Book 56: The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters by Emily Esfahani Smith

Modern psychology is one of the many disciplines that I’m interested in – as someone who deals with mental illness as a part of my day to day life, modern psychological research methods (i.e. Mindfulness and positive psychology) have been utilized in my counseling history, and I’ve quite enjoyed them. This book isn’t specific to mindfulness, but it does rely on similar concepts.

The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters falls under the spectrum of self-help and personal growth, and it’s my favorite from the genre this year. It also encompasses quite a good deal of Smith’s personal narrative as she did extensive traveling during her research for the book.

I was interested in this book from the intro on; the concepts of hedonia and eudaimonia were new to me, but I quickly became quite enthralled by them. Seeking happiness and seeking meaning hadn’t always seemed like separate things in my ideology – I had always thought that happiness was just something that you find, though I’d never really considered the method for finding it. Smith details a path to meaning that leads us to happiness – a gap that I had needed to fill in.

Smith also describes the findings of a study by Shigehiro Oishi and Ed Diener which shows the correlation of happiness, meaning, and suicide – though countries like Finland and Japan are privileged and report high levels of happiness, they report low levels of meaningfulness and in turn had much higher suicide rates than countries like Togo and Sierra Leone. I pondered this pretty wholeheartedly, as someone with suicidal ideation, and I understood it – meaning something to other people has almost always been what kept me off the ledge, despite my inability to honestly call myself happy.

The four pillars for crafting a meaningful life are :

  • Belonging
    • Be forewarned, there is mention of infant death in this chapter – the psychological experiments and research done in a few of the  examples deals with orphan death and infant death.
    • That being said, this chapter has a wealth of knowledge on the sense of belonging and how a community can help us develop meaning.
    • The concept of intimacy is addressed in this chapter as well – I quite liked the psychological concepts and studies used here.
  • Purpose
    • Our purpose doesn’t have to be a divine calling – it can be parenting or service, or something that doesn’t necessarily make us exuberant.
  • Storytelling
    • I really enjoyed this chapter for the insight it provided on CNF writing. Writing about our lives is proven to help us cope with trauma and help us to empathize with other people; it causes us to look at the things that have happened to us in a systematic, chronological way.
    • I especially liked reading about Narrative Identity, a concept that has some to do with modern therapy practices, but ties into the art and act of storytelling.
  • Transcendance
    • This last pillar encompasses all of the bigger than we can fathom stuff – from telescopes that show the spot where two galaxies collide to mystical experience and psychedelic drug use, this chapter has it covered.
    • This chapter even broaches the subject of mindfulness, my favorite element of modern psychology and my favorite type of meditation; mindfulness seemed to be the key element to mastering this pillar, another plus where I’m concerned.

In the closing chapters, Smith discusses other concepts like Cultures of Meaning and how businesses are now shifting toward working toward a purpose instead of simply drawing profit – something that interested me pretty heavily, though capitalism is and always will be a money-driven system.

There’s also discussion on how meaning and purpose affect our physical health; to simply put it, people who feel they have meaning or purpose are healthier both mentally and physically. Elderly people who have a purpose (in some cases even something so simple as caring for a house plant) live longer. Purpose helps us thrive.

It goes without saying that this book made me think about my mind and my life in many ways. I believe that Smith has put together a fantastic book, one that lends to a truly introspective look at one’s lifestyle and choices. I know what to seek in my daily life now; meaning, not surface level happiness.

The only downside I found was that each chapter seemed to get a little bogged down in the research; Smith provides copious examples, and though they build on each other, hey could be a bit too long winded at times. Avoiding those longer chapters would most likely mean cutting some of the key elements to the concepts themselves, so I really can’t blame her for going so in-depth. The sheer amount of work that went into the research she did must have been astounding.

The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters releases on January 10th, 2017. I would recommend picking it up and maybe even adding it to your New Year’s Resolution list. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and feel privileged to have had the chance to read it early thanks to Goodreads.  

I give the book an 8/10.

The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters

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