“The Power of Meaning” Book Review and Lessons

Title: The Power of Meaning

Author: Emily Esfahani Smith

Category: Psychology, Self-help

Rating: 3/5

10-Word Summary: Meaning makes life worth living through belonging, purpose, storytelling, transcendence.

About The Power of Meaning

The Power of Meaning is a book that explores what is it that makes life worth living. This is a complicated question and people have been trying to answer it for centuries, if not since the beginning of time.

The author, Emily Esfahani Smith, believes that the answer can be found in meaning. According to her, there are 4 pillars of meaning that we can rely on: belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence. In this book, she explores all 4 pillars and shares research and stories of other people that experience meaning in their lives.

Lessons from The Power of Meaning

Struggling to find meaning is normal

In the beginning of the book, we are reminded that struggling to find meaning in life is normal. People like Albert Camus and Leo Tolstoy are just two examples of great thinkers and authors who also struggled to understand what is the point in living. And we often end up questioning the meaning of our lives when we are faced with difficulties: the loss of a loved one, losing our jobs, being diagnosed with a terminal illness and so on.

If you experience a big challenge in your life and this is making you question what is the meaning of it all, don’t despair. You can still find meaning and this will help you become even more resilient in the face of adversity. Keep reading to see how you can rebuild meaning in your life.

Meaning may be even more important than happiness

According to Smith, lack of meaning is a better predictor for suicide than lack of happiness. In other words, you are more likely to give up on life because it feels meaningless than because you don’t feel very happy in it. And this is also confirmed by the fact that suicide rates are higher in some countries that also have high levels of happiness such as Denmark and Finland.

I think that this makes sense and I wish more people knew this. A comfortable life that has no meaning in it is not a great life. So that’s why I think that spending our lives chasing money, material things, titles and achievements we do not care about is a total waste of our time. I think we should turn inwards to see what matters to us and what we can do about it. This is what will make our lives meaningful. And, according to the psychologist Martin Seligman, meaning contributes to life satisfaction more than material things. So I think we are better off if we focus on that. But how do we experience meaning?

According to Smith, there are 4 pillars of meaning: belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence.

Belonging refers to being part of a group you identify with.

Purpose means having a big goal in life.

Storytelling is about the story you tell about yourself.

Transcendence refers to spiritual experiences and religion.

Find meaning by joining groups you believe in

You can do this by building high-quality relationships with people who share your values, your passions or your world view. This can be a part of your family, a group of friends or the volunteers that work for a local NGO that has a mission you care about.

You can also experience belonging by having high-quality interactions with other people – even if only for a few minutes. When you interact with a person, try to see and treat them as human beings. Don’t look at them just as your neighbor, the janitor or the bank clerk. They are all people so look them in the eye, thank them, connect with them and try to brighten up their day.

Find meaning by having a purpose

Having  a purpose is more than having a personal goal. It’s about having a goal that is bigger than yourself, trying to make a positive impact in the world.

Think about goals like teaching children how to read, working to reduce pollution in your city, becoming a police officer to keep people safe and so on. Purpose usually requires a big goal that focuses on others and tries to improve their lives.

But you can also experience purpose by finding smaller ways to help people. Try to focus on helping customers at work. Try to help colleagues when they need some help. And try to use your skills and strengths whenever you can in the service of others.

Find meaning through storytelling

The story we tell ourselves (and others) about our own life can increase or decrease how meaningful our life seems. If you want to have more meaning, try to tell a positive story about your life. Write a coherent life story that focuses on growth and on the things that improved along the way.

It also helps to reflect on certain moments that define who you are today and think about how they have shaped your personality and your current situation.

Find meaning through transcendence

You have a transcendent experience when you rise above your normal life, forget about yourself and feel more connected to the rest of the world. You can experience this while attending a church service, while meditating or, if you are an astronaut, while looking at our world from space.

To seek transcendence, practice your religion and try to forget about anything else. If you are not religious, you can try meditation or spending time in nature.

According to Smith, we can find more meaning by focusing on these 4 pillars of belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence.

What I like about The Power of Meaning

1. It is (partly) science-based

The book references several studies to illustrate why and how some experiences help create more meaning. She also talks about interventions that were tested and that seemed to help people build meaning after trauma, for example.

I always enjoy reading science-based books because they are usually more reliable and anchored in truth. It doesn’t meant that all such books are 100% accurate or true, but you can usually find more reliable information in a science-based book.

But The Power of Meaning is not entirely science-based because Smith doesn’t focus only on the science behind meaning. She also includes several stories of people who found meaning.

2. It focuses on an important topic

This is something that always makes me like a book much more. I am so happy whenever I find good books that deal with very important topics such as meaning, happiness, pollution, politics and so on.

I think we should all read more books that focus on complicated questions about events or phenomena that are affecting us all. And meaning is an important topic now since I think more and more people struggle to find it.

What I don’t like about The Power of Meaning

1. It has too many stories

I think I’ve said this about many books lately, but I usually prefer to read more about theories and facts than anecdotes and stories. Each chapter begins with two stories and there are others included later on. I think stories are obviously interesting and they always illustrate a good message. But I don’t think we need to read several stories with the same message to understand what the author is trying to convey. It sometimes feels a bit redundant.

I know that some people may prefer self-help books with many stories because this makes it easier to read and understand the message. But honestly, I would prefer to read just one good story in each chapter.

2. The book is more descriptive than prescriptive

This book often describes how other people have found meaning in their lives. She also shares what certain studies discovered about meaning. But I think it gives little advice on how we can actually find meaning in our own lives.

I would have loved it if the book also included sections with practical steps or activities that create or increase meaning.

3. Some content without context

I think the book was well-structured and well-written, but it raised a few questions that were left unanswered. For example, I do not understand how Smith discovered these 4 pillars of meaning. What made her conclude that these are the only universal sources of meaning that we experience? I also felt that this classification of sources of meaning feels arbitrary and this makes me question if such a classification is even necessary. I say this because I haven’t found it in other books that talk about happiness, meaning and how to live a good life.

I also wanted to understand how we should approach our quest for meaning. Should we focus on all 4 pillars? Or should we seek to build only one? Is it better to have more transcendence, for example, and focus only on this one or is it better to have lower levels on all 4 pillars? Is it enough to derive meaning just from one pillar? Is any one better than the others? These are the sort of questions that I was hoping to find answers to while reading this book – but I didn’t.

There was one more thing that I did not understand. After the author explores each pillar of meaning in separate chapters, the book continues with two more chapters – one about post-traumatic growth and one about cultures of meaning. I do believe that it is important for people to know that they can experience growth and meaning even after a traumatic event. However, it was not clear to me, as a reader, why this chapter was included here. I also expected the chapter on cultures of meaning to be different and to focus on how meaning is experience in different countries around the world. Instead, it focused on some initiatives that helped some groups of people live better lives. I found this chapter to be the most confusing of them all.

My personal opinion is that, even though the last two chapters also share interesting information, they seem to be “extra” chapters. I think the book would have a more coherent message if these two were left out. Or, at least, I would like to better understand why they are included after the book seemed to have covered everything it set out to cover in the first part of the book.

Quotes from The Power of Meaning

“The more directly one aims to maximize pleasure and avoid pain, the more likely one is to produce instead a life bereft of depth, meaning, and community.”

“People who have such a purpose believe that their lives are more meaningful and more satisfying. They are more resilient and motivated, and they have the drive to muddle through the good and the bad of life in order to accomplish their goals. People who fail to find purpose on their daily activities, however, tend to drift through life aimlessly.”

“Living purposefully requires self-reflection and self-knowledge. Each of us has different strengths, talents, insights and experiences that shape who we are. And so each of us will have a different purpose, one that fits who we are and what we value – one that fits our identity.”

“Though living with purpose may make us happier and more determined, a purpose-driven person is ultimately concerned not with these personal benefits but with making the world a better place.”

“Our storytelling impulse emerges from a deep-seated need all humans have: the need to make sense of the world. We have a primal desire to impose order on disorder – to find the signal in the noise. We see faces in the clouds, hear footsteps in the rustling of leaves, and detect conspiracies in unrelated events. We are constantly taking pieces of information and adding a layer of meaning to them – we couldn’t function otherwise.”

“Stories help us make sense of the world and our place in it and understand why things happen the way they do.”

“Since the dawn of human consciousness, men and women have looked up to the night sky, marveling at the stars, wondering what they were and what they represented. Studying the celestial spheres, they sought answers to the biggest questions of human existence. How did the world begin? Will it end? What else is out there? They sought omens, wisdom and hints of ancestors’ past. But what they really sought was meaning.”

Should You Read This Book?

I think “The Power of Meaning” is a good book. But the way we interpret it obviously depends on many factors, such as: our background knowledge, previous books we have read, interest in the subject, expectations and so on.

If you have read little or nothing on meaning or positive psychology, I think you would learn quite a lot from this book. If you are curious about the stories in the book and the research included in it, read this book! But if you have already read other great books on the same topic or similar topics, this book may not teach you a lot.

All things considered, I think that The Power of Meaning is an interesting book and it has some very interesting studies and insights in it, so I think it’s worth reading.

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