A philosopher says that a meaningful and fulfilling life comes down to 4 basic pillars

Have you ever wondered what truly makes life worth living?

Emily Esfahani Smith, a positive psychology expert and author, shares a deeply personal story about this very question in her eye-opening TEDTalk.

You can watch the TEDTalk video below:

YouTube video

But if you don’t have time to watch the video, or if you learn better linguistically, then we got you covered!

Because in this article, we’ll discuss Emily Esfahani Smith’s ground-breaking discovery about the search for meaning and fulfillment.

She started off like many of us—believing that the ultimate goal of life was to chase happiness. 

She says, “Everyone said the path to happiness was success, so I searched for that ideal job, that perfect boyfriend, that beautiful apartment.”

But here’s the thing: instead of feeling content and fulfilled, she ended up feeling anxious and lost.

Does that sound familiar? It sure did for Esfahani Smith.

She noticed that many people around her felt the same way.

This sparked a journey, a quest for answers. And this journey led her to graduate school for positive psychology—and to some discoveries that not only transformed her life but could transform ours as well.

Defining happiness and meaning

Now, let’s pause for a moment.

What do we usually think when we talk about happiness?

Society often equates it with success, right?

Well, Esfahani Smith throws a curveball at this idea. She suggests that there’s a difference—a big one—between happiness and meaning.

“Many psychologists define happiness as a state of comfort and ease, feeling good in the moment,” she explains.

But hold on, because here’s the kicker: “Meaning, though, is deeper.”

According to the famous psychologist Martin Seligman, whom Esfahani Smith mentions in her talk, meaning involves belonging to and serving something beyond yourself, and developing the best within you.

So, what’s the takeaway here? Esfahani Smith wants us to take a step back from our cultural obsession with happiness.

She nudges us to seek meaning as a more fulfilling path in life. It’s not just about feeling good now, but about serving a greater purpose and growing as individuals.

With her compelling insights into happiness and meaning, Esfahani Smith shines a light on a different path:

One that moves away from the superficial pursuit of success and towards a more profound, more satisfying existence.

She dares us to think about what truly brings us lasting satisfaction and to question whether our pursuit of happiness might, in fact, be leaving us feeling empty.

She asks us to shift our focus from the pursuit of happiness to something far more profound—meaning.

Now, you’re probably wondering, “What’s this ‘meaning’ she’s talking about?”

Well, buckle up, because it’s a game-changer.

Smith tells us that finding meaning isn’t just about being in a constant state of bliss.

It’s more about belonging to something bigger than ourselves, serving others, and becoming the best version of who we are.

Smith breaks down this concept of meaning into what she calls the “four pillars of a meaningful life”.

And guess what? She didn’t just pull these out of a hat.

No, she spent years researching and talking to hundreds of people to get to these four pillars: belonging, purpose, transcendence, and storytelling.

First pillar: Belonging

When Smith talks about “Belonging,” she’s not just referring to being part of any group.

She’s talking about authentic connections, relationships where you’re valued for who you are and not just what you believe or do.

And, listen to this: She goes on to explain that “Belonging comes from being in relationships where you’re valued for who you are intrinsically and where you value others as well.”

Now, isn’t that something? It’s about fostering real connections, genuine relationships.

But here’s the kicker: True belonging isn’t easy; it’s a choice.

It’s about actively choosing to cultivate belonging with others. It’s not about fitting into a box or conforming to a group.

It’s about being valued for your authentic self, and valuing others in the same way.

Second pillar: Purpose

Smith tells us something astounding:

She says that finding your “Purpose” is not the same thing as finding that job that makes you happy.

You might be thinking, “Wait, what?” But hear her out.

Smith explains that “Purpose is less about what you want than about what you give. A hospital custodian told me her purpose is healing sick people. Many parents tell me, ‘My purpose is raising my children.'”

What she’s trying to tell us here is that purpose isn’t just about satisfying our own desires.

It’s about contributing to the world, serving others, making a difference.

It’s about using your unique strengths to contribute to something beyond yourself.

Now, that’s a lot to take in. But hang in there. We’re just getting started.

Third pillar: Transcendence

“Transcendent states are those rare moments when you’re lifted above the hustle and bustle of daily life, your sense of self fades away, and you feel connected to a higher reality,” explains Smith.

You know those moments when you’re so engrossed in an activity that time seems to stand still, and the world around you fades away?

That’s what she’s talking about.

These moments can come from a variety of sources:

Maybe it’s when you’re gazing at a beautiful piece of art, or when you’re deep in prayer at church, or perhaps when you’re lost in the flow of writing, like Smith herself.

No matter how you get there, these moments of transcendence can fundamentally change you, making you feel less self-centered and even more generous.

Fourth pillar: Storytelling

Now: Smith isn’t talking about spinning fairy tales here.

Rather, she’s referring to the narrative you weave about your own life. “Creating a narrative from the events of your life brings clarity. It helps you understand how you became you,” she says.

Here’s the thing: we’re all the authors of our own stories.

And the good news is, we have the power to edit, interpret, and retell our stories as we see fit. 

Smith shares the inspiring example of a young man named Emeka.

After becoming paralyzed, he changed his life’s narrative from one of loss to one of purpose and self-improvement.

By taking control of his story, Emeka found a new sense of meaning in his life.

How can you apply these four pillars to your life?

Alright, now let’s get to the good stuff. How do we take these four pillars and make them part of our everyday lives?

Well, the first step is understanding that this process won’t happen overnight. And that’s okay. 

It’s an ongoing journey that evolves and changes as we do. As Emily mentioned in her talk, “Living a meaningful life takes work. It’s an ongoing process.”

Now, let’s break this down pillar by pillar.

Do you want to belong? Then foster genuine relationships. Be present.

Value others for who they are intrinsically, and let yourself be valued for who you are.

As Emily beautifully put it, “True belonging springs from love. It lives in moments among individuals.” Start creating those moments.

Are you looking for your purpose? Seek out opportunities to use your strengths to serve others. 

Remember: it’s less about what you want and more about what you give.

If you’re feeling stuck, reflect on Emily’s words: “The key to purpose is using your strengths to serve others.” What are you good at? How can it benefit those around you?

If you’re struggling to achieve transcendence, then find those moments where you can step outside of the hustle and bustle of daily life.

It could be through art, religion, nature, or even writing, just like Emily.

The important thing is to find something that makes you lose track of time and feel connected to something bigger.

When you’re ready to explore your story, remember this:

You’re the author of your own story. If you don’t like how it’s going, you have the power to change it.

As Emily’s story about Emeka teaches us, “Your life isn’t just a list of events. You can edit, interpret and retell your story.”

Final words

As we journey through life, we’ll stumble and fall, but these pillars can guide us back to the path of a meaningful life.

Emily’s father’s story is a testament to this. Despite facing death, his sense of belonging, purpose, transcendence, and the story he told himself gave him a reason to live.

The power of meaning is that it gives us something to hold on to, through the highs and lows of life.

As Emily concluded, “Happiness comes and goes. But when life is really good and when things are really bad, having meaning gives you something to hold on to.”

So, take a step back and think about these four pillars.

How can you incorporate them into your life?

The journey might be challenging, but the reward — a life filled with meaning — is undoubtedly worth it.


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Picture of Lachlan Brown

Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the editor of Ideapod and founder of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 6 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. If you to want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter or Facebook.

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