Notes & Quotes: The Power of Meaning by Emily Esfahani Smith

The following are my favorite quotes from Emily Esfahani Smith's The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness.
  1. These humbling rituals were important to the Sufis, helping them break down the self, which Sufi teaching considers a barrier to love.
  2. When people say that their lives have meaning, it's because three conditions have been satisfied: they evaluate their lives as significant and worthwhile--as part of something bigger; they believe their lives make sense; and they feel their lives are driven by a sense of purpose.
  3. The search for meaning is far more fulfilling than the pursuit of personal happiness.
  4. The only truth we can absolutely know, Tolstoy believed, is that life ends with death and is punctuated by suffering and sorrow. We and all that we hold dear--our loved ones, our accomplishments, our identities--will eventually perish. 
  5. The most important parts of life require hard work and sacrifice.
  6. To live well, we should take to heart the wisdom we learned in our younger years. Only by facing challenges head-on can we truly find meaning in our lives.
  7. The four pillars of meaning: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence.
  8. We all need to feel understood, recognized, and affirmed by our friends, family members, and romantic partners. We all need to give and receive affection. We all need to find our tribe. In other words, we all need to feel that we belong.
  9. When the hospital cleaners experienced these high quality connections, their relationship to their work changed. They saw themselves as caregivers rather than merely janitors, and they felt more closely tied to the mission of the hospital, which is to heal patients. Small inconsiderate acts, on the other hand, made them reevaluate the significance of their work, their ability to perform their tasks competently, and, even more gravely, their own worth as people.
  10. Meaning largely lies in others. Only through focusing on others do we build the pillar of belonging for both ourselves and for them. If we want to find meaning in our own lives, we have to begin by reaching out.
  11. Living purposefully requires self-reflection and self-knowledge. Each of us has different strengths, talents, insights, and experiences that shape who we are. And so each of us will have a different purpose, one that fits with who we are what we value--one that fits our identity.
  12. Kant asks us to consider a man--one like so many of us today--who "finds in himself a talent that by means of some cultivation could make him a useful human being in all sorts of respects. However, he sees himself in comfortable circumstances and prefers to give himself up to gratification rather than to make the effort to expand and improve his fortunate natural predispositions."
  13. The ability to find purpose in the day-to-day tasks of living and working goes a long way toward building meaning.
  14. The paradox of transcendence simultaneously makes individuals feel insignificant and yet connected to something massive and meaningful.
  15. "Mindfulness," as one of its most famous teachers, Jon Kabat-Zinn, has put it, "means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.
  16. The self-loss felt during a transcendent experience is sometimes called "ego death," and it prepares us for the final loss of self we will all experience: death itself.
  17. Most people have heard about how post-traumatic stress disorder can unravel a person. Fewer have heard about post-traumatic growth...Researchers have found that anywhere from half to two-thirds of trauma survivors report post-traumatic growth, while only a small percentage suffer from PTSD.
  18. After studying a wide array of survivors, Tedeschi and Calhoun identified five specific ways that people can grow after a crisis.
    1. Their relationships strengthen.
    2. They discover new path and purposes in life.
    3. The trauma allows them to find their inner strength.
    4. Their spiritual life deepens.
    5. They feel a renewed appreciation for life.
  19. For those who are less resilient, reframing the task as a challenge erased the gap: those who were told to approach the task as an opportunity rather than a threat suddenly started looking like resilient people in their cardiovascular measures. They were able to bounce back.
  20. As mush as we might wish, none of us will be able to go through life without some kind of suffering. That's why it's crucial for us to learn to suffer well. Those who manage to grow through adversity do so by leaning on the pillars of meaning--and afterward, those pillars are even stronger in their lives.
  21. The "work-and-spend" mentality that characterizes life today, as the author Gregg Easterbrook has written, alienates people from what really matters.
  22. The cultures of meaning highlighted in this book use the four pillars to amplify positive values and goals. Their members recognize and respect the dignity of each individual. They promote virtues like kindness, compassion, and love rather than fear, hatred, and anger. They seek to lift others up, not to inflict harm on them. Rather than sowing the seeds of destruction and chaos, these cultures contribute positively to the world.
  23. Older people who report having more purpose in life live longer than those who report having less. They have a reason to get out of bed in the morning--a reason, even, to go on living.
  24. Having meaning in life, for example, has been associated with longevity, better immune functioning, and more gray matter in the brain. Purpose, in particular, has been shown to have a wide range of health benefits. It decreases the likelihood of mild cognitive impairments, Alzheimer's disease, and strokes. Among those who have heart disease, having purpose diminishes the chances of having a heart attack--and people who lack purpose are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease.
  25. 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.
  26. No matter how near or far off death may be in each of our individual cases, thinking about death forces us to evaluate our lives as they are and to consider what we would change about them to make them more meaningful. Psychologists call this "the deathbed test." Imagine that you're at the end of your life. Perhaps a freak accident or diagnosis of disease had suddenly shortened your life, or maybe you have lived a long and healthy life, and are now in your eighties or nineties. Sitting on your deathbed, with only days ahead of you to live, reflecting on the way you have led your life and what you have done and not done, are you satisfied with what you see? Did you have a good and fulfilling life? Is it a life you are glad that you led? If you could live your life over again, what would you do differently?
  27. The act of love begins with the very definition of meaning: it begins by stepping outside of the self to connect with and contribute to something bigger.