Living a meaningful life is as simple as storytelling

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HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally, an essay from Emily Esfahani Smith. She is trained in psychology, and author of the recent book “The Power of Meaning.”

An editor at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, tonight, Emily offers her Humble Opinion on what we should search for.

EMILY ESFAHANI SMITH, Author, “The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters”: In recent years, psychologists have started looking more closely at how the single-minded pursuit of happiness affects us, and they have come to what seems like a counterintuitive conclusion: Chasing happiness and obsessing over it, the way our culture encourages us to do, can actually make people unhappy and lonely.

But it’s different when we set another goal for ourselves, when we search for and pursue meaning in life.

Human beings are creatures that yearn for meaning. When we look up at the stars, for example, we don’t see random balls of fire. We see swans and bears, we tell stories and myths, and we wonder about where we came from, our place in the universe, and how we can make our lives count.

The same questions lie at the center of much great art, literature, and philosophy. The first great work of human literature, “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” is about a hero’s quest to figure out how to live, given the fact that he will die.

And in the centuries since Gilgamesh’s tale was told, that quest has remained as urgent as ever. We all want to know that our lives amount to more than the sum of our experiences. We all need a why to help us get through the good and the bad of life.

So, what is a meaningful life? Social science points to one defining feature. You connect and contribute to something beyond yourself. That could be your family, your work, nature, or God.

And when people say their lives are meaningful, it’s because three conditions have been satisfied: They believe their lives matter, they have a sense of purpose that drives them forward, and they think their lives are coherent and make sense.

It sounds like a lot, but that last point is something you can do right now. People tell me the simple act of storytelling gives meaning, or can at least clear the path to it. That, I think, might explain the rise of rap and hip-hop and the popularity of the radio series “StoryCorps” and “The Moth.”

Making a narrative out of the events in your life provides clarity. It offers a framework that goes beyond the day-to-day. It’s the act itself, and not necessarily sharing their story with others, that helps people make sense of themselves and their lives. And we all have the power to tell or to re-tell our life story in more positive ways.

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