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The four pillars of a meaningful life

Modern-day culture is obsessed with finding the secret to happiness, but could there be a more fulfilling path? In her recent TED talk, Emily Esfahani Smith tells her story of how studying positive psychology lead her to discover that there is a more fulfilling path than simply chasing happiness itself.

Data shows that despite life getting objectively better in recent years, the suicide rate has risen around the world and recently reached a 30 year high in America. Thus despite standards of living rising more people are feeling hopeless, depressed and alone. Many people feel an ongoing sense of emptiness, wondering ‘Is this all there is?’ According to the research, this is due not to a lack of happiness but a lack of meaning in life.

Many psychologists define happiness as a state of comfort and ease, feeling good in the moment. Meaning is deeper. The renowned psychologist Martin Seligman said meaning comes from belonging to and serving something beyond yourself and from developing the best within you. Our culture is obsessed with happiness but Emily’s research found that seeking meaning is the more fulfilling path. Studies show that people who have meaning in life are more resilient, do better in school and at work and even live longer.

In an attempt to find out how can we each live more meaningfully Emily spent 5 years interviewing hundreds of people and researching psychology, neuroscience and philosophy. She found that there are 4 pillars of a meaningful life and we can each create lives of meaning by building these pillars in our lives.

  • Belonging – comes from being in relationships where you are valued for who you are intrinsically and where you value others as well. True belonging springs from love and you can choose to cultivate belonging with others.
  • Purpose – finding your purpose is not the same as finding that job that makes you happy. Purpose is less about what you want than what you give. The key to purpose is using your strengths to serve others. Purpose gives you something to live for the ‘why’ that drives you forward.
  • Transcendence – those rare moments where your sense of self fades away and you feel connected to a higher reality (could be church, art, writing). One study had a group of students look up at 200 feet tall eucalyptus trees for 1 minute, afterward, they felt less self-centered and even behaved more generously when given the chance to help someone.
  • The story you tell yourself about yourself – creating a narrative about the events of your life helps you understand yourself. Our lives aren’t just lists of events; we can edit, reinterpret and change the way we tell our story. People leading meaningful lives tend to tell stories based on redemption, growth, and love. Reflective thought on your life can help you change your story, embracing painful memories can lead to new insights and wisdom.

Emily concludes her TED Talk by emphasising that happiness comes and goes but having meaning in life – serving something beyond yourself and developing the best within you gives you something to hold onto.

Check out the talk for yourself here….