"In a world that seems caught between pure hedonism and divisive sectarianism, the book mounts a timely challenge"by Naomi Goulder / February 15, 2017 / Leave a comment
The Power of Meaning by Emily Esfahani Smith (Rider, £14.99)
Everyone wants to be happy. But our cultural obsession with happiness is wrong. What makes for a good life is not happiness, but meaning.
So argues the writer Emily Esfahani Smith in an intelligent page-turner that mobilises a wide range of social-psychological data—including a vast recent study into suicide by Shigehiro Oishi and Ed Diener—and ideas from the likes of Aristotle, Friedrich Nietzsche, William James, Émile Durkheim, Viktor Frankl and Albert Camus, to make the case for a major cultural re-orientation towards meaning.
The discussion is organised around four “pillars of meaning”: belonging (“connecting and bonding with people in positive ways”); purpose (“having a mission tied to contributing to society”); narrative (redemptive sense-making); and transcendence (experience of loss of self and of connection with the wider world).
These orientate the reader in illuminating ways. Studies show that a single fleeting feeling of connectedness can bring about lasting positive transformations in a person’s attitudes to nature, other people and their own mortality and suffering. Should feelings of transcendence be induced routinely in the penal system, healthcare or education? The book’s persuasiveness lies partly in the interest of its concrete proposals.
Esfahani Smith writes that the “beauty of the pillars is that they are accessible to everyone.” It would be naive to think that meaning can replace all other dimensions of wellbeing, but in a world that seems caught between pure hedonism and divisive sectarianism, the book mounts a timely challenge. And fear not: if you look out for meaning, happiness will look out for itself.