Nearly 100 years ago, Albert Einstein shared his theory of happiness with the world, stating: "A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness."
Even still, only a third of today's Americans report feeling happy, according to the 2017 Harris Poll Survey of American Happiness.
But in a TED Talk held earlier this year, writer and positive psychology instructor at University of Pennsylvania Emily Esfahani Smith argued that despite our culture's obsession with the pursuit of personal happiness, understanding your meaning in life is the secret to your resilience and success.
"Many psychologists define happiness as a state of comfort and ease, feeling good in the moment. Meaning, though, is deeper," Smith said.
Citing psychologist Martin Seligman, she pointed out that "meaning comes from belonging to and serving something beyond yourself and from developing the best within you."
"Everyone said the path to happiness was success, so I searched for that ideal job, that perfect boyfriend, that beautiful apartment," Smith said, a topic she elaborates on in her recently published book "The Power of Meaning. "
But what Smith found was that by chasing happiness, she felt "anxious and adrift," which scientific research has proven to be normal.
This feeling was explored in a 2011 study titled "Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness" published by the American Psychological Association.
Researchers found that chasing happiness can be self-defeating, "because the more people value happiness, the more likely they will feel disappointed."
"Even though life is getting objectively better by nearly every conceivable standard, more people feel hopeless, depressed and alone," Smith said.
But when it comes to those who pursue meaning and find it, Smith said they are "more resilient, they do better in school and at work and they even live longer."
To find out how people can live more meaningful lives, Smith spent five years interviewing hundreds of people and sorted through psychology, neuroscience and philosophy research.
For those who may not know where to start to live a more meaningful life, Smith details these four pillars to help set you on a more fulfilling path.
The first pillar of meaning is "belonging," which Smith said comes from "being in relationships where you're valued for who you are intrinsically and where you value others as well." The clearest examples of sharing this bond can be seen between yourself and your family or friends.
But Smith warned that you shouldn't confuse this with "cheap forms of belonging," where people only value you not for who you are, but for what you believe or who you hate.
"True belonging springs from love. It lives in moments among individuals and it's a choice," she said. "You can choose to cultivate belonging with others."
"Finding your purpose is not the same thing as finding that job that makes you happy," Smith said. "Purpose is less about what you want than about what you give."
Smith explained that the key to purpose is "using your strengths to serve others."
Given that American adults spend a majority of their time at work, Smith said it makes sense that we channel our sense of purpose through our jobs, where we contribute a lot of our time and feel needed.
But as Smith pointed out, the lack of purpose Americans feel at work is translating into "disengagement at work, unemployment and low labor force participation."
"Of course, you don't have to find purpose at work, but purpose gives you something to live for," Smith said, adding it gives you a reason to move forward.
"Transcendent states are those rare moments when you're lifted above the hustle and bustle of daily life, your sense of self fades away and you feel connected to a higher reality," Smith said.
In other words, it's an experience that feels larger than life. But different people will experience transcendence in different ways.
For Smith, transcendence looks like getting "so in the zone" while writing that she loses all sense of time and place.
In 2015, University of California - Berkeley researchers Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner published a study on the emotional response of awe, which they described in The New York Times as "that often-positive feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world."
In the study, students who looked up at 200-feet-tall eucalyptus trees for one minute felt less self-centered and even behaved more generously when given the chance to help someone, Smith explained. She recommends people place themselves in more moments like these.
Smith explained that when you speak with someone or write about events that have taken place in your life on any given day, you are creating a narrative that helps you understand how you became you.
"We don't always realize that we're the authors of our stories and can change the way we're telling them," Smith said. "Your life isn't just a list of events.You can edit, interpret and retell your story, even as you're constrained by the facts."
Even if you aren't thrilled about how things in your life are playing out, Smith said seeing a therapist or finding time to reflect in a thoughtful way allows you to understand your life in a more meaningful way.
"Happiness comes and goes," Smith said, "but when life is really good and when things are really bad, having meaning gives you something to hold on to."
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