Emily Esfahani Smith is a writer focusing on culture, psychology, and relationships. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Atlantic, as well as the New Criterion, where she has a regular column. Her new book, The Power of Meaning, argues that the pursuit of happiness is a wild goose chase. If you want to be happy, Smith argues, you need to pursue meaning.
I first encountered Emily Esfahani Smith on New Year’s Day, as you and I were sitting around a friend’s apartment nursing mild hangovers. Someone had shared this article on social media, and I read it through bleary eyes and a more-or-less defeated outlook on life. Donald Trump would be inaugurated in three short weeks.
So Smith’s article came to me at an opportune moment. It assured me that, even when life is not happy, it still has the potential to be meaningful. In fact, meaning is very often a prerequisite for happiness, and oftener still a higher vantage from which to look down upon it. Her article was, at that early hour, the most inspiring thing that I had read so far in 2017. When I got home a week or so later, I looked up her book and found that it expands on that promise.
In short, Smith argues that we live amid a crisis of meaning, when the failures of late capitalism have created a culture that is at once happiness-obsessed and happiness-deprived. The more we chase the material things that pledge to make us happy – and the more we post photos of ourselves doing so – the more fulfillment seems to elude us. It’s always somewhere out in front, always receding, like the carrot before the mule.
Instead, Smith writes, we should forget about happiness for a moment and reorient ourselves toward meaning-making, especially as it concerns four main categories: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. Such a shift would direct us ultimately toward growth, and then on to a new culture of meaning.
I like this argument a lot – maybe more than you do. It’s also the case that, for the first time since 2008, I am not optimistic about the future, either of my country or the world. Smith assures me that I needn’t be despondent – that there are full, deep reservoirs of life available even in dark times.
I like this argument too. To be honest, I don’t even see it as an argument, really; I see it more as a description of what we already know – if we pay attention to our own experience.
Of course, I frequently ignore my own experience, living in an imaginary world of inherited concepts and hand-me-down “wisdom.” A lot of my waking day isn’t particularly conscious – it’s just mental and behavioral patterns. Breaking through those patterns – noticing that I’m in them, and then consciously redirecting my attention and energy in different directions – is hard work, but damn rewarding.
But I can’t do it alone, and one of the best things about this book is the way it helps me put a finger on some things that just haven’t felt right in my life. Smith’s emphasis on belonging is particularly interesting: I’ve felt kinda lonely for a long time, and while I understand (at a conceptual level) that it would feel good to work alongside others in some sort of shared endeavor, I haven’t found one.
Smith’s point about the loss of shared sources of cultural meaning feels really relevant here. Some of the older forms – religion, nationalism – don’t speak to me. (Political organizing does speak to me, but I live far from home.) I suppose I’d like to be part of something, but not just for the sake of it – it would have to feel real, honest, true, and worthwhile.
It might not happen at a culture-wide level, either. Most of my life is pretty local, and I tend to think of belonging on that smaller scale – a few friends, family members, folks who share common interests.
We’re seeing exactly that sort of local response all over the country, with people flocking to their community groups, signing petitions, organizing marches, calling their representatives en masse, etc. To be honest, I had never called my congressional representative before January of this year. Now, I call him every week. There’s no way for me to know if my efforts will actually achieve their purpose, but ultimately that’s not even why I’m doing it. I need to be able to look myself in the mirror at the end of the day and tell myself that I am living a life that is consistent with my principles. In a weird way, I am doing so much more consistently under Trump than I ever did under Obama. I suppose that’s what happens when you can no longer rest in the knowledge that decent human beings are making the decisions.
I’ve found myself flipping back through the Bertrand Russell book we read a while back, and putting it into conversation with Smith. As I’m sure you recall, Russell argues that we can “conquer” happiness by pursuing a variety of different values and goals. Smith argues that chasing happiness is like chasing your tail. Do you see common ground between the two?
I suspect they’d agree on one really important thing: that happiness isn’t something you can just decide to go get. Rather, it’s achieved (if it’s achieved) as a byproduct of other stuff – living purposefully, shedding a lot of your self-focus, and so on.
It’s interesting to think about this in relation to political activity. I’m not sure Obama made you or me particularly happy, but I think we’re both less happy with Trump running the show. And as you pointed out, we’re not alone. The fact that he’s the guy at the desk has made millions of people say, “No – this is too much. I can’t stand by and watch this.” So they’re calling their congressmen and marching down Main Street. And in doing so, some of them are feeling a heightened sense of purpose – an awareness of participating in the fight to preserve something important – that might well make them happier.