Being happy looking for the meaning of life


Being happy looking for the meaning of life


From an interview with Emily Esfahani, conducted by Zuberoa Marcos, journalist and PhD in biology.

See the original post and Video in Spanish

Among the most important philosophers in the author's life, according to her words, are Aristotle, of whom she says: "he seems to have said all the most relevant things about the topics that interest me"; Kierkegaard and Viktor Frankl, of whom she says: "Frankl's novel, Man's Search for Meaning, changed my life".

Esfahani was born in Switzerland, then lived in Canada until the age of twelve, from where he moved to the United States. Her life is marked by different cultural experiences, starting from the Islamic Sufism of her early years in Canada, where she was surprised by the search for the inner and spiritual dimension.

She is the author of the book The power of meaning. Finding fulfillment in a World obsessed with happiness. Her observations are based on modern psychological studies and many interviews with all kinds of people. They focus on what he called the four pillars of meaning.

Optimistic realism, attentive to the person and open to transcendence

Difference between meaning and happiness: an empirical fact.

The more one seeks happiness, the more difficult it is to achieve it. This fact, proven by modern science, was underlined by Aristotle and is related to the paradox of hedonism: the search for pleasure in itself ends in the loss of the very pleasure we long for.

Says Esfahani: "we live in a modern crisis of meaning". These words are an echo of what Frankl warned in the forties: many people do not find meaning in their lives or in what they do, falling into existential emptiness, the basis of a great psychic malaise.

Happiness is often described as a positive emotional state: if you feel good you are happy, if not, you are unhappy.

Happiness comes and goes, like emotions. The meaning is broader and goes beyond oneself: it is the search for something outside yourself, which can be family, friends, your work, God, religion...: something that gives meaning to what you do.

There are three elements that, according to psychology, are the most capable of giving meaning:

  1. A meaningful life with value
  2. A purpose
  3. A coherent life or narrative.

The mental health crisis is due to a lack of meaning in life and not so much a lack of happiness

There are many people who move around just looking for the thrill of happiness, but not something that goes beyond that and gives true meaning to everything. What gives meaning costs more but is worth it.

Today psychologists seek to separate happiness from meaning, precisely to understand why depressions, anxiety, loneliness and other indicators of psychic suffering increase so much.

It is more difficult today to find meaning, as there is a lack of references such as religion or community, or rituals. The more secular world takes less account of important factors for meaning, such as religion and spirituality.

The four pillars on which meaning is based

Esfahani discovers four pillars or key concepts that support the meaning of existence, which are:

  1. Belonging
  2. Purpose
  3. Transcendence
  4. Narrative

Belonging: it has to do with the kind of relationships we have. It is the sense of belonging, at its deepest level. It comes from a relationship in which you know you are valued for who you are. It is not just any valuation or relationship, but the one that discovers the other in its essential value, for itself, for being who you are. It is not necessarily present from the beginning of a relationship, it grows and takes shape. Those who feel rejected, even for seemingly banal matters such as seeing the other looking at the phone while they talk, may be hurt or think that their life has less meaning.

Purpose: this is a component of meaning, the part that guides toward the future. It can be something of service, a contribution to others. It connects with more global aspects, even if the purpose is in small things: household chores, a gesture towards one or a few people... She gives the example of a hospital cleaner interviewed, who says about her work: my purpose is not to clean, but to help heal people who are sick.

Transcendence: are those experiences that put a person above the everyday of life. This can also be something apparently very small with which the greatness of other realities is intuited. It can be a starry sky that admires, or the sublime of nature, prayer or meditation. It is all those experiences that diminish the importance of our individuality. People value the discovery of transcendence as the most meaningful thing in life. Transcendence generates a greater capacity to help others.

Transcendence helps because after climbing to the top of the mountain, you have a different perspective. It increases empathy and helps us to help others more. He narrates the experiment that was done with students who were taken to contemplate the marvelous canopy of some eucalyptus trees. After enjoying that vision, they were more willing to help other people. Transcendence reorganizes the way we think about the world.

Narrative: is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. Our whole story is the most important thing and can always be a source of meaning. Sometimes we don't realize that we are the authors of our own stories. How we are and why is key. If we find difficulties with what has happened to us, that do not let us move forward, we can edit our story, tell it again to keep moving forward. This is also what is done in psychotherapy.

The 4 pillars of meaning combine and help resilience, even if they are not all present

It is not necessary to have a clear understanding of each of the elements of meaning, in order to find the meaning. Each person has his or her own combination in the search for meaning in life. Some people think more about purpose and narrative, and less about transcendence. The more pillars you have, the easier it is to overcome wounds with more resilience.

Belonging, purpose, transcendence and narrative offer support deep within the self. Some people dwell on the pillar they may be missing, but it is better to look to those they already possess and look to them for strength. It would be a mistake to think that life has no meaning, for example, by not being very clear about the purpose in each moment.

Meaning of life and education

The question about the meaning of life is not exclusive to adults. It helps children to think about these things, and to face the search for meaning. Perhaps they will do it with different and less complex words, but it will help them to think about life with a global meaning.

In schools it is important to keep meaning in mind. When these topics are introduced, children integrate better and get better grades.

Especially adolescence is a key stage to think about who we are and what our purpose is. This is where we draw what adult life will be. These questions do not usually appear in social networks.

A key to meaning is coherence in the narrative.

One pillar that is worth delving into is narrative, because of the power of stories. Narrative or our own story unifies what we live and leads us to understand ourselves. And that life can be transformed into something coherent that brings meaning. The story has an order or process: who we are and where we are going.

Our life is more than a set of events

In addition to a process, narrative has a content. Themes are varied. A frequent theme is that of redemption: something bad happened to me and then I overcame it with something good. But the opposite or contamination story is also observed: the good is hidden by a negative experience. Other themes are growth, love and will.

It is good that in our story there are elements of redemption, growth and love. But if they are not there, you don't necessarily have a meaningless life. You can change the way you tell your story, respecting the facts.

Human beings have a negative bias, which has been proven. All bad experiences leave a deeper impression than good ones and are harder to forget. We need, says Esfahani, about 5 good things for every bad thing that happens to us. The bad stuff gets much more included in our story. By editing them we can include positive elements that give hope.

Among the many elements that make it easier to find meaning in life are art, literature and humanities, philosophy. In a secularized society like today's, they can be even more important.


Wenceslao Vial

Article in Italian