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There’s more to life than being happy | Emily Esfahani Smith

There’s more to life than being happy | Emily Esfahani Smith


I used to think the whole purpose of life
was pursuing happiness. Everyone said the path
to happiness was success, so I searched for that ideal job, that perfect boyfriend,
that beautiful apartment. But instead of ever feeling fulfilled, I felt anxious and adrift. And I wasn’t alone; my friends —
they struggled with this, too. Eventually, I decided to go
to graduate school for positive psychology to learn what truly makes people happy. But what I discovered there
changed my life. The data showed that chasing happiness
can make people unhappy. And what really struck me was this: the suicide rate has been rising
around the world, and it recently reached
a 30-year high in America. Even though life is getting
objectively better by nearly every conceivable standard, more people feel hopeless, depressed and alone. There’s an emptiness
gnawing away at people, and you don’t have to be
clinically depressed to feel it. Sooner or later, I think we all wonder: Is this all there is? And according to the research,
what predicts this despair is not a lack of happiness. It’s a lack of something else, a lack of having meaning in life. But that raised some questions for me. Is there more to life than being happy? And what’s the difference
between being happy and having meaning in life? Many psychologists define happiness
as a state of comfort and ease, feeling good in the moment. Meaning, though, is deeper. The renowned psychologist
Martin Seligman says meaning comes from belonging to
and serving something beyond yourself and from developing the best within you. Our culture is obsessed with happiness, but I came to see that seeking meaning
is the more fulfilling path. And the studies show that people
who have meaning in life, they’re more resilient, they do better in school and at work, and they even live longer. So this all made me wonder: How can we each live more meaningfully? To find out, I spent five years
interviewing hundreds of people and reading through thousands
of pages of psychology, neuroscience and philosophy. Bringing it all together, I found that there are what I call
four pillars of a meaningful life. And we can each create lives of meaning by building some or all
of these pillars in our lives. The first pillar is belonging. Belonging comes
from being in relationships where you’re valued
for who you are intrinsically and where you value others as well. But some groups and relationships
deliver a cheap form of belonging; you’re valued for what you believe, for who you hate, not for who you are. True belonging springs from love. It lives in moments among individuals, and it’s a choice — you can choose
to cultivate belonging with others. Here’s an example. Each morning, my friend Jonathan
buys a newspaper from the same street vendor in New York. They don’t just conduct
a transaction, though. They take a moment to slow down, talk, and treat each other like humans. But one time, Jonathan
didn’t have the right change, and the vendor said, “Don’t worry about it.” But Jonathan insisted on paying, so he went to the store
and bought something he didn’t need to make change. But when he gave the money to the vendor, the vendor drew back. He was hurt. He was trying to do something kind, but Jonathan had rejected him. I think we all reject people in small ways
like this without realizing it. I do. I’ll walk by someone I know
and barely acknowledge them. I’ll check my phone
when someone’s talking to me. These acts devalue others. They make them feel
invisible and unworthy. But when you lead with love,
you create a bond that lifts each of you up. For many people, belonging
is the most essential source of meaning, those bonds to family and friends. For others, the key to meaning
is the second pillar: purpose. Now, finding your purpose
is not the same thing as finding that job that makes you happy. 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.” The key to purpose
is using your strengths to serve others. Of course, for many of us,
that happens through work. That’s how we contribute and feel needed. But that also means
that issues like disengagement at work, unemployment, low labor force participation — these aren’t just economic problems,
they’re existential ones, too. Without something worthwhile to do, people flounder. Of course, you don’t have to find
purpose at work, but purpose gives you
something to live for, some “why” that drives you forward. The third pillar of meaning
is also about stepping beyond yourself, but in a completely different way: 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. For one person I talked to,
transcendence came from seeing art. For another person, it was at church. For me, I’m a writer,
and it happens through writing. Sometimes I get so in the zone
that I lose all sense of time and place. These transcendent
experiences can change you. One study had students look up
at 200-feet-tall eucalyptus trees for one minute. But afterwards
they felt less self-centered, and they even behaved more generously when given the chance to help someone. Belonging, purpose, transcendence. Now, the fourth pillar
of meaning, I’ve found, tends to surprise people. The fourth pillar is storytelling, the story you tell yourself
about yourself. Creating a narrative from the events
of your life brings clarity. It helps you understand
how you became you. But we don’t always realize
that we’re the authors of our stories and can change the way we’re telling them. Your life isn’t just a list of events. You can edit, interpret
and retell your story, even as you’re constrained by the facts. I met a young man named Emeka,
who’d been paralyzed playing football. After his injury, Emeka told himself, “My life was great playing football, but now look at me.” People who tell stories like this — “My life was good. Now it’s bad.” — tend to be more anxious and depressed. And that was Emeka for a while. But with time, he started
to weave a different story. His new story was, “Before my injury,
my life was purposeless. I partied a lot and was
a pretty selfish guy. But my injury made me realize
I could be a better man.” That edit to his story
changed Emeka’s life. After telling the new story to himself, Emeka started mentoring kids, and he discovered what his purpose was: serving others. The psychologist Dan McAdams
calls this a “redemptive story,” where the bad is redeemed by the good. People leading meaningful
lives, he’s found, tend to tell stories about their lives defined by redemption, growth and love. But what makes people
change their stories? Some people get help from a therapist, but you can do it on your own, too, just by reflecting
on your life thoughtfully, how your defining experiences shaped you, what you lost, what you gained. That’s what Emeka did. You won’t change your story overnight; it could take years and be painful. After all, we’ve all suffered,
and we all struggle. But embracing those painful memories
can lead to new insights and wisdom, to finding that good that sustains you. Belonging, purpose,
transcendence, storytelling: those are the four pillars of meaning. When I was younger, I was lucky enough to be surrounded
by all of the pillars. My parents ran a Sufi meetinghouse
from our home in Montreal. Sufism is a spiritual practice
associated with the whirling dervishes and the poet Rumi. Twice a week, Sufis would come to our home to meditate, drink Persian tea,
and share stories. Their practice also involved
serving all of creation through small acts of love, which meant being kind
even when people wronged you. But it gave them a purpose:
to rein in the ego. Eventually, I left home for college and without the daily grounding
of Sufism in my life, I felt unmoored. And I started searching for those things
that make life worth living. That’s what set me on this journey. Looking back, I now realize that the Sufi house
had a real culture of meaning. The pillars were part of the architecture, and the presence of the pillars
helped us all live more deeply. Of course, the same principle applies in other strong communities as well — good ones and bad ones. Gangs, cults: these are cultures of meaning
that use the pillars and give people
something to live and die for. But that’s exactly why we as a society must offer better alternatives. We need to build these pillars
within our families and our institutions to help people become their best selves. But living a meaningful life takes work. It’s an ongoing process. As each day goes by,
we’re constantly creating our lives, adding to our story. And sometimes we can get off track. Whenever that happens to me, I remember a powerful experience
I had with my father. Several months after
I graduated from college, my dad had a massive heart attack
that should have killed him. He survived, and when I asked him
what was going through his mind as he faced death, he said all he could think about
was needing to live so he could be there
for my brother and me, and this gave him the will
to fight for life. When he went under anesthesia
for emergency surgery, instead of counting backwards from 10, he repeated our names like a mantra. He wanted our names to be
the last words he spoke on earth if he died. My dad is a carpenter and a Sufi. It’s a humble life, but a good life. Lying there facing death,
he had a reason to live: love. His sense of belonging within his family, his purpose as a dad, his transcendent meditation,
repeating our names — these, he says, are the reasons
why he survived. That’s the story he tells himself. That’s the power of meaning. 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. Thank you. (Applause)

100 thoughts on “There’s more to life than being happy | Emily Esfahani Smith

  • Jonathan and the vendor: Remember the joy you get from giving to others? Never deprive them the joy they get from giving to you.

  • True belonging ; we know when we see it .
    Like beauty there is no debate no formula you know it when you see it .
    Truth is something we need to recognize naturally as well . not easy in this society.

  • Get to know Jesus. Ask your Creator what you were made for and then you will find your meaning.

    Colossians 1:16 
    16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.

    Jeremiah 1:5 
    5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
    and before you were born I consecrated you;
    I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

  • If Jonathan bought the daily newspaper he had to get the exact amount every day. If he didn't have small money he could pay with his card or eventually Jonathan could change the money, not buy something he didn't need. I know … it is the teaching behind the example, but even so I do not have a very good opinion about Jonathan because he still spends money on printed newspapers in 2019.

  • Contentment is looking at what u DO have instead of what u DON' have. Live with gratitude & trust in the Lord God Almighty, this will fill yr void. ???

  • happiness is never about materialistics things though. its your emotional state. By doing all those things mentioned in this video, you will feel happy and that is the happiness that we've been trying to achieve. duh.
    well i did even before watching this.

  • Sadly, life is only "getting objectively better" on average
    And the average is being moved by the top 10%.
    For everyone else, life is not objectively getting better. Life expectancy in the US, drug abuse, poverty, joblessness, etc are all rising even as the economy was booming.
    Just think if a recession comes now.

  • Meaning of this life is recognized when we know the purpose of this life and what will be after this life. When we know what will bring the endless happiness after this permenant life..

  • Okay, this is all over the place, and I would argue that finding meaning results in happiness. Is the actual argument supposed to be that we should value meaning over hedonism?

  • Bella historia la de su padre. Muchos buscan a Dios por los rincones cuando han tenido la solucion desde siempre

  • This is some pseudo-invariant "hows" to have a meaningful life, but why is it so? Are these methods really invariant? "Telling redemptive stories" sounds like forcing a different mind after the lows, reminiscent of Camus and Kierkegaard.

    A counterexample to show that these "hows" are not really invariant, something deeper is missing: if John Smith prefers to be alone, would rather claim his territory and be self-sufficient than being co-dependent with other biological life for meaning. Nature has shown that these John Smiths not only exist but can also thrive, e.g. tigers and psychopathic humans (slightly different biology than your typical human behaving according to the Central Limit Theorem). Something more fundamental is at play here. For some people, this level of pseudo-invariant "hows" may be revealing enough and a map to meaning. For others, this is not invariant enough or not defining enough. What are the most invariant governing dynamics here?

  • I cant stand wheb stats are used tibv show something is increaseing without being realative ti the population growth.
    more people means more suicides .

  • I watched this video in class, and since seeing it, I can’t picture this woman. She shows up as Janet from The Good Place

  • I did not create the Jinns and the human beings except for the purpose that they should worship Me. (Qur'an, Surah Ad-Dhariyat, 51:56)

  • God has created the heavens and earth for a true purpose. There truly is a sign in this for those who believe. (Qur'an, Surah Al-Ankabut, 29:44)

  • I completely agree with you on that based on my own personal experience, I had approximately the same conclusions, maybe in other words but the essence is the same. Thank you for sharing

  • Are you fucking kidding me? Don't you understand that all what you have just described are just another means to make you happy? Belonging/love
    , purpose ,transcendence, storytelling… just means to make you happy! There is no other drive in person's life but to be happy. Everything what they do in life is but a try to be happy.

  • I have learned these things have given me purpose in my life. Truly believe in myself. Only then was I able to love myself and other people. Protect myself from others. Emotions are key. Finally, stand up for what I believe in. These are my essential social constructs in my life.

  • My purpose is help other peple and also I support my mother in everything if you want to be happy it's neccesary love other people and love yourself. Love is the way to hapinness.

  • This is an eternal topic,for all these lost and confused people, including myself. the more you think, the deeper you sink in it.

  • no, life IS about happiness. Happiness isn't the same thing as pleasure. What our culture is obsessed with is pleasure. Life IS about being happy. I don't agree about transcendence. Most people don't even reach the level of self. Being best version of yourself is enough you don't need transcendence . If you love yourself, be grateful, and actually choose to be happy you will be happy. It's not that complicated it's just a lot of work and real commitment. It doesn't just come and go. That's pleasure.

  • I stopped watching this speach after 3:09 minutes! This speaker is totally clueless…She has taken Maslow's self actualization and spun it around to fit her narrative!!!

  • I define happiness differently.

    Nevertheless, I agree with the importance of belonging, purpose, transcendence and storytelling. I love the story of your father surviving by wanting to be around for you and your brother. People who have a purpose, and want to live, survive heart attacks and cancer, while the others just give up and pass away because they have no purpose. Every time I see the vastness of the ocean, and admire the height and girth of large, tall trees that have stood for hundreds of years, or see the billions of stars in the sky, I feel transcendence. Reflection, or storytelling is an important pillar too, but how many people regret the mistakes of the past instead of reflecting and changing their path? Finally, a sense of belonging, valuing others and being valued by others is very important. Commercialization of everything including education and healthcare is gradually making it difficult for people to lead a "humble and good" life like that of your father. More and more people are feeling empty, even when they own many properties, having "successfully" climbed the property ladder. My parents and grandparents were happy as long as they had a simple house to live in; none of the people in that part of the world wanted to buy a second house.

    https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B079C712WR/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i1

    I believe that the four pillars that give meaning also lead to true happiness as opposed to pleasure that is transient.

    Thanks for this TED Talk.

  • On 13 September 2019, TV New Zealand News reported on research showing that tree-hugging helps people – and I connected this with transcendence.

  • I saw in a video in Tamil (link below) where the presenter relates the story of Sufi Bastami and the story that relates to the dog. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CbUsLXVTx9U&feature=youtu.be The story is from 9:20–14:00

    Helped me connect with your story even more.

  • Well,try to read more and search for the purpose we all were created for…life is short and we are all dying in the end…God made us for more than simply living and being happy…I am a Muslim…I believe that we were made to worship our creator in the first place ,to make this world a better place,to help people,to be better persons and so on…Allah made us for a reason..As muslims we have our purpose in life and we know that ''this is definitely not all there is''

  • Happiness is in everyone of us there is no such thing as "chasing happiness" chasing money isnt happiness its called chasing a peice of paper that the government put value on

  • Hey I support Ted talks. They got one of the best motivational speakers. Hey I am a small youtuber. Anyone out there if you want to watch things on life I focus my videos on that. SO check this one out.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gQwQltTutbc

  • So.. In order to be happy, I have to not pursue happiness but instead pursue meaning.. In order to find happiness? …Kay

  • When trying to find a meaning in life, you will surely adventure into different fields of work and interests. It is these experiences that construct the pieces of your pillars: you find belongings on the way, stumble across your type of transcendence and finally finding your purpose in life.

    For me, it is the quest to search for meanings in life that makes me happy, cuz I'm able to meet new people, things, sceneries and explore the vast possibilites along the way.

  • Knowing that there is someone who loves u unconditionally( jesus christ) makes u happy. family, husband, best friends, etc, will one day hv a reason for their love u. Im happy with christ

  • Your not human, you are either a unit or a less than or a scapegoat or all three. People have this OCD type of pleasantness, not for its own sake but for the sake of covering up who they really are, a seething hot mess of a trouble maker. What we Spanish call " Negativo".

  • Thank you so much Emily for such inspirational speech. I am sharing and looking for your books now! Keep doing that, the world needs you! ?

  • Guys I think this woman doesn't know that finding a meaning in life is a way to achieving happiness, and that all she's doing is listing off a highly generalized guide on how people should seek happiness via finding that meaning.

  • Happiness doesn’t exist. You will experience brief moments of pleasure but the human condition is that you know too much about the future to be happy. Psychologists agree that the natural human state is mild depression. So don’t be sad about being sad, its normal.

  • Bullshit! If you are a bonafide Jihadist and you find meaning in "Jihad" is that good? What if you end up blowing yourself up and killing hundreds of innocent people because you TRULY were living out the "meaning" in your life as you saw it? I forgot who it was that said to be cautious of those who claim to have the recipe for happiness/meaning in life. In sum, you are going to get varying perspectives on "happiness/meaning" from Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Psychologists, overrated actors, pro athletes, college professors, potheads, wealthy people, poor people, etc. etc. There's nothing new here.

  • The key is gratitude. If your meaningfulness is taken away you can still be grateful. You can gain and lose purpose. Just stay grateful. It's something you can always have.

  • Soulmates ( soul partner ) brings meaning and purpose in life of each other,

    Start seeking your soulmate with the help of universal signs,

    From there onwards life strive towards balance,

    No matter how challenging your soulmate is, never give up.

  • Stop using social media
    Involve more in something to learn
    Improve yourself by reading and watching something valuable
    Live the present moment
    Live like you have short time to live
    Pray to God
    And never think you should be happy all time.

  • I just disagree with what you understand by happiness. For me, what you said in the video is actually happiness.. Not what you thought you had early.

  • This man found the truth
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7JZzDVMt0S8&list=PL8uWRNOfLboRGvOCSeoc_NH-ELZzrOh7S&index=11

    Here is real information about eternal life
    http://www.sultan.org

  • Her anecdotes are more than likely BS. Sound too made up. She is chasing happiness in the form of a paycheck that comes with a following.t
    But….maybe not lol

  • Important lesson to make meaning the goal. Let happiness be an accidental byproduct. It's not easy to live this though, because we all want to be happy right away.

  • theres nothing worse then being robbed of everything and being left with no hope and no chance of survival. the sad part is the people who robbed me are those paid to make sure I wasn't robbed. but im as good as dead now . starving to death, my only chance is that they hadn't robbed me, but they did, so they murdered me, now im dying super painfully and dreadfully slow, I did to much for America and America did nothing ever for me but take everything excessive greedy and heartless , im going to shoot myself if they don't pay me what they owe me. and ill do it today.

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