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The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters Hardcover – January 10, 2017
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The 30 Best Self Help Books
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“Beautifully written and rigorously researched, The Power of Meaning speaks to the yearning we all share for a life of depth and significance. In a culture constantly shouting about happiness, this warm and wise book leads us down the path to what truly matters. Reading it is a life-transforming experience.”
—SUSAN CAIN, author of Quiet
“The analysis that opens the book, and that structures the whole, is simple and elegant… The insight that, in our daily lives, we need to think of others and to have goals that include caring for others or working for something other than our own prosperity and advancement is the most valuable message in the book.”
—WALL STREET JOURNAL
“An enlightening guide to discovering meaning in one’s life… Smith persuasively reshapes the reader’s understanding of what constitutes a well-lived life.”
“Thoughtful… Underscoring the power of connection, the author assures readers that finding meaning is not the result of ‘some great revelation’ but rather small gestures and humble acts.”
“A riveting read on the quest for the one thing that matters more than happiness. Emily Esfahani Smith reveals why we lose meaning in our lives and how to find it. Beautifully written, evidence-based, and inspiring, this is a book I’ve been awaiting for a very long time.”
—ADAM GRANT, author of Originals and Give and Take; professor at the Wharton School
“From sleep-deprived teens to overworked professionals, Americans are suffering from an epidemic of stress and exhaustion. It’s clear our definition of success is broken. As Emily Esfahani Smith shows, only by finding our purpose and opening ourselves to life's mystery can we find true well being. Combining cutting-edge research with storytelling, The Power of Meaning inspires us to zero in on what really matters.”
—ARIANNA HUFFINGTON, author of Thrive
"A wonderful, engaging writer... [Smith] offers clear, compelling, and above all useful advice for how to live with meaning and purpose."
—ROD DREHER, The American Conservative
“This powerful, beautifully written book weaves together seamlessly cutting-edge psychological research, moving personal narratives and insights from great literature to make a convincing case that the key to a good life is finding or creating meaning.”
—BARRY SCHWARTZ, author of The Paradox of Choice; emeritus professor of psychology, Swarthmore College
“The Power of Meaning deftly tells the stories of people, contemporary and historical, who have made the quest for meaning the mission of their lives. This powerful yet elegant book will inspire you to live a life of significance.”
—DANIEL H. PINK, author of Drive
“A beautiful book, full of hope. While drawing on the best scientific evidence, it also stirs us with powerful narratives of living full of meaning”.
—LORD RICHARD LAYARD, Director, Well-Being Programme, Centre for Economic Performance
“The search for meaning just got a little easier, and a little more fun. To follow Emily Esfahani Smith in this great human quest is to undertake a rewarding journey with a sure-footed guide.”
—DARRIN M. MCMAHON, author of Happiness: A History; Mary Brinsmead Wheelock Professor of History, Dartmouth College
“All too often, we sleepwalk through life without examining it. The Power of Meaning shows us another path. How can we find purpose? What role does our work have in the search for meaning? This deeply researched—yet highly readable—book can help you answer those questions.”
—CHRIS GUILLEBEAU, author of Born for This and The $100 Startup
“A powerful invitation to live a life that is not only happy but filled with purpose, belonging, and transcendence. By combining scientific research and philosophical insights with moving accounts of ordinary people who have deeply meaningful lives, Smith addresses the most urgent questions of our existence in a delightful, masterful, and inspiring way.”
—EMMA SEPPÄLÄ, author of The Happiness Track; Science Director, Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism
“An intelligent page-turner… In a world that seems caught between pure hedonism and divisive sectarianism, the book mounts a timely challenge.”
About the Author
Emily Esfahani Smith writes about culture, psychology, and relationships. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. She is also a columnist for The New Criterion and an editor at 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 community and purpose across the country. She studied philosophy at Dartmouth College and has a master’s in positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. She lives with her husband in Washington, DC.
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Top Customer Reviews
In the introduction, the author shares her experiences with Sufism, her "parents ran a Sufi meeting house," then proceeds with the chapter that was the most fascinating to me as the parent of an introverted, deep thinking senior in high school, The Meaning Crisis, chock full of philosophical ideas and a discussion of suicide. One of the most disturbing facts in the book (and one I used in an article entitled Let's Unstigmatize Thoughts of Suicide) that comes from the CDC (p 22), "Each year, forty thousand Americans take their lives, and worldwide, that number is closer to a million." I'd imagined that the higher rate of suicide in developed than undeveloped countries had something to do with Maslow's Hierarchy, but Ms. Smith suggests the possibility that (p 23), "it is particularly distressing to be unhappy in a country where so many others are happy."
She follows this with four chapters corresponding to the pillars that support her message:
Belonging (p 49), "We all need to feel that we belong..."
Purpose (p 90), "a purpose-driven person is ultimately concerned...with making the world a better place."
Storytelling (p 104), "our storytelling impulse emerges from a deep-seated need all humans share: the need to make sense of the world."
Transcendence (p 133), "first, our sense of self washes away along with all, its petty concerns and desires. We then feel deeply connected to other people and everything else that exists in the world."
At that point in the book, I expect the conclusion or epilogue, but it's not to be. She includes a chapter entitled Growth, in which she puts forth (p 162), "The idea that we can grow to lead deeper and more meaningful lives through adversity." It supports Nietsche's contention (p 162), " “What does not kill me makes me stronger," with examples in support of it about persons who have gained strength from dealing with difficult circumstances, and a second additional chapter, Cultures of Meaning (p 192), "All across the country...people are using the pillars as a means to transform the institution in which we live and work, creating communities that value and build connections, celebrate purpose, provide opportunities for storytelling and leave space for mystery," which I think should have been the conclusion. Instead, Ms. Smith concludes with a discussion of death (p 217), "Contemplating death can actually help us, if we have the proper mindset, to lead more meaningful lives and to be at peace when our final moment on earth arrives," using research on those contemplating physician-assisted suicide to support the statement.
Best of the book: excellent research, anecdotes, interviews and other information in support of the idea that living a life in service of others, "Crafting a Life That Matters," helps bring meaning to humans and leads to happiness. Most chapters and arguments are very strong, like Chapters 1-5 and 7 (which seems like it should have been the Conclusion), the others, less so. Even though the story starts strong and finishes less so, it is definitely worth the read to remind us all that our society's materialistic, social media-heavy, happiness-seeking culture is the wrong path to happiness. On similar subjects: 10% Happier by Dan Harris, Coming Home by Dicken Bettinger and Natasha Swerdloff, and Listening is an Act of Love by Dave Isay.
Meaning is one of the 5 ingredients of flourishing according to Seligman's PERMA theory of well-being (Positive emotions, Engagement, positive Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement; see the book "Flourishing"). Yet this dimension has been largely neglected in books inspired by positive psychology — until now. In this book Emily Esfahani Smith does a great job in illustrating what researchers have found regarding the importance of finding meaning in one's life, and why that matters.
As other reviewers noted, the author identifies 4 main pillars that lead to the sense of living a meaningful live. They are the following: a sense of belonging; a sense of purpose; a coherent and positive life narrative; and a sense of self-transcendence.
What makes this book stand out is the elegance with which the author is able to condense the science in an unobtrusive framework that informs and organizes the narrative - but that does not get in the way of the good storytelling which makes the book so inspiring. The reader will be introduced to stories and characters that will let him or her ponder about their own pursuit of meaning.
Two chapters in particular stood out for me: "the meaning crisis', because the struggles of Will Durant, Camus and Tolstoy that the author highlights have universal appeal and got me thinking about my own life and my own mentors; and "cultures of meaning", because it opens up a social dimension to what I always thought of mostly as an individual pursuit. As Emily Esfahani Smith points out, if we fail to provide positive answers to the need for belonging, purpose, storytelling and self-transcendence, then people might gravitate towards destructive solutions (e.g., ISIS) that paradoxically fill those human needs.
If you are looking for a book that is solidly built on science and yet reads almost like fiction, this is it.
PS: and for the psych geeks out there, no worries, the "Notes" section is pretty thick!