in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 29, 2021

Podcast #397: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed With Happiness

In recent years, there’s been a lot of books and blogs put out on how to become happier. But what if searching for happiness actually results in unhappiness, and to get happiness we need to be looking for something else? 
That’s what my guest argues in her book. Her name is Emily Esfahani Smith and she’s the author of The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness
We begin our discussion talking about the difference between happiness and meaning and why the latter brings more fulfillment. Emily then highlights research that shows more and more Westerners are reporting that their life lacks meaning and the theories as to why that is. She then breaks down what the three pillars of a meaningful life are and what we can do to experience them. Emily and I then discuss whether it’s really possible to create meaning by yourself and whether or not it requires being embedded in a religious or spiritual tradition. 

Show Highlights

  • How Emily started exploring the science of meaning 
  • Can you find meaning outside of religion? How? 
  • The difference between happiness and meaning 
  • What does it even mean to be happy?
  • The three conditions of a satisfying life 
  • Could you live a meaningful life and ultimately not be very happy?
  • Why are more and more people saying their life doesn’t feel meaningful? 
  • Is this problem worldwide?
  • The loneliness problem and rising individualism in society 
  • Can real connections be made via social media?
  • Why a meaningful life takes effort
  • What does it mean to have a purpose in life?
  • How and where most people will find purpose in life 
  • What role does storytelling play in living a meaningful life? 
  • Are we deluding ourselves by spinning our stories in a positive light?
  • What is transcendence? How do we experience more of it?
  • How can you experience the divine in non-religious settings?

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Book cover of "The power of meaning" by Emily Esfahani Smith.

Connect With Emily 

Emily on Twitter

Emily’s website

Emily on Facebook 

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Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. In recent years, there’s been a lot of books and blogs put out on how to become happier, but what if searching for happiness actually results in unhappiness, and to get happiness, you need to be looking for something else? That’s what my guest argues in her book. Her name is Emily Esfahani Smith. She’s the author of the book The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness. We begin our discussion today talking about the difference between happiness and meaning, and why the latter brings more fulfillment. Emily then highlights research that shows more and more Westerners reporting their life lacks meaning, and theories as to why that is. She then breaks down the three pillars of a meaningful life are, and what we can do to experience them. Emily and I then discuss whether it’s really possible to create meaning by yourself, and whether or not it requires being embedded in a religious or spiritual tradition. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at Emily joins me now via

Emily Esfahani Smith, welcome to the show.

Emily Esfahani-Smith: Thanks for having me.

Brett McKay: You wrote a book called The Power of Meaning, where you look at the science, the latest research about what it means to live a meaningful life. I’m curious, what got you started exploring the science of meaning?

Emily Esfahani-Smith: There’s a long answer to that question and a short answer. The long answer is, I think, for most of my life I’ve been interested in this question of meaning, and it goes back to experiences that I had in my childhood. I was raised in Montreal, living in a Sufi meetinghouse, and for those who might not know, Sufism is a school of mysticism that’s associated with Islam, so if you … The poet Rumi many people have heard of, he was a Sufi; the Whirling Dervishes were Sufis. And living in the meetinghouse meant that twice a week, Sufis, these spiritual seekers, would come to our home, and they would sit on the ground and meditate for several hours. They would tell stories from the lives of ancient Sufi saints and mystics, and a central part of their practice was loving-kindness, a principle that’s, of course, central to a lot of religious and spiritual paths, and also service, so acts of charity.

What was interesting about these Sufis was that many of them had led really hard lives. Some of them were refugees who had come to Canada or to the United States from the Middle East, others were Westerners who had been beaten up by life in other ways, and in spite of the difficulties and the adversities, they found meaning and comfort in this spiritual practice that was pretty demanding of them. I think growing up surrounded by people like that, by people who always put others first, who weren’t so focused on themselves and their own desires, left a mark on me, and it stayed with me even after I left home and went to college. But when I left home, and I was kind of outside of that day-to-day experience of Sufism, I started to wonder what … Is it possible to lead a meaningful life outside of a religious and spiritual context? If you think about religion, it gives clear answers to the question of “What is the meaning of life and how can I lead a meaningful life?” And that was certainly true of Sufism as well, so outside of that, how do we find meaning?

And that question led me to studying philosophy, and eventually to studying positive psychology, and this is where I get to the shorter answer to that question, which is the science of positive psychology, which is the study of wellbeing, was starting to come out with some really provocative research around the time that I was in graduate school, showing things like the pursuit of happiness is associated with being a taker rather than a giver, and that if you pursue happiness the way that our culture encourages us to do, it can actually make you unhappy. And so, instead of pursuing happiness, the research was kind of suggesting that we should be focusing on something else, on living a meaningful life. And then, thinking back to the Sufis who I grew up with, it kind of came together and made sense to me, and so I started writing more about this, and eventually, one of my articles gave rise to the book that you mentioned, The Power of Meaning.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about that difference between happiness and meaning, because as you said, yeah, in the past, I would say, past decade, there’s been a lot of research coming out of positive psychology, and there’s been a lot of popular authors who’ve taken that research and created, I don’t know, you can call it a cult of happiness if you want. There’s lots of blogs, books, seminars, courses, and all on how to be happy. How are these folks defining happiness, and how is that different from living a meaningful life?

Emily Esfahani-Smith: I think you’re absolutely right. There’s definitely been this flourishing of happiness research, happiness books in the last decade, even in the last two decades, I would say. I remember one of the statistics I came across showed that there were several dozen books published a year on happiness back in the early 2000s, and now there are several thousand books published each year, so there’s a real zeitgeist around happiness. People are obsessed with it. The research shows it’s our number one value, it’s what people want most in life, it’s what people think is the be-all, end-all of life.

That message really bothered me, because there were so many people I knew in my life, including the people I grew up with, the Sufis, who weren’t focused on leading happy lives, they were focused on leading a meaningful life instead. That gets to your question about what the difference is between these two. I would say I define happiness drawing on how psychologists and philosophers define it, which is as a positive mental and emotional state. So if you feel good, you’re happy; if you feel bad, you’re unhappy.

And I know that different people might say, “Well, to me, happiness is actually a state of contentment, or it’s leading a meaningful life,” but I define it the way that the research defines it, and I also think that in day-to-day conversation, colloquially, in the way the media presents all of this happiness research, that’s the way that we define it culturally as well. You know, if you think about all those articles about how to be happier, they’re always accompanied by this big yellow smiley face. So I think just at its face value, happiness really is kind of this positive emotion.

Meaning, though, is different, and I would say it’s bigger than happiness. Leading a meaningful life, the defining feature of that is connecting and contributing to something beyond yourself, something bigger. When people tell psychologists in research that their lives are meaningful, it’s because three conditions have been satisfied. The first one is that they believe their lives have significance and worth. In other words, they believe their live matter. The second one is that they believe they have a purpose, so some goal or principle that is in the future and that kind of propels them into the future. And finally, they believe their lives are coherent. In other words, they don’t think of their experiences as random and disconnected, but those experiences make sense, their lives make sense, and life in general makes sense.

Brett McKay: It sounds like it’s possible to have a meaningful life, but not necessarily a happy one, or vice versa.

Emily Esfahani-Smith: No, I think that that’s exactly right. It certainly may be the case that you’re leading a meaningful life and you’re also happy, and that you have neither in your life, that you’re neither happy, and that your life isn’t meaningful. But I think for most people day-to-day, you go through phases when you feel happy, but your life doesn’t necessarily feel meaningful. If you think about … Let’s say your work is not as high-pressure as it usually is, and so you have more free time, and in that free time, you’re going to the gym, you’re going to the spa, you’re going on vacation, and so it’s kind of a fun, happy life, but those projects that gave your life meaning aren’t there.

On the other hand, you can also be leading a meaningful life and not be happy, and I think a really good example of that is Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor. He wrote this beautiful little book called Man’s Search for Meaning, which is all about how some of the people in the concentration camps, despite how horrendous their circumstances were, were still able to find meaning, to have some sort of purpose that kept them going. He gives the example of one man who was suicidal, and he only came out of his suicidality by remembering that he had a son who was living elsewhere safely, and that he needed to fight for life so that he could survive the war and be reunited with his son afterwards.

Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s really interesting. I think it’s an important dichotomy, and I think … This is research Roy Baumeister’s been looking at, the difference between meaning and happiness, and he’s been a guest on the podcast before a couple times.

Emily Esfahani-Smith: Okay, yeah, he’s great. His research is fascinating.

Brett McKay: You highlight in the book that … So, meaning is important, it gives us a sense of purpose, but you highlight in the book that more and more people today are reporting a lack of meaning in their life. Why is that? Why are more modern people saying their life doesn’t feel meaningful?

Emily Esfahani-Smith: If you think about what it is that has historically given people’s lives meaning, it’s things like religion and spirituality, community, tradition, your allegiance to a country, the sense that there is a nation that you feel loyal towards, and those traditional sources of meaning, I think, are increasingly receding from public life. They’re no longer default paths to meaning. I mean, certainly there are people who still use them to find meaning, but it used to be that these were just kind of defaults, that you didn’t really have to think too much about what made your life meaningful because it was programmed into how you lived your life, the institutions that you interacted with.

Today, I think there’s a lot of disruption that’s emerged from the fact that these traditional forms of meaning are no longer at the center of our lives, and I think we see that in the rise of mental illness in all kinds of ways. I mean, depression has been rising for decades, rates of anxiety and loneliness. Of course, the opioid epidemic is something we hear about in the news all the time. Even suicide rates have been rising for decades, and a year or two ago, in 2014 … Or, I think it was 2016, the CDC released a report showing that the suicide rate in the United States had reached a 30-year high. And there’s pretty interesting research that shows that when you look at all of these rising indicators of mental health … Excuse me, of mental illness, that what’s predicting them is the fact that people feel their lives are not meaningful.

Brett McKay: Is this a problem that’s unique to the United States, or do other Western liberal democracies also have this problem of this meaning crisis?

Emily Esfahani-Smith: No, this meaning crisis, I think, it’s a problem of modernity, so any Western developed countries, or developed countries around the world — think of Japan — are also going through this meaning crisis, and I think that it represents … What’s going on is that there’s kind of been a shift in values, and there’s a sociologist at the University of Michigan who runs a project called the World Values Survey that really dives into this, and what he’s found is that as societies go through different stages of development, from pre-developed to developed to what he calls post-developed, they have these shifts in values that occur. So, before you reach the stage of being a developed country, people are really focused on survival and the values that come with that. In developed countries, this set of values that arise tend to be materialistic and centered around self-advancement and wealth and happiness. You know, it’s about me and how I feel, and this kind of hedonistic lifestyle.

What’s interesting is that this sociologist — his last name is Inglehart — he’s found that our Western countries, even though we are in this state of development-oriented values that are more materialistic, less spiritually fulfilling, we’re now shifting into post-development, where the values are much more anchored around these spiritual, existential ideas like meaning, like creativity, like knowledge and curiosity. And I think that we see signs of that shift happening in our culture, the way corporations, for example, are all of a sudden reorienting their missions around purpose, how schools are starting to teach character, things like that.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about how institutions within modern liberal democracies are doing this, but outside the confines of religion, and even though religion does still play a role, that many people still find meaning in that, let’s talk about how it’s looking now. You highlight that … You argue there are certain pillars that need to be in place for meaning to exist, and the first one is belonging. Let’s talk about the issue of not feeling like you belong, because that’s … Like you mentioned earlier, reports of isolation, loneliness are on the rise, despite the fact that we’re more connected than ever. What do you think’s going on there?

Emily Esfahani-Smith: It’s a really sad statistic, and one of the saddest ones that I write about in my book is when researchers asked people 20-30 years ago, “How many confidantes do you have in your life, how many people that you feel comfortable talking to about the most important issues?” Decades ago, several decades ago, people said three people. Today, when you ask that same question, the most common response is zero. I mentioned the statistics about rising rates of loneliness; there’s also a breakdown in civic institutions and community. People don’t talk to their neighbors anymore.

I think there are really interesting sociological reasons that are driving this. I remember reading a study several years ago talking about the rise of urbanization, and how a story that you can tell about the United States over the last 200 years is the story of people moving from more rural settings to the big cities to find work and to make a new home and a new life, and what’s accompanied that has been a rise in individualism, so a shift in values from community and duty and responsibility to free expression, self-esteem, the self, self-expression. These are things that Roy Baumeister writes about and thinks about, as I’m sure you know

And so I think that this rising individualism that has these sociological causes is one of the reasons why we’ve seen this isolation, because individualism is great, and it comes with all kinds of benefits like freedom and autonomy and control over your personal life, but it also divorces us from that community where we have this sense of belonging that can ground us. And that’s one of the reasons why I think we’re seeing this rise in social isolation, but we’re also seeing, again, kind of a trend in the opposite direction as well where, recognizing that this is a problem, you see a lot of communities and institutions trying to create community and belonging in new ways for people that gets them talking to each other again.

Brett McKay: Does this sense of community, does it need to be face-to-face, like in the real world, or can … Is it possible to do it virtually? Or is virtual … You know, virtually, that’s not possible, and that’s why people feel lonely despite being connected?

Emily Esfahani-Smith: You know, I think that … I think it’s easy to criticize social media for exacerbating this problem, but I think that … I think there’s more to it than that. I mean, certainly, people can find a sense of belonging on social media if they’re intentional about the way they use it. I was talking about this at an event in Texas last year, and this question came up, and a woman raised her hand, she was sitting in the back of the bookstore, and she was in her 80s, and she told me, she said, “You know, my purpose right now is to put together a family history that’s this book that I want to be able to pass down to my children and grandchildren, and for it to be this record of who we were. And the way that I’ve been able to fill out the different parts of my family tree is by going online and turning to Facebook and other social media sites to find people who are in our family who I wouldn’t have known before.”

So she used this wonderful technology to create this sense of belonging within her family, and to form new connections and new forms of belonging with people she didn’t even know before. That said, I think that if you’re only relying on these virtual forms of connection, then there’s going to be something that’s missing from your life. There’s research that shows that there is something about the kind of kinetic, visceral interaction that you have with somebody face-to-face that really replenishes you both psychologically and physically. There are actually physical benefits to having these moments of belonging and connection with somebody else. Your brain waves actually kind of get on the same wavelength; your heart rate and your hormone levels can kind of rise and fall together. So it’s really interesting, and I think it shows that there is something vitally important about the face-to-face connections too.

Brett McKay: So maybe use social media technology to, you know, organizing … That’s what I find the most beneficial in social media, is organizing face-to-face meetups.

Emily Esfahani-Smith: Right, right, exactly. And, I think, celebrating other people’s good news and keeping in touch with people, those kind of more basic forms, functions of social media, I think those can also cultivate belonging in smaller ways.

Brett McKay: But there is a price to pay with a sense of belonging. You get all these benefits, but it does require you to go out of your way for folks that you’d rather not. You’re just like, “Well, you know, I’m comfortable here. Do I really want to go over and help my friend move?” I mean, I think that’s why … One of the reasons people tend to be individualistic, because it’s hard work to socialize and be connected with others.

Emily Esfahani-Smith: You’re 100% right about that, and I would just say that one of the things that you see when you look at the articles and the research about happiness is that there’s this real “quick fix” mentality, like, “Okay, if you just do these three things or check off these five boxes, you’ll be happier, and then your life will be so much better.” And it’s not quite like that with a meaningful life. A meaningful life definitely takes work, it requires effort, and it’s because it requires us to do things, exactly like you’re saying, like reaching out to others, making ourselves vulnerable, turning down our own natural selfishness to be of service to somebody else, and that’s not always easy, but it does leave us with this greater sense of satisfaction down the road. And I know that we all know from experience the things that are most worth having are the things that are the hardest to work for.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and my experience has been whenever I’ve had that resistance, and I’m like, “Ah, I don’t want to do this thing because it’s going to be annoying,” then you go to it, and you have a great time, and then afterwards, you’re like, “Man, I’m really glad I did that.” You feel happy, but also you feel like you did something meaningful.

Emily Esfahani-Smith: Right, right, no, exactly. I had a psychology professor in grad school who used to see patients clinically, and he saw a lot of depression, people who were experiencing depression, suffering from it, and he said that far more effective than prescribing them an antidepressant was prescribing them to go out and volunteer in their community, because once they got involved, once they broke that shell of self-focus and self-rumination on “what was wrong with me, what’s wrong with the world,” they not only felt like their lives were more meaningful, but they also felt happier, because they were out there doing things, and that made them feel useful.

Brett McKay: Yeah, so let’s talk about the next pillar, which is purpose. What are we talking about when we’re talking about purpose? Does it have to be some grand, giant thing, like I’m going to change the world, or can it be smaller?

Emily Esfahani-Smith: Definitely, I think a lot of people, when they think about purpose, they think of that big, capital-P Purpose that they need to find, their capital-C Calling; once they find it, that for the rest of their lives, they’ll have this really strong sense of meaning. But for most people, that’s not what purpose is going to look like. In fact, only one-third of people, according to the research, have this feeling of their job is a calling, this sense of “I have found my capital-P Purpose.” And for the rest of us, we’re going to find purpose in smaller, more local ways.

What is purpose? Purpose is … It’s defined as a goal or a principle that organizes your life, and that involves making a contribution to others. So, for one person, it might be something like working on a cure for cancer. That’s a purpose, and it’s this big purpose. For another person, it could be raising their children, being a good person, volunteering in their community. I spoke to a woman who was working as a custodian at a hospital in Michigan, and she told me that her purpose is not cleaning bedpans and mopping the floor, but it’s helping sick people heal. So there’s something about purpose that, yes, it can come in all shapes and sizes, but it also involves connecting what you’re doing to something bigger.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I think you raised this point about … I forgot which philosopher or psychologist talked about people who, back in the ’30s during the Great Depression, were just … Suicide was increasing, the sense of meaningless was increasing, and one of the advice is like, “Just go get a job, it can be anything.” And you start there, and it might not be grand, but you have that purpose for that day, because you’re contributing in some small way to other people.

Emily Esfahani-Smith: Exactly. I think it was the chapter where I talk about Will Durant, who’s a beautiful writer and historian in his own right, and he talks about, you know, even if you feel this sense of despair and lethargy and alienation from the world, just doing something, anything — even if it’s volunteering, even if you’re not getting paid, whatever, going, getting a job at the local coffee shop — is the first step towards finding that meaning that can sustain you, and it’s because it re-engages you with the world. So purpose, another way to think about purpose is that it’s having a role to play in your community, within your family. And when people feel like they don’t have a role to play, when suddenly parents become empty nesters, or you lose your job, or you retire, then that’s when people experience a crisis of purpose, so it’s important to quickly reassert those roles in your life in new ways or find new roles.

Brett McKay: How do you … Let’s say you’re starting from scratch, you’re having some existential depression, you get a job, and that’s helping you engage with the world. How do you start finding that larger purpose? Is it something that you can actively find, proactively find, or is it something that, as you engage with the world, you’ll sort of stumble upon?

Emily Esfahani-Smith: I think it can be both, and I think that one of the mistakes that we might make when we think about purpose is overthinking it. Purpose is really about figuring out what your talents are, what your strengths are, and how you can use them to serve the world and to serve others. I believe, and I think I’m in good company with a lot of other philosophers from Immanuel Kant to Viktor Frankl, who we talked about, that everybody here has some sort of purpose. In other words, they have some contribution that they can make to the world, and that’s … What that contribution is is their choice. I think it’s not necessarily predetermined. Now, some people might be born with a calling for music, or for computer science, or whatever the case may be, but for those of us who are just trying to figure it out, sit down and reflect on what your strengths and talents are, and then see if you can find ways to put them to use, either in what you’re doing or in new contexts.

Research shows that when you use your strengths and talents in the work you’re doing, it doesn’t matter what that work is, you feel a greater sense of purpose to that work because you’re kind of taking the best of you and giving it to the world. So I think that you can actively figure out and pursue what your purpose is, or you can just be out there in the world, giving to it, using your strengths, and seeing if that, kind of from the ground up, gives you this sense of purpose.

Brett McKay: It sounds like you can have more than one purpose, right? Is that true?

Emily Esfahani-Smith: It is true. There’s a psychologist named Erik Erikson who was alive in the 20th century, and he had this idea of life as a series of developmental stages. So, when you’re young, your job is to figure out who you are, what your identity is. As you get older, your job is to become what he calls “generative,” in other words, contributing to the younger generations, whether it’s by mentoring people or raising children or what have you. And so, baked into that idea is this sense that as our lives change and develop, and as we grow, the things that we’re supposed to be doing and that give our lives purpose can change as well.

I mentioned parenting; for many parents, their kids are their main source of purpose, and that’s a prominent source of purpose in middle age. But then, once your kids leave the house, once you retire, your purpose might be something else. It might be becoming involved in your religious organization, or finding a second purpose. I write about this organization called Encore that helps people who are retired embark upon a whole new career. You have a police officer who then retires and decides that he wants to start creating museum art, because being an artist was this passion that he had that he wasn’t able to fulfill during the earlier parts of his life. So certainly, it can change over time.

Brett McKay: The next pillar you talk about is storytelling. What role does that play in creating a meaningful life?

Emily Esfahani-Smith: Storytelling is an interesting pillar, and I found that when I go out and I talk to people about this pillar, it’s one of the ones that resonates with them most strongly, and also can surprise them. So, storytelling. We think of … We’re surrounded by stories all day long, right? We have movie theaters, we have television shows, novels, comic strips, children’s books. There are stories all around us. But the story that I’m talking about with this pillar is the story that you tell yourself about yourself, about how you became the person that you are today. And, I think, my intuition is that the reason this pillar surprises people is because we don’t always realize that we have this ongoing narrative going on in our mind at all times, and that because this narrative is going on in our mind at all times, we … It’s shaping our lives in ways that we don’t realize it, and we also have the power to change that story if it’s a story that we don’t like.

Let me give you an example. The field of psychology that deals with this is called narrative psychology, narrative identity. Okay, so there’s this device in narrative psychology that helps illustrate the power of storytelling. Let’s say you had a really important interview this morning, and you went to bed early for it, and you were really excited for it, but when the morning came around, you slept through your alarm because you just … You were so tired, and finally you get up and you’re in a rush, and you’re trying to make up for the time that you lost, and you’re rushing out the door, and you realize that your car keys aren’t where you left them, and so all of a sudden, you’re even later than you were because you can’t find your keys. And you rummage around, and finally you find those keys, and you make your way out the door, and it’s really icy outside, and you had meant to salt your steps the day before, but you didn’t, and so the steps are all slippery, and you fall down the stairs, and not only are you late, but you’re also kind of wet and injured, and the morning is just off to a disastrous start.

So, those are three data points from your morning, right? You wake up late, you lose your car keys, and you slip and fall. And then, you take those data points and you start constructing a story about the kind of person you are. You say, “Man, I don’t have my life together, I can’t do anything right. This is why nobody will marry me, this is why I’m not going to get that job that I’m interviewing for. My life sucks, and the world sucks, and it’s just terrible.”

Or you could reflect on your morning or your week, and think about all those other data points that you’re not incorporating into your story. Like, maybe you couldn’t find your car keys the night before because you had put them in your coat pocket the night before, thinking that, “Okay, if they’re in my coat, then I will just put my coat on and rush out the door, and it’ll make things more efficient,” but you forgot that you did that, but it was something you did that showed some foresight and showed that you were trying. And maybe you didn’t salt the stairs last night because you were busy helping your neighbor bring her groceries in, and then time ran out. Thinking about those other data points, and incorporating those into your story as well, that’s what storytelling really is about. It’s taking the full picture and telling a story that empowers you and that moves you forward.

Brett McKay: How do you, with these stories, how do you make sure you’re not fooling yourself with them to create that meaning? Or do you have to fool yourself to … Sometimes fool yourself to create meaning out of our lives?

Emily Esfahani-Smith: That’s a great question, and I think that one way to think about it is like this: So, human beings have a really strong negativity bias. It’s kind of been shown consistently in the research, and Roy Baumeister, who we’ve mentioned a number of times here, he’s actually written a great paper in psychology about how the bad is stronger than the good when it comes to what we pay attention to and how things effect us, so negative experiences, painful emotions effect us much more strongly, and we remember them much more significantly than the positive ones.

And I think that, taking that principle to storytelling, we have to acknowledge that when something bad happens, or when we experience something negative or painful emotions, those are going to affect us, and therefore be much more likely to make it into the story that we tell, just because of the powerful effect that they have on us. So when we’re trying to craft a story in a way that actually reflects the reality that we’re living, we have to work against that negativity bias, and therefore, we have to actively seek out and remember and incorporate into our narrative the good things that happened as well.

When I talk about storytelling, I’ll get a question like yours that’ll be something like, “Well, how do we know we’re not deluding ourselves if we’re just kind of spinning the story in a more positive way?” I think that we’re actually deluding ourselves by telling these negative stories, because they don’t reflect the reality, they reflect the fact that our brains pinpoint and focus on one or two negative events at the expense of all these positive things that are happening.

Brett McKay: Okay, I like that. Another pillar you talk about is transcendence. What do you mean by that, and how do we experience it more in our lives?

Emily Esfahani-Smith: Transcendence. So, transcendence, it’s this big word, it’s a mouthful, but I think we all kind of know what this one is about. Transcendent experiences are those moments when we’re lifted above the hustle and bustle of daily life, and when we’re even lifted out of our own minds, our own sense of self, and feel connected to something much bigger than ourselves. For a lot of people, that can happen within a religious context, you know, meditating, praying, going to a church service, temple, mosque, whatever, where you’re engaged in these rituals and liturgical moments of transcendence. Something is taking you outside of space and time, and connecting to you to, in a religious context, what you might call God.

But there are secular ways to experience this as well, you know, being in nature, being in the woods. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote beautifully about this, as did Henry David Thoreau, this sense of the divine that they felt walking in the woods, or being out at Walden Pond, in Thoreau’s case. For a lot of other people, music, art, looking up at the stars at night, these are all also portals to transcendence. And one of the emotions that transcendent experiences evoke is awe, so this feeling of just being so small in the midst of something much larger than yourself, and something that’s mysterious and beyond words.

I think that the reason these experiences are so meaningful to people, and people who’ve had them say that they’re among the most meaningful experiences of their lives, is precisely because they inspire such awe. So they make you feel small and tiny, but that also means that all of your problems and all of the petty grievances of day-to-day life suddenly become muted, and they’re not yelling at you inside your mind like they usually are. And instead, what happens is you feel this connection with something bigger, and therefore, you feel like you’re part and parcel of this bigger thing, and that can be really reassuring to people.

Brett McKay: Yeah, for me, awe is … How I experience it, I feel both really small, but also big at the same time. I don’t know if that makes any sense.

Emily Esfahani-Smith: No, definitely, that’s exactly the paradox of transcendence that mystics throughout the ages have described.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And so anything you can do, I mean, it’s … I guess transcendence, it takes the … Away from … The focus off yourself, like you become less self-conscious. I think that with all these things, like, you know, I think storytelling kind of makes you … The story is you. But belonging and all that stuff, it takes the focus off yourself, and as you do that, you start feeling a more sense of meaning in your life.

Emily Esfahani-Smith: Exactly. You know, meaning is all about connecting to something other than yourself, and even with storytelling, even though, yes, it is about the story that you tell yourself about who you are, there’s research showing that when people tell what are called “redemptive stories” about their lives — so stories that have suffering and adversity, but then there’s a silver lining of some sort, some sort of growth that happens or something good that comes of the adversity — that people who tell those kinds of stories are more generative, which is a word I mentioned earlier in relation to Erik Erikson, and it means that they’re more likely to contribute to others. So even telling a certain kind of story can lead you outside of this self-involvement towards connecting to others.

Brett McKay: Do you need to experience all these pillars at once to feel a sense of meaning in your life, or can you just experience one of them at a time?

Emily Esfahani-Smith: You know, it’s certainly the case that having or experiencing all of these pillars will probably give you a deeper sense of meaning, or at least if one of those pillars isn’t present, you can lean on another one, but I think for most people, there will be one or two of the pillars that’s more prominent and more important for them than the other ones. So maybe for you, belonging is really key, and for me, it’s storytelling. You know, I went out and I talked to some people in Silicon Valley last year about this book, and when I got around to transcendence, I just got these totally blank stares, like they had no idea what I was talking about. And it was kind of funny, because that had not happened before. Everybody in other venues knew what transcendence was about, but here in this particular community, for whatever reason, that pillar was not resonating. So I do think it’s kind of individual-specific which pillar will confer the most meaning and be the most important to you.

Brett McKay: As I was reading your book, and as … You know, listening to our conversation, thinking, “Man, this … Creating meaning outside of religion sounds like a lot of work.” I mean, as you said, you mentioned earlier, religion, there’s sort of the default. You go in, you have that sense of belonging because there’s a community there that gives you a sense of purpose from the get-go. There’s a story that you are involved in. You experience transcendence. It’s all packaged there for you to go, and now, with people being less religious, it sounds like, man, it’s just … It’s kind of burdensome to create meaning. I mean, even Nietzsche said you kind of had to be some sort of Übermensch to live a meaningful life in a world post-religion. So, I mean, what would you say? Is creating personal meaning really hard, requires a lot of work?

Emily Esfahani-Smith: I do think it takes effort, but I don’t think that it’s impossible, or even that you have to be some kind of super-duper being to make it happen. I mean, I think we’re all engaged in this process of trying to lead a meaningful life, and I know that you had Jordan Peterson on a previous podcast, and that’s kind of the beauty of his message, is that we’re … That the task of each human being is to try to craft some sort of meaning and some sort of sense out of this crazy experience of being alive. I think that it’s harder to do it today because those traditional forms of meaning aren’t there to just guide us along, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t take the initiative and figure out ways to build these pillars in our lives by ourselves. In fact, some … There’s a tradition in philosophy, the existentialists, who say that that makes the whole quest that much more exciting and that much more meaningful, because you’re doing it for yourself. But it also means that it’s much more effortful because no one’s guiding you along.

Brett McKay: Yeah, you talk about … The Myth of Sisyphus is a favorite of mine. Who wrote … Was it Camus or Sartre that did that one?

Emily Esfahani-Smith: Camus.

Brett McKay: Camus, yeah. Yeah, so for those of you who hadn’t read it, Myth of Sisyphus, it’s a good existential thought experiment to check out. Well, Emily, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your work?

Emily Esfahani-Smith: They can visit my website, which is my name, I’m also on Twitter at @EmEsfahaniSmith, and you can also find me on Facebook. And I’ll say that on my website, there’s a form where you can email me, and I … Those emails come straight to my inbox, and I always try to respond, so please feel free to reach out.

Brett McKay: Awesome. Emily Esfahani Smith, thank you much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Emily Esfahani-Smith: Thanks, Brett.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Emily Esfahani Smith. She’s the author of the book The Power of Meaning. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can also find more information about her work at Also, check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at, and if you enjoy the show, have got something out of it, I’d appreciate if you give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

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