‘The Power of Meaning’ Book Review: Describing, Not Prescribing, Purpose

Dan Bowling Senior Lecturing Fellow, Duke Law School
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I have always been skeptical about meaning. It makes me particularly squeamish when someone asks me if I am doing something “meaningful” with my life. I don’t know, that seems to be an ex post facto determination, something for history — or at least others — to decide. To the extent we have something approaching meaning in our lives, it seems to find us, not vice versa, and its obsessive pursuit can be self-aggrandizing at best, existentially depressing at worst.

But Emily Esfhahani Smith has caused me to reconsider.

Ms. Smith, an accomplished young essayist with an advanced degree in psychology, has written a new book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters (Crown: New York, 2017). Her thesis, vividly developed through life stories, character sketches, and empirical evidence, is that the search for meaning and purpose in one’s life – regardless of the scientific proof of its its existence — enriches its living.

This is a notion that causes shudders in the salons of today’s intellectual elite, where God – the traditional source of meaning – has long been dead. and on campus, where instruction in spirituality, values and character development is seen as a tool of oppression. Smith in rich prose details these twin declines of religion in modern intellectual life and in the academy, and the corresponding depreciation of the construct of meaning, but highlights small pockets in the academy where the study of what makes life worth living survives.

One is in the field of positive psychology, most famously at the University of Pennsylvania under the leadership of Dr. Martin Seligman (note: both Ms. Smith and I studied with Dr. Seligman and have served as his teaching assistants). Positive psychology is psychology, thus reliant on empiricism and the scientific method, but is open to exploring broader questions of life and its meaning than most social science disciplines. The “happiness science” of Seligman and his followers has not only grown exponentially in academic circles, but has been embraced by popular culture. Unfortunately, Smith observes, in the popular imagination it is often dumbed down into an ill-defined “happiness” that has more in common with hedonic pleasure-seeking than anything substantial. Smith seeks to change that in this book.

Smith’s theory of meaning centers on four pillars: “belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence.” She explains each pillar through a blend of scientific reporting, philosophical observation, and narrative anecdote. To introduce the topic of transcendence, for example, she tells of a drive through West Texas, “the land of rattlesnakes and armadillos, cowboys and cattle,” to gaze at stars at the famed McDonald Observatory. Looking into deep space through the Hubble telescope, she experiences and explains for the reader how humans throughout history have gazed into the heavens to experience awe, a realization that every life is a part of something far larger and more transcendent.

Most interesting to me is her pillar of belonging. In an era where diversity and inclusion, with their distrust for traditional group norms and values are fetishized, Smith argues that true meaning is often found in small groups, or tribes, with shared values.  She provides several stirring examples, such as tiny Tangier Island off the coast of Virginia, where a small fishing community has formed bonds of friendship and trust that go back decades. Meaning lies in the nexus of those relationships. “We all need to feel understood, recognized, and affirmed by our friends, family members, and romantic partners,” Smith writes,” we all need to find our tribe . . . where we belong.” Smith cites research showing that a sense of belonging is a key driver in meaningful lives. Perhaps this powerful need for belonging in a changing, globalized world is behind the recent upsurge in populist sentiment in the democratic West (a topic I encourage Ms. Smith, a talented political essayist in addition to psychological writer, to explore).

Refreshingly, The Power of Meaning is more a book of description of how people have learned to live lives of meaning, rather than one of prescription promising quick tips for finding meaning in one’s life. As such, Smith avoids the annoying artifices used by most writers in the field of happiness studies, who stuff their books with checklists and to-dos. Filling out a page of instructions in a trade paperback isn’t the cure for the anomie of modern man. As such, The Power of Meaning elevates itself beyond the self-help genre, and offers an important exploration of this under-looked, but critically, important topic. It is a fine debut for this promising young author.