What are the four secrets to creating a life of meaning?
Give your team a sense of purpose and not only will it increase their likelihood of success, it may also contribute to their overall happiness. By reminding them where their work fits into the company’s goals and how it gives back to the world, you can create a workplace filled with productive and enthusiastic workers. But how do you implement the power of meaning into your everyday life and the lives of others?
Emily Esfahani Smith is an editor at the Stanford University Hoover Institution, where she manages the Ben Franklin Circles Project to build meaning in local communities. She is also the author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. I recently interviewed Emily for The LEADx Podcast, where we discussed the role of meaning in life, work, and the world. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: Can you talk about the difference between a happy life and a significant life?
Emily Esfahani Smith: I think that there’s this yearning for wellbeing. We all want to feel happy and so we buy these happiness books, and yet I think that happiness is something that the more you chase it, the further away that it gets, and what people are actually looking for when they “chase happiness,” is a life of significance or a life of meaning. So what’s the difference between a happy life and a significant life? Well, happiness is defined as a positive emotional and mental state. When you feel good, you’re happy. And when you feel bad, you’re unhappy. But the meaningful life is bigger. The meaningful and significant life is defined by connecting and contributing to something that’s beyond yourself. And when people say that they feel their lives are significant and meaningful, it’s because three conditions have been satisfied.
The first is that they think that their lives matter so they believe their lives have worth. The second is that their lives feel driven by a sense of purpose or something worthwhile that they’re doing with their time that often involves contributing to the world. Finally, they understand their lives as coherent, which means that they don’t think of their experiences as random and disconnected but as part of a larger narrative, a larger whole. You can see those definitions are very different and the thing about the meaningful life is that when you pursue it, it can often be an effort full and hard life because some of the most meaningful projects that we have, whether it’s raising children or writing a book or being a good leader at work, are really effortful and they can be frustrating and stress inducing. Ultimately, when we do them we’re left with this deeper sense of wellbeing and happiness down the road.
Kruse: You say that there are four pillars to crafting the meaningful life. What are those four pillars?
Smith: The four pillars are ‘Purpose,’ ‘Belonging,’ ‘Storytelling,’ and ‘Transcendence.’ These are the building blocks for a meaningful life. When I interview people about what makes their lives meaningful, when I turned to social science research, when I looked at the philosophy and the literature, these were the four themes that came up again and again as the building blocks of a meaningful life. The definition of ‘Purpose’ is a kind of goal that organizes your life, and that involves making a contribution to others. One person’s purpose could be curing cancer. Another person’s purpose could be more local, like being a great teacher and helping mentor younger people to rise up in the world.
‘Belonging’ is about relationships. We hear all the time that relationships are important to wellbeing but ‘Belonging’ is about a particular type of relationship. One in which you feel valued by others and you feel like you matter, and where you treat other people like they matter and like they’re valued. You can imagine with your partner, you two treat each other like you care for each other. You can share a moment of belonging by holding hands or having a conversation at dinnertime, where you’re both really tuned in. Or you can cultivate belonging in smaller ways like checking out at the grocery store and just asking the teller, “How’s your day going?” Giving them a compliment, making someone else feel valued.
‘Storytelling’ is the next pillar. This one is really about your own life story. How you understand yourself. Storytelling is the act of taking your experiences and weaving them into a narrative that explains who you are and where you came from and some stories are healthier than others. Psychologists find that people who lead meaningful lives tend to tell redemptive stories about their lives so stories that move from some kind of adversity, to good. This bad thing happened to me but then I ended up growing or becoming more compassionate or finding a sense of purpose. It turns out that the stories that you tell about your life can actually lead you to lead more meaningful lives. The story actually changes how you behave.
Finally, there is ‘Transcendence’. So the word ‘transcend’ means to rise above, and transcendent experiences are ones in which we’re kind of lifted above the ordinary waking consciousness that we experience day to day, and we feel connected to something bigger. For some people these experiences occur in prayer or in meditation where their sense of self dissolves as they feel connected to God or some higher reality. For others it can occur in nature, walking through the woods and feeling connected to something larger than yourself. Or even listening to music or viewing art.
Kruse: So it’s possible to get a sense of belonging from our relationships, from being active in our church, or being committed to our team members at work. There’s no right answer here, right?
Smith: That’s right. So the thing about the meaningful life is it’s a life that we each have to craft for ourselves and we have to find these sources of meaning on our own. No two people are going to have the exact same sources of meaning though there might be overlap so like you say you know maybe a lot of people find belonging at work or in their families, but maybe someone else finds it in an unusual community that they’re a part of. In my book I write about this group, this society for creative anachronism which is a group of medieval enthusiasts who find a real strong sense of belonging through their membership.
Kruse: How can first time managers, which is a lot of our listeners, foster more meaning in the workplace?
Smith: The number one driver of engagement, as I understand the research, is when employees feel like their work is meaningful to them. The question for managers and leaders is how can you help employees find that meaning in their work? There’s a couple of examples that I’ll give before I zoom out and talk about what the answer might be.
There’s a story that goes in 1962 John F. Kennedy was walking through the halls of NASA when he saw a janitor and he asked the janitor, “Sir, what do you do here? What’s your job here?” The janitor responded saying, “Mr. President, I’m here to put a man on the moon.” That was an example of NASA clearly inculcated this culture of meaning and made everybody who worked there feel like they were part of the broader purpose of putting a man on the moon. Regardless of what they did, regardless of what their day to day tasks are.
Another example is at the company Life is Good, which is an apparel brand. So it sells these t-shirts and hats that say ‘Life is Good’ on them. As the company started getting going in the early years of its founding, they started receiving letters from people, from their consumers who really were moved by the simple message that life is good. For example they received letters from people diagnosed with cancer who said “Wearing your apparel really helped me get through chemotherapy. It helped lift my spirits and realize that despite my adversities, life is good.” Another person who wrote in was a widow who lost her husband in the 9/11 attacks who said something similar.
Now the managers at Life is Good take these letters and occasionally read them to employees at company-wide meetings so that each employee knows that no matter what they do, whether they’re a receptionist answering the phone, somebody loading boxes with apparel at the warehouse, or a designer of the t-shirts, they all realize that they’re part of this larger purpose to help people live with more hope and more optimism.
I would encourage managers who are listening to figure out what is the value of your group or of your company. How is it contributing to the world and how can you help your team leaders—the people who are working for you—connect what they’re doing to that larger goal?
Kruse: I like to challenge our listeners to become 1% better every single day. Is there something you can challenge them to do today?
Smith: I think that living with meaning is ultimately about making a difference in the world and contributing to something that’s bigger than yourself. I would encourage listeners to think of one thing that they can do today, and that they can do everyday, to make the life of somebody else better. What’s one thing that they can do to contribute to those around them and to the world around them? Whether that means giving somebody a compliment or helping their neighbor shovel the snow off their porch. These small acts of meaning make a big difference in lighting up the world.
Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.