Books: The Power of Meaning, as reviewed by Amy Kellestine

The Power of Meaning is a well-written and well-researched tale that expertly weaves the challenges western society currently faces with a solution.

Author Emily Esfahani Smith starts off highlighting a very counter-intuitive relationship between the search for happiness and happiness itself. For example, the ‘happiness’ industry is growing: titles like The Happiness Project and 10% Happier and Hardwired for Happiness are regularly at the top of bestseller lists. And yet, studies continue to show that the happiest nations also have the highest rates of depression and suicide. So what gives?!?

Ultimately, through exploration of research, ancient philosophers, and literature, she connects the dots for the reader: happiness in and of itself is not enough. It is imperative that we also have a sense of meaning in our lives. Life itself can feel a bit absurd at times, as though all we do is get up, go to work, go to the gym, do errands, shuffle kids around, and then fall to bed exhausted only to wake up and do the same thing all over again. Therefore, in the end, finding a sense of meaning is the key differentiator that fosters happiness, increases the sense of connectivity and reduces the chance of depression and suicide.

Smith distills meaning into four pillars: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. In the remaining chapters of the book, she provides a number of lovely and tangible anecdotes that illustrate each of these four pillars in day-to-day life.

For example, in the chapter on belonging she tells the tale of Tangier Island, a tiny island community of approximately 700 just off the coast of Virginia. Community members who leave the island report anxiety and depression, even when they find other advantages to living on the mainland to pursue their dreams. They underestimate the effort required to find a community and build relationships with others, because both are inherent in the island culture. She illustrates purpose by showcasing a former drug-dealer and convict who found meaning in his post-jail life by teaching others healthy habits and getting them active in the gym. The importance of storytelling to make sense of our world and our experiences is highlighted in the success of the not-for-profit organization called The Moth, which is dedicated to the art and craft of telling true, first-person stories. The paradox of transcendence, where individuals feel both insignificant and somehow connected to something massive and meaningful, is highlighted as she describes the history of stargazing and meditative practices.

Key takeaways for me included:

  • When we reframe any task as an opportunity to help others, our lives and our work feel more significant.
  • The pillars are often interconnected (and therefore there is an amplification effect when multiple pillars are activated).
  • Post-traumatic growth is more common than post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Taking time to connect with nature (even if it is just looking at a tree outside your window) is a form of transcendence.

She rapidly concludes the book by highlighting how love – feeling loved or having loving feelings towards someone or something else – is the ultimate path to meaning.

Overall, Emily’s offering is a delightfully easy read that helps her make sense of the experiences she had growing up in a Sufi meeting-house. As someone who has long struggled with the question of “what is the point of all this?”, I found her ability to distil many sources into one readable collection invaluable.

Amy Kellestine headshotAmy Kellestine is an educator, engineer, Arati life coach and entrepreneur living in Edmonton, Alberta. She spends her free time camping, gardening, and volunteering for causes such as Cystic Fibrosis and nature conservation. She is a devoted mother, who is passionate about helping others and writing.

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