This book was provided by Blogging for Books, but my review and opinions are 100% my own.
"Too many of us believe that the search for meaning is an esoteric pursuit - that you have to travel to a distant monastery of page through dusty volumes to discover life’s secrets. The truth is, there are untapped sources of meaning all around us - right here, right now.” - inside cover.
I love a good book - something to cozy up next to and lose yourself in. Lately I’ve also been into reading more, what you would call, self-help books...or at the very least, books that explore healthier ways of living. It’s no secret that I, along with millions of other people, find themselves in uncertain times or emotional battles between being okay and slipping into a depressive state. In this season of life I’m going through a lot of transitions - in my marriage and my identity as a mother and wife, in personal relationships, and somehow through it all I’ve needed some help gaining perspective on how I can continue to contribute to a positive, and more meaningful, life.
So, when it was time for me to browse and select and new book, courtesy of Blogging for Books, I happened to stumble into the self-help genre...a genre I didn’t realize would have had the profound effect on me that it did. As I perused title after title I came across The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters by Emily Esfahani Smith. The summary that popped up had piqued my interest, very much so considering that I was in need of guidance as it related to navigating a season that felt as though it were dragging on and taking my emotional sanity with it.
The Meaning Mindset
Smith begins with an introduction - a personal story about growing up in a Sufi household, as she describes as, “the school of mysticism associated with Islam.” She goes on to share that as a child she was enchanted with the traditions and teachings of the Sufis and how that resonated with her as an adult. That the main focus of this ideology was to live with meaning, not just happiness, and to be of service to others - ultimately connecting with others and to something larger than themselves. These people that would visit her home would live unassuming lives as construction workers, lawyers or parents, but adopted what she refers to throughout this book as the meaning mindset. By living this way they’ve ultimately found significance in their lives and the stories to which they create and share.
They crafted lives that mattered - which leaves just one question for the rest of us: How can we do the same?”
“Chasing happiness actually makes people unhappy."
Throughout the rest of her book she shares the interactions, interviews, and collections of stories from philosophers, psychologists, prolific writers, thinkers, and sociologists spanning across time. She does an amazing job of weaving these stories and studies to share in the common thread of meaning and how, despite our circumstances, we can all truly achieve this sense of meaning in our lives. I loved her ideas on happiness vs meaning and it had me thinking...Would I choose happiness even if it were not earned?
Most people, according to a study, actually choose no to that question and so would I. I believe we get to experience happiness knowing it’s a fleeting emotion. That it took effort to achieve that happiness, but like most things, emotions fade. To chase happiness in turn can lead to us feeling more unhappy than when we originally started. Which then lead me to...Is happiness and meaning the same thing?
For example, Smith discusses that parents experience lower levels of happiness on the day-to-day when raising their children. On the other hand, they experience the highest levels of meaning due to the idea that being a parent is very meaningful to them in their life. I can attest that I am not happy all day long with Greyson - through the tantrums or newfound defiance my little 14 month old has discovered. But, I can say that I find extreme meaning in my life due to being his mom and raising him. Parenthood has definitely given more meaning to my life.
So for me, to answer that question, well, no. Happiness is experienced from moment to moment whereas meaning can last ones lifetime.
She goes on to break down meaning into four pillars: Belonging, Purpose, Storytelling, and Transcendence. Smith mentions that there’s a reason religious and spiritual systems revolve around these pillars - and in turn, I have found myself growing deeper in my own faith through reading this book. Although Christianity is mentioned, and is written without the bias of any one religion, I have found that through reading this book I have found a deeper faith in God and how he orchestrates these moments, whether tragic or joyful, specifically for us. It makes His Word ever more clear and justifies the need we all have to have purpose and meaning- something God designed for us all.
Chapter | Belonging
This chapter was pretty straight forward, but ever so powerful. Something that jumped out to me was the statement that, “we don’t sit still long enough to build lasting relationships.” It’s so true! With online interactions taking the place of real ones or the hustle of our daily lives, it makes connecting with people and fostering those relationships the more difficult.
We all have a desire to belong. I loved reading the stories Smith shared of belonging - from a guy in a small island town off the Chesapeake Bay to Ohio where she met with members of a group of medieval enthusiasts. Then it was the study of cleaners and janitors at a large hospital in the Midwest where they shared how little patients and even doctors took notice of them. All of these stories shared a common thread - the importance of fostering “high quality connections” with people other than our significant others or close friends.
It had me thinking about all the ways in which I pass up connections with people and how, since reading this book, I’ve taken it upon myself to extend my time to these people I wouldn’t have met otherwise. From greeting the maintenance and landscape people who work hard to make my apartment complex beautiful to sharing a leftover meal with a kind homeless man I see every day on my runs. It’s these little moments of connection that could make someone feel as though, I see you. You’re not invisible.
Back to the study with the janitorial staff, she writes that when they were thanked by patients or included by the nurses in social gatherings they took on a new relationship with their work. She said, “they saw themselves as caregivers rather than merely janitors, and they felt more closely tied to the mission of the hospital.”
We all have these little moments where we can make someone’s day or extend ourselves beyond our own schedules or to-do lists. We all have the power to make someone feel significant and it doesn’t take grand gestures to do so.
“We can’t control whether someone will make a high quality connection with us, but we can all choose to initiate or reciprocate one."
I couldn’t recommend this book higher to friends, family, or even strangers. It’s really helped me personally put things into perspective meanwhile learning more about the human condition in the process. To read more about the other pillars and how to begin seeking the meaning in your life, you MUST pick up a copy for yourself! I promise it won’t disappoint!
More from living