The Meaning of Life

What makes a meaningful life? It’s an often strenuous, and in no way uniformly happy, existence compelled by service to some higher calling—higher, anyway, than selfish gratification. It’s also an explainable life, simple enough to be told back to you as a story, but it keeps in touch with the numinous beyond. And without a sense of belonging, absent good humor and loving companions among whom you never doubt that you are home, there’s no point.

The meaning of life has these four parts, writes WEEKLY STANDARD alumna Emily Esfahani Smith in The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters—purpose, storytelling, transcendence, and belonging. These “four pillars of meaning” are necessary prerequisites to support a rich existence, Smith illustrates with social science research and tales from her travels. She met a young man searching for belonging beyond his tight-knit island community in the middle of the Chesapeake; stargazers in awe of the unknown infinite at an astronomical observatory in West Texas; and terminally ill patients who tell their stories to recover the will to live their final days.

Smith’s findings will strike a familiar chord: The four pillars are common to enduring organized religions and popular spiritual-but-not-religious support groups. She draws as much from classical humanists as from modern social science and her firsthand research. Like predecessor M. Scott Peck—author of 1978’s The Road Less Traveled, which The Power of Meaning reflects but does not explicitly recall—Smith couches timeless human truths in a distinctly modern context. Peck’s definition of love (“The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth”) and his philosophy of mental and spiritual discipline satisfied late-twentieth century conceptions of personal progress: After an era of indulgence and lawless love, readers lapped up Peck’s structured dogma. Now, in an even more secular age, one of profound isolation despite extreme “connectedness,” hedonistic happiness is a click away. A meaningful lives demands more.

The psychology of happiness has proved a passing fad. In the second half of the last decade, psychology fell victim to a “happiness frenzy,” Smith writes. “And yet, there is a major problem with the happiness frenzy: it has failed to deliver on its promise. Though the happiness industry continues to grow, as a society, we’re more miserable than ever. Indeed, social scientists have uncovered a sad irony—chasing happiness actually makes people unhappy.” A finding that, Smith says, should be “no surprise to students of the humanistic tradition.”

She weaves together contemporary social science, research that looks for meaning beyond “happiology,” with humanistic philosophy and testimonies gathered firsthand—and ushers our attention from one “pillar of meaning” to the next. Smith also makes her presence known in The Power of Meaning as our sympathetic steward: Her own quest for meaning, what brought her to write this book, serves as a guiding purpose, and glimpses of her own life story structure its narration. She opens with childhood recollections of growing in a Sufi meetinghouse, where, “Twice a week, darvishes—or members of the order—would sit on the floor and meditate for several hours.” These are foundational memories, we’re to understand, that imbue a pious interest in the mystical reverence absent from most of modern life.

As an undergraduate, she acutely felt the absence of a compelling interest in the divine—”I soon learned that academic philosophy had largely abandoned that quest.” Smith’s search for meaning gained a new urgency during her college years, when she observed how few of her peers came to school expecting to gain the wisdom to conduct good lives. Fifty years ago, a majority reported “developing a meaningful life philosophy” the top goal for their college years. Now, making money tops the list:

The American Freshman survey has tracked the values of college students since the mid-1960s. In the late sixties, the top priority of college freshmen was “developing a meaningful life philosophy.” Nearly all of them—86 percent—said this was an “essential” or “very important” life goal. By the 2000s, their top priority became “being very well off financially” while just 40 percent said meaning was their chief goal. Of course, most students still have a strong yearning for meaning. But that search no longer drives their educations.

Academia’s hyper-focus also means that wondering aloud what makes life worth living would be no less out-of-place in a critical theory course than in an econ survey. Smith pursued the meaning of life as a counter-cultural generalist. From Aristotelian eudaimonia to William James on the transcendent yesness of a nitrous high, she draws together an amply supported architecture of meaning—deceptively simple and perhaps too rarely sought. It is not a revelatory or groundbreaking philosophy as much as it is a thoughtful and inviting formula for making sense of secular life as it we find it.

Our souls seek whatever pushes us beyond our selves and holds us there, in contemplative service to something greater. Smith grants primacy to love. A story from the life of Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, unites the pillars. Frankl, then a prisoner in a concentration camp, was marching on a cold morning with his fellow inmates when he thought of his wife and realized, “love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.” The giving of oneself unto another is always the first best reason to live another day.

Still, in the end, it’s hard to ignore the extent to which Smith’s four pillars—belonging, transcendence, purpose, storytelling—resemble the same psychic needs served by that old time religion. It’s our secular age that relegates to social science such matters, like a person’s readiness to face death, that used to be settled more or less exclusively on God’s terms.

In fact, reading her accounts of psychological studies and groundbreaking therapies, I couldn’t get this one line from the 1980s movie The Creator out of my head: “When science finally peers over the crest of the mountain, it will find religion has been sitting there all along.” Peter O’Toole, who plays a scientist bent on cloning his late wife, says this to his young lab assistant. But then I must concede that even in this odd movie, the pillars of meaning play a prominent role. The scientist played by O’Toole befriends his lab assistant, through whom he’s able to revisit the story of his youth, and he finds a new purpose. As a result, he, all the while no stranger to the transcendent, manages to overcome his obsessive mission—because of improvements to his “storytelling” and “belonging” pillars. Such, it would seem, is the power of meaning.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard

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