The Four Pillars of Wellbeing: New Speaker Emily Esfahani Smith on the Search for Meaning in a Happiness-Driven World
When Emily Esfahani Smith was in college, she began to see a curious pattern. Our “single-minded obsession with happiness” is leading people astray. As featured in her hit TED2017 keynote and new book, The Power of Meaning, Smith provides readers with four pillars of wisdom that are not about banishing unhappiness, but finding meaning within a varied emotional spectrum.
Counterintuitively, the pursuit of happiness can make people less happy and increase feelings of loneliness. The difference between meaning and happiness is subtle but mighty, as Smith discusses in the book and expands upon in her talks. “The meaningful life is essential to the happy life,” she explains. “But happiness is about feeling good in the moment, feeling a state of comfort and ease. Meaning is about belonging to, and serving, something beyond yourself. It’s about believing that your life matters and that it makes sense. There is a depth of wellbeing that comes with it.”
Smith organizes her research into four pillars of meaning:
1) A Sense of Belonging, meaning relationships “where you really feel like you matter to others and are valued by them, and where you in turn treat others like they matter and are valued.”
2) Purpose, or “having something worthwhile to do with your time,” says Smith. “It’s this pursuit that organizes your life and involves making a contribution to others.” Smith writes and speaks about the best ways we can find purpose in our own lives. This includes locating our strengths and talents, what our unique perspective on the world is, and bringing that all together to give back.
3) Transcendence, “those moments where you're basically lifted above the hustle and bustle of daily life and you feel your sense of self fade away.” Transcendence, for a lot of people, is part of a religious pursuit, experienced through meditation, prayer, and other expressions of faith. But you can also experience it in nature, or at work, explains Smith.
4) Storytelling, the final pillar “surprised me in a lot of ways,” Smith says. “Storytelling is really about the story that you tell yourself about your life, about how you became you. It’s your personal myth.”
The four pillars inform Smith’s talks and articles, like the viral “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy,” which became the jumping-off point for The Power of Meaning. Her articles in The Atlantic have been read over 30 million times, and her writing on culture and psychology—drawing on neuroscience, philosophy, and literature—have also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, TIME, and other publications. Fresh from the TED 2017 mainstage, Smith’s talks help us think differently about the stories we tell ourselves and help us identify what makes life worth living.
Smith is an instructor in positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also a columnist for The New Criterion, as well as an editor at the Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, where she manages the Ben Franklin Circles project: a collaboration with the 92nd Street Y and Citizen University to build meaning in local communities.
Warm, and contemplatively motivational, Smith is a wonderful speaker for anyone looking to stoke the flames of motivation from within.