Finding meaning, Smith says, is key to staying centered

Emily Esfahani Smith, author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters, delivers her lecture Friday in the Amphitheater, closing a week asking “Can the Center Hold? — A Question for Our Moment,” by highlighting the need to find centering in one’s own life. HG Biggs/Staff Photographer

Alton Northup
Staff writer

The world is objectively better than ever before, yet instances of every indicator of mental health issues are rising, especially among children and young adults, said Emily Esfahani Smith.

“This growing sense of despair that people are feeling is not predicted by a lack of happiness in people’s lives, but by a lack of meaning,” she said. 

Smith, author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters and a Ph.D. student in clinical psychology, presented her lecture, “The Power of Meaning: Self as Center,” at 10:45 a.m. Friday in the Amphitheater. In closing the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Three theme, “Can the Center Hold? – A Question for Our Moment,” she shared a perspective of the self as the center, and meaning as the way to stay centered in the self.

In her formative years, Smith lived in Montreal, where her parents ran a Sufi meeting house. Sufism is a mystical Islamic belief that focuses on the inward search for God by attempting to return to an original state of purity. The practice has historically faced persecution in the Middle East.

Smith recalled life in the meeting house where Persian music played in the background of meditations. The visitors, often refugees, prioritized love, kindness and acts of service to rein in their “small self” and connect with a higher reality.

“Growing up, I was surrounded by people who had a very clear sense of meaning,” she said.

At age 10, Smith and her family left the meeting house behind and moved to the United States. Initially, she said it was wonderful to start living an ordinary life, but “without that daily grounding of Sufism … I began to wonder, how can we find meaning in a world that feels so uncertain?”

That question led her to studying psychology in college. In a positive psychology program, she learned that Western culture places an emphasis on happiness, an emotion as fleeting as any other.

“This pursuit of happiness that is so encouraged can actually backfire,” Smith said. “We now know from decades of research that people who pursue happiness, and value it the way our culture encourages us to do, actually end up feeling unhappy and lonely.”

Taking inspiration from the late Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor who detailed his experiences from various Nazi concentration camps in his best-selling book Man’s Search for Meaning, Smith said people experience despair because of a lack of meaning in their life.

“Frankl said that we have a need to find meaning in our lives, and to lead meaningful lives the same way we have physical needs for food, water and shelter,” Smith said. “That meaning is a kind of psychological emotional need. We must have it, otherwise we suffer.”

Despite its necessity, Smith was not sure how to find meaning in her life. So, she interviewed more than 100 people on the topic and the same themes appeared over and over again. She has since turned those themes – belonging, purpose, transcendence and storytelling – into the four pillars of a meaningful life.

Belonging is a step beyond the standard relationships of life; it is a relationship where people are valued for who they intrinsically are.

Smith shared an example of her friend Jonathan, who buys a newspaper from the same street vendor in New York City each morning. It is not just a transaction, however. It is a moment for the two to pause, talk and recognize each other.

Over the years, Jonathan and the vendor got to know each other, their families and their lives. But one time, Jonathan had the wrong change and when the vendor offered the paper as a gift, he refused and went to another store to break a bill.

When he returned with the change, the vendor drew back and was hurt by Jonathan’s refusal to accept his gift. The vendor’s kind action became a fracture point; what he thought was a sustaining relationship had returned to a transaction. These moments of fractured connection, Smith said, can make others conclude life in general is less meaningful. 

The good thing is that as easily as the pillar of belonging can be broken, it can also be repaired. The next day, Jonathan brought the vendor a cup of tea and they returned to their routine discussion with a new appreciation for their relationship.

“There’s something really powerful about feeling like you matter to others and feeling like your life matters,” she said.

Purpose is often interchanged with meaning, but it is actually a dimension of meaning, Smith said. It is a goal or value that orients a person’s life and drives them into the future.

Purpose can be found everywhere, and it does not have to be some grand mission. It can be raising children, helping the community, checking on friends or praying each day. 

“Each of these things shows us that purpose is this obtainable goal that we can achieve,” Smith said.

Like all of the pillars, purpose is crucial to supporting life. Adolescence is a time when people start to consider their purpose, and as young people lose connection to their homes, places of worship and communities, they are yearning for a purpose in society, she said. Without this purpose, the youth mental health crisis will only get worse.

Smith noted a study that asked high school and college students to write down how they wanted to make the world a better place and how their actions would help them become the person they want to be in the future. 

The questions helped them connect what they were doing now with their futures, and researchers found the students who wrote about their purpose in their responses did better in their schoolwork. 

Purpose as a reason to get up in the morning “drove them into the future.”

Transcendence is the moment a person is lifted above the hustle and bustle of life to feel connected to something bigger than themselves. For some, it is feeling one with nature; for others, it is through spirituality or music. The defining factor of transcendent experiences, Smith said, is the feeling of self-loss and a connectedness to surroundings.

“People who report having had these experiences rate them as among the most meaningful experiences of their lives,” she said. “There’s something kind of profound and perspective-shifting about them.”

Smith shared a story of Jeanine Delaney, a woman with leukemia who she interviewed for her book. Delaney was no longer a part of a spiritual community and struggled with facing the prospect of death.

“That spiritual vacuum felt like a real emptiness,” Smith said. “She had no framework to understand the fact that her life was going to end.”

During a routine health exam, she saw a flier for a Johns Hopkins’ study on the effects of transcendent experiences on people with terminal diagnoses. Delaney was accepted for the study.

The study stimulated transcendence through doses of psilocybin, the active chemical in psychedelic mushrooms, and a musical playlist that matched the ebbs and flows of the experience.

Delaney recalled to Smith that time stopped during the experiment and that there was “not one atom of myself that did not merge with the divine.”

“Once the music reached its peak climax, she held her breath and she said that in that moment she knew that it would be okay to stop breathing,” Smith said.

The experience helped Delaney see her place in the cosmos, she said, and while not everyone is willing to take psychedelics, the experience of transcendence can happen in the mundane aspects of life. 

Smith gave the Anthony Hect poem “The Venetian Vespers as an example, in which an unnamed narrator finds comfort from his suffering in the beauty of nature. Clouds become “shouted vaults,” and the rain “whisper of drying leaves.”

A passage concludes: “To give one’s whole attention to such a sight is a sort of blessedness; one escapes from all the anguish of this world into the present tense.”

The final pillar is storytelling, or the story a person tells themselves about how they became the person they are today.

“I find that sometimes when I talk about this pillar, it tends to surprise people or intrigue people a little bit more than the other pillars,” Smith said. “I think it’s because we don’t always realize that we have an ongoing narrative in our minds about who we are and how we got to be that way.”

Storytelling is inherently a meaning-making action, she said, but it also adds perspective to the stories a person may have already been telling.

Smith shared the story of Emeka, a football player paralyzed from the neck down after an injury. In an interview, he told Smith that before his injury he was the life of the party and football was his purpose; his injury made him worthless.

Over time, Emeka crafted a new story for himself. Before his injury, he was selfish and partied too much; his injury gave him a fresh start in life. 

He went on to enroll in college for counseling and he now works as a counselor at a public school. His new purpose was helping others.

Smith said humans in general have a negativity bias and ignore the positive moments of life in favor of the negative. But, because anyone who tells a negative story about themselves often feels anxious and depressed, she said, it is important for people to account for all of the pages in their life stories, such as family, community work, care for others, or career accomplishments.

“If we include them in the narrative,” she said, “the narrative arc starts to shift and we start telling a story that’s actually more balanced than the one that we were inclined to tell earlier.”


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