of Meaning made it to my reading list because of my interest in single life. Too often, our stereotypes and cultural narratives depict single life as a place of self-centeredness and superficiality. But research shows that oftentimes just the opposite is true.
In some important ways, single people are more giving and more attentive to the important people in their lives than couples who move in with each other or get married. I also know that in a study of midlife Americans over a five-year period, the lifelong single people experienced more personal growth than the people who were married the whole time.
I was hoping to learn more about such deeply significant aspects of single life. Instead, I met an author who celebrates marriage and children. Again and again, when she wants to praise someone, or provide evidence that they overcame adversity, she notes that they got married and had children.
Throughout the book, Smith seems to assume that everyone is in a romantic relationship (for example, “We all need to feel understood, recognized, and affirmed by our…romantic partners”) and raises children. In Smith’s view, the people who “perhaps know the value of a service mindset better than anyone” are, of course, parents.
While the author acknowledges the importance of meaningful work, she does not do so for the research showing that single people value meaningful work more than married people do.
Smith reiterates a claim from 1897 that married people commit suicide less often than unmarried people, but does not seem to recognize what’s wrong with that claim nor acknowledge contemporary data that suggests something quite different.
I wouldn’t mind that Smith is so enamored of marriage and parenting if she also made a point of underscoring the meaning in the lives of people who are single or have no children. There are inspiring single people and people who are not parents in The Power of Meaning, but their marital or parental status is never underscored and lauded the way it is for the married parents. The one time a person is explicitly described as unmarried was in a story of a mother who gave her daughter up for adoption; the mother and daughter met when the daughter was an adult, but then never met again.
In 2006, a study touting a dramatic increase in the number of Americans without a confidant got tremendous play in the media. It has since been debunked, but in her book Smith described the findings as facts. She also repeats the popular claim that American society is increasingly mobile, but research shows that it is not. She tells readers that people who are more religious, less educated and have more children see their lives as more meaningful, to which I wrote a note in the margin that she seems to be yearning for a return to the 1950s. On the very next page, Smith effuses over her visit to the Society for Creative Anachronism.
Despite my reservations, I think The Power of Meaning is a significant book with a lot to offer. It is an important counterpoint to the frenzy over happiness.
The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters
Emily Esfahani Smith
Crown, January 2017
Hardcover, 291 pages