Americans idealize the pursuit of happiness. When asked what we want, our go-to answer is “to be happy.” Yet both research and experience show that pursuing happiness isn’t making us any happier.
In her book The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters, Emily Esfahani Smith argues it is meaning rather than happiness that makes life fulfilling. Drawing from an impressive array of sources including scientific research, philosophy, and personal interviews, Smith argues that “there are sources of meaning all around us, and by tapping into them, we can all lead richer and more satisfying lives—and help others do the same” (17).
In the introduction, Smith—a columnist for The New Criterion, as well as an editor at the Hoover Institution, where she manages the Ben Franklin Circles project—boils down the quest for meaning to two questions: “What is the meaning of existence?” and “How can I lead a meaningful life?” (4). The rest of the book tries to figure out how to answer those questions. Smith says that although “historically, religious and spiritual systems laid out the answers to both questions,” today “in the developed world, religion no longer commands the authority it once did” (4).
So, she asks, “Is it possible to find meaning in life without relying on faith in something infinite that gives our finite existence meaning?” (29). Offering her “four pillars of meaning” as a way to craft a meaningful life, her answer is yes: “Though the meaning of life may remain obscure, we all can and must find our own sources of meaning within life” (37).
Four Pillars of Meaning
Smith’s four pillars of meaning are (1) belonging, (2) purpose, (3) storytelling, and (4) transcendence, but she admits they aren’t truly hers. As Smith researched her book, she looked to ancient philosophy, modern social science research, conversations with people, literature, popular culture, religion—everywhere—and found these same four themes. “The beauty of the pillars is that they are accessible to everyone,” she write. “They are sources of meaning that cut through every aspect of our existence” (42).
Smith exhibits intellectual curiosity in the book, so it strikes me as odd that she fails to explore a glaring question: Why are these four pillars consistent throughout history and across cultures? She argues we don’t need to find the meaning of life to find meaning in life, but what if these pillars that help us find meaning in life point us to the meaning of life? Doesn’t the universal nature of the four pillars suggest that someone designed it that way, that meaning has already been crafted for us? Smith sells the pillars short—we can know both how to live a meaningful life and also the meaning of existence.
Smith argues we don’t need to find the meaning of life to find meaning in life, but what if these pillars that help us find meaning in life point us to the meaning of life?
Smith offers compelling stories and research to demonstrate each pillar and provides practical insights about how to use the pillars in our lives. Individual believers and the church at large can certainly learn from her thoughtful and thorough treatment of these ideas. Each pillar rightly teaches that finding meaning involves looking beyond ourselves and serving others. Smith just doesn’t push us to look far enough beyond ourselves.
Looking to God
We can find meaning in belonging; we were made for relationship, but ultimate meaning and satisfaction come in relationship with the God who made us. We can find purpose when we seek to serve others, but we find it ultimately in serving the Lord. We are drawn to stories and using them to make sense of our lives, because on some level we know there is a greater story, the ultimate story of God’s redemption of man. And we are awed by nature and understand ourselves more clearly by comparison, because nature shouts the glory of our Creator (Ps. 19).
Smith argues that we can create meaning for ourselves—and she’s right. The problem is the pillars aren’t sustainable. You can build meaning by belonging to a family or group, but what happens when relationships are broken or people die? You can build meaning by purposefully serving others with your work, but what happens when your skill is no longer needed? You can build meaning by framing your life as a redemptive story, but what happens when you’re confronted with evil and suffering and you can’t see any good in it? You can find meaning by connecting with something greater than yourself through nature or meditation, but what happens when the feelings of transcendence don’t come anymore? (For more on these themes, see chapter 3—“A Meaning That Suffering Can’t Take from You”—in Tim Keller’s excellent book Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical.)
Belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence are finally most helpful as ways of discovering meaning, not creating it. These things can help us build a relationship with the God who designed us to desire meaning in the first place. In the conclusion, Smith quotes Viktor Frankl:
Love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. . . . The salvation of man is through love and in love. (228)
Smith herself adds:
Love cuts through each of the pillars of meaning and comes up again and again in the stories of those I have written about. . . . The act of love begins with the very definition of meaning: it begins by stepping outside of the self to connect with and contribute to something bigger. (229)
She has tapped into something profound and yet missed the whole point: God is love, and salvation and meaning are found in relationship with him.
Emily Esfahani Smith. The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters. New York: Crown, 2017. 304 pp. $28.