The Power of Meaning (2017) discusses the four pillars of meaning that a person should honor if they hope to lead a fulfilling life. This book encourages readers to discover themselves by searching for a purpose in life, connecting with others, engaging in transcendence and learning from past traumas.
Introduction: Reclaim a sense of meaning in your life.
It’s easy to go through life with a general feeling of “blah.” Repetitive work and not enough social contact can make anyone’s daily humdrum feel shallow and devoid of meaning.
These summaries make the case that this general malady of meaninglessness comes from our increasingly individualistic lifestyles. We tend to isolate ourselves in our work and look inward rather than outward to try and find meaning.
These summaries will show you where to invest your energy and put your focus in order to live a meaningful life.
In these summaries, you’ll learn
- what the four pillars of meaning are, and why they’re important;
- how to extract positive meaning from negative life experiences; and
- what the Future Project is, and how it’s inspiring current generations to follow their dreams.
Focus on the four pillars of meaning.
Take a minute to think about the current state of your life. Would you say that you live comfortably and have enough money in your pocket? Even if this is the case, you’re still not guaranteed to live a meaningful life.
Worryingly, suicide rates are actually increasing in wealthy countries. A study conducted by the psychologists Shigehiro Oishi and Ed Diener in 2014 found that even though people from countries such as the United States and Sweden were generally happier than those in poorer countries such as Togo and Sierra Leone, the suicide rate was significantly higher in the wealthier countries.
As for the reasoning behind this, the study discovered that although modern life has its material and psychological benefits, the constant focus on the individual can sap life of true meaning. In fact, when it comes to the concept of “meaning,” the study found that nearly a quarter of Americans couldn’t say what makes their lives meaningful.
This is especially concerning because, according to psychologists like Roy Baumeister, who has specifically researched what makes a good life, having a meaningful life is far more fulfilling than having a happy one.
In order to start your journey toward living a more meaningful life, you should maintain these four pillars of meaning: belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence. These categories constantly reemerge whenever people describe what makes their lives meaningful.
Once, Mahatma Gandhi explained that living a meaningful life involved having the purpose of serving others, while the filmmaker Carl Laemmle believed that meaning comes from the belonging he felt when bonding with his children.
Philosophers and psychologists also frequently refer to these four pillars. From Aristotle to Baumeister, it has been argued that meaning arises from belonging, having a purpose related to contributing to something larger, making sense of the world and your experiences and connecting with something greater than yourself.
By keeping these four pillars in mind, meaning can be discovered in both fresh and unexpected places. In the following chapter, we’ll start with the first pillar: you’ll find out how a sense of belonging can lead to a more meaningful life.
Individualism contradicts our need to belong.
The last time you went out for dinner, were people busy texting and Instagramming on their phones? If the answer is yes, that’s no surprise – people are so preoccupied with technology nowadays that they’ve forgotten the importance of connecting with those around them.
Fundamentally, it’s a human need to feel a sense of belonging either in relation to another person or a community. However, in modern society, many people live very isolated lives.
Back in 1945, the psychoanalyst René Spitz found that mortality rates in orphanages were unusually high because, ironically, children were often deprived of human contact in order to prevent the spread of germs and diseases.
Through his research into the matter, Spitz was the first to identify that a lack of belonging can result in death. Modern-day researchers have discovered the scientific reasoning behind this: chronic loneliness can compromise the immune system, which can lead to premature death.
Although having a sense of belonging is clearly essential to human life, social isolation and individualism are both on the rise. Increasingly, people tend to spend less time with their loved ones and more time in front of their phones and computer screens.
To support this claim, take these findings from the General Social Survey. Back in 1985, a number of Americans were asked to recall the number of people with whom they’d had deep conversations in the previous six months, to which the majority answered three. In 2004, that answer dropped down to zero.
This rise in individualism and isolation seems to be a major contributing factor as to why many people feel that they have a lack of meaning in their lives.
That’s why it’s so important to honor belonging, the first pillar of meaning. Surveys often conclude that people consider close relationships to be critical sources of meaning, and research often shows that those who are lonely consider their lives less meaningful.
By focusing on your relationships with others, you can begin to make your life more meaningful. This doesn’t only apply to intimate or profound relationships. Even the relationship that’s formed when you smile at a stranger on the street is vital to fostering a wider sense of belonging in society.
So, to find meaning in your life, try to reach out and connect with others around you. In the next chapter, you’ll learn about the second pillar of meaning: purpose.
Purpose is found through self-reflection and helping others.
Have you ever considered what your purpose in life is? Before you panic about the gravity of such a question, you should realize that purpose as a concept doesn’t need to be so intense.
When you think about your purpose, simply consider it to be the strengths and opportunities that you possess, with which you can help others.
The developmental psychologist William Damon believes that your purpose should be a far-reaching goal that involves some kind of contribution to the wider world. Don’t worry – this doesn’t mean that to have a purpose you have to attend every activist event in your city. As long as you have a goal and a make a meaningful contribution, you could live purposefully as, say, a zookeeper or a parent.
Zookeepers, for instance, feel that they have a duty to fulfill by helping animals live better lives; therefore, they have a purpose and consider their lives to be meaningful. As this example shows, an individual with a sense of purpose isn’t concerned with personal benefits, but cares more about how to benefit others.
So, by making your work about helping others, you’ll discover a purpose.
A survey involving 2 million participants found that those who considered their jobs to be meaningful were involved in careers such as English teachers, radiation therapists, school administrators and other roles that involved serving others.
If your job doesn’t directly involve serving others, you don’t have to drastically change your career. Instead, focus on the ways in which your work affects other people. A road worker whose job it is to direct the flow of traffic is keeping other people safe, for instance.
In other words, switching your focus to how your work affects others can give your job more purpose, and thus make your life more meaningful.
Up next is the third pillar, storytelling.
Through storytelling, we create coherence and fresh interpretations.
You may think of yourself as a more reserved person who doesn’t really enjoy being the center of attention in conversations. But guess what: You’re still a natural storyteller. In fact, everyone’s a storyteller – each person crafts their own life story.
As such, storytelling is the third pillar of meaning: it refers to the way people create stories from their own different life experiences. Humans feel compelled to tell stories, as this is how people make sense of the world. Individuals create meaning from telling their life stories to other people in a certain way.
Psychologist Dan McAdam has been studying the concept of life stories and meaning for over 30 years. He believes that a person’s narrative identity, or the story that they create about themselves, is constructed by focusing on the most significant events that have taken place in their life and interpreting them in numerous ways.
From his research, McAdam found that those who tell redemptive stories about their lives, or stories that transition from bad to good, often tend to live more meaningful lives.
In order to generate meaning through storytelling, it’s best to reflect on how an important event has shaped who you are and the course of your life. The process of doing so is what academics refer to as counterfactual thinking. This is when you engage in “what-if” questions such as, “what if I hadn’t gone to college?”
Research has shown that counterfactual thinking can make people appreciate the benefits of the path they have taken, as they’re forced to think about how their lives would’ve panned out had that pivotal event not happened.
Transcendence can help dissolve the barriers between yourself and the world around you.
Have you ever looked up at the stars at night and realized that you are just a tiny part of a large whole? Well, then you’ve experienced transcendence.
This is the fourth pillar of meaning, and it’s all about experiencing a higher reality in which everything is interconnected.
Psychologist William James describes the mystical experience of transcendence as being uncontrollable, lasting no more than a few hours and not entirely possible to put into words. But transcendence has the power to reveal truths that will remain with you.
Another psychologist, David Yaden, believes that during transcendent states, a person feels connected to everything that surrounds them. It is in this moment that a person loses any sense of anxiety, feels complete peace and optimal well-being and derives meaning in life.
When you’re in a transcendent state of mind, the barriers between yourself and the wider world around you dissolve. Oddly, you experience a paradox in which you feel connected to a higher power but also feel extremely insignificant at the same time.
Some meditators have said that when they’ve reached a transcendent state of mind, they’ve felt the boundaries of their own being dissolve. Suddenly, they felt at one with their environment. This self-loss, as it were, is sometimes called ego-death and it’s a means of mentally preparing an individual for the final loss of self, which is death.
For most people, the thought of death is a terrifying prospect. But for the individuals who have already experienced ego-death, death now seems like a new beginning.
Buddhists tend to illustrate this outlook on death with the example of a cloud. If you think about the life cycle of a cloud, it doesn’t perish when it disappears from the sky. The cloud simply changes shape into rain, which transforms into grass, and grass into cows and milk, and then the milk into the ice cream we eat.
Transcendence serves the purpose of making people feel that everything is interconnected and that they will always exist in the universe in one form or another. It is a state of mind that gives meaning to life.
Deriving meaning from trauma depends on how an unfortunate experience is interpreted.
To paraphrase the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The truth of this statement can be experienced when you or someone you know goes through adversity and manages to come out the other side as a better version of themselves.
By drawing upon the pillars of meaning, individuals can grow after experiencing trauma. This process is called post-traumatic growth, and can happen in five distinct ways.
Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, experts in post-traumatic growth, have identified the different ways in which you can grow after a trauma. The first is that your relationships can strengthen; second, you can go on to discover new purposes or paths in life; third, you can discover a newfound inner strength; fourth, you can become more spiritual; and last but not least, you can feel a renewed appreciation for life.
But why does this period of development happen for some sufferers of trauma, but not for others? Well, it apparently has nothing to do with the nature and severity of the trauma, but rather the way the trauma is interpreted.
The social psychologist James Pennebaker noticed that people who had experienced trauma in their childhood and kept it a secret had more health problems than the ones who spoke to others about it. As part of his practice, Pennebaker encouraged his subjects to spend 15 minutes each day, for several days in a row, delving into their deepest emotions and writing about the most upsetting experience they’ve had.
The subjects who completed this act of writing down their thoughts and feelings about the trauma found that they didn’t need to go to the doctor as much, suffered from fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression and had a stronger immune system, among other benefits.
When recounting their experiences, the subjects used “insight” words in their stories such as “I know,” “because,” “work through” and “understand.” This demonstrates that they were making sense of their traumatic experiences through their writing. The exercise allowed them to take meaning from their experiences, and facilitate their own post-traumatic growth.
So if you ever suffer through any adversity, it’s best to try and make sense of your experience, such as by reflecting on the event through expressive writing, and thus derive meaning from your trauma.
There’s been a societal shift towards exploring cultures of meaning.
In modern society, the “work-and-spend” mentality is still very much in full swing. People tend to spend less time on fostering social connections and looking introspectively, and more time on constantly commuting and working late into the night. But in some sections of society, this setup is changing.
Political scientists and economists have identified a new trend: people are becoming increasingly interested in “spiritual” rather than “material” concerns, and are prioritizing purpose, knowledge and community over money and consumer goods.
This shift is due in part to several institutions and cultures that work to build connections, celebrate purpose, provide spaces for storytelling and value transcendence.
Take the example of the Future Project, an organization with a mission supported by the pillar of purpose. The project aims to help students pursue their purpose by placing guidance counselors, called Dream Directors, at schools in some of the roughest neighborhoods in the United States. The Dream Directors help the individual students follow their dreams by encouraging them to think big and helping them create a step-by-step plan.
The students who have worked with the Future Project reported that they felt the positive effects of being involved in the initiative many years after. They felt that they were more engaged when it came to learning and had a stronger sense of purpose.
Similarly, the oral history project StoryCorps is supported by the two pillars of belonging and storytelling. The project gives ordinary people the opportunity to tell their life stories in front of an audience in the StoryBooth, an intimate space in which two people meet and honor one another through the act of listening. Their conversation is recorded and the recording is then given to the participants, while also being archived to give the stories an air of immortality.
The author listened to the story that a woman by the name of Mary Anna told in the StoryBooth about what motherhood and being adopted meant to her. Mary Anna was deeply moved by the experience of having been listened to by the author, a complete stranger. She noted that telling your story helps you gain a better understanding of yourself, while also offering support to others dealing with similar experiences.
By listening to other people’s stories, you can take the first step toward cultivating meaning both within your own life and within society at large.
The key message in this book:
You don’t have to travel the world, end world hunger or quit your job to live a meaningful life. You can find fulfillment by guiding your everyday life in accordance with the four pillars of meaning: belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence.
Actionable advice: Say hi to the janitor.
Start getting to know the cleaner or janitor at your work. One organizational psychologist, Jane Dutton, has found that no matter how small or fleeting, establishing high-quality connections in your daily life can contribute to a greater sense of belonging and, therefore, give your life more meaning. Plus, you’ll help a group of people who are used to feeling invisible feel more valued and respected.
About the author
Emily Esfahani Smith is an author and writer who draws on psychology, philosophy, and literature to write about the human experience—why we are the way we are and how we can find grace and meaning in a world that is full of suffering. Her writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, The Atlantic, TIME, and other publications. She is also an instructor in positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as an editor at the Stanford University Hoover Institution, where she manages the Ben Franklin Circles project, a collaboration with the 92nd Street Y and Citizen University to build meaning in local communities. Born in Zurich, Switzerland, Emily grew up in Montreal, Canada. She graduated from Dartmouth College and earned a masters in applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. She lives with her husband in Washington, DC.
Mindfulness and Happiness, Religion and Spirituality, Fitness, Dieting, Emotional Mental Health, Philosophy of Ethics and Morality, Personal Transformation Self-Help, Personal Growth, Psychology, Personal Development, Adult, Social Science
Table of Contents
1 The Meaning Crisis 19
2 Belonging 43
3 Purpose 73
4 Storytelling 9
5 Transcendence 125
6 Growth 155
7 Cultures of Meaning 187
In a culture obsessed with happiness, this wise, stirring book points the way toward a richer, more satisfying life.
Too many of us believe that the search for meaning is an esoteric pursuit—that you have to travel to a distant monastery or page through dusty volumes to discover life’s secrets. The truth is, there are untapped sources of meaning all around us—right here, right now.
To explore how we can craft lives of meaning, Emily Esfahani Smith synthesizes a kaleidoscopic array of sources—from psychologists, sociologists, philosophers, and neuroscientists to figures in literature and history such as George Eliot, Viktor Frankl, Aristotle, and the Buddha. Drawing on this research, Smith shows us how cultivating connections to others, identifying and working toward a purpose, telling stories about our place in the world, and seeking out mystery can immeasurably deepen our lives.
To bring what she calls the four pillars of meaning to life, Smith visits a tight-knit fishing village in the Chesapeake Bay, stargazes in West Texas, attends a dinner where young people gather to share their experiences of profound loss, and more. She also introduces us to compelling seekers of meaning—from the drug kingpin who finds his purpose in helping people get fit to the artist who draws on her Hindu upbringing to create arresting photographs. And she explores how we might begin to build a culture that leaves space for introspection and awe, cultivates a sense of community, and imbues our lives with meaning.
Inspiring and story-driven, The Power of Meaning will strike a profound chord in anyone seeking a life that matters.
This wise, stirring book argues that the search for meaning can immeasurably deepen our lives and is far more fulfilling than the pursuit of personal happiness.
There is a myth in our culture that the search for meaning is some esoteric pursuit – that you have to travel to a distant monastery or page through dusty volumes to figure out life’s great secret. The truth is, there are untapped sources of meaning all around us – right here, right now. Drawing on the latest research in positive psychology; on insights from George Eliot, Viktor Frankl, Aristotle, the Buddha, and other great minds; and on interviews with seekers of meaning, Emily Esfahani Smith lays out the four pillars upon which meaning rests.
- Belonging: We all need to find our tribe and forge relationships in which we feel understood, recognized, and valued – to know we matter to others.
- Purpose: We all need a far-reaching goal that motivates us, serves as the organizing principle of our lives, and drives us to make a contribution to the world.
- Storytelling: We are all storytellers, taking our disparate experiences and assembling them into a coherent narrative that allows us to make sense of ourselves and the world.
- Transcendence: During a transcendent or mystical experience, we feel we have risen above the everyday world and are connected to something vast and meaningful.
To bring those concepts to life, Smith visits a tight-knit fishing village on the Chesapeake Bay, stargazes in West Texas, attends a dinner where young people gather to share their experiences of untimely loss, and more. And she explores how we might begin to build a culture of meaning in our schools, our workplaces, and our communities.
Inspiring and story-driven, The Power of Meaning will strike a profound chord in anyone seeking a richer, more satisfying life.
Video and Podcast
“Beautifully written and rigorously researched, The Power of Meaning speaks to the yearning we all share for a life of depth and significance. In a culture constantly shouting about happiness, this warm and wise book leads us down the path to what truly matters. Reading it is a life-transforming experience.” – Susan Cain, author of Quiet
“The analysis that opens the book, and that structures the whole, is simple and elegant… The insight that, in our daily lives, we need to think of others and to have goals that include caring for others or working for something other than our own prosperity and advancement is the most valuable message in the book.”—The Wall Street Journal
“A riveting read on the quest for the one thing that matters more than happiness. Emily Esfahani Smith reveals why we lose meaning in our lives and how to find it. Beautifully written, evidence-based, and inspiring, this is a book I’ve been awaiting for a very long time.” – Adam Grant, author of Originals and Give and Take; professor at the Wharton School
“From sleep-deprived teens to overworked professionals, Americans are suffering from an epidemic of stress and exhaustion. It’s clear our definition of success is broken. As Emily Esfahani Smith shows, only by finding our purpose and opening ourselves to life’s mystery can we find true well being. Combining cutting-edge research with storytelling, The Power of Meaning inspires us to zero in on what really matters.” – Arianna Huffington
“An enlightening guide to discovering meaning in one’s life . . . Smith persuasively reshapes the reader’s understanding of what constitutes a well-lived life.” – Publishers Weekly
“Thoughtful . . . Underscoring the power of connection, the author assures readers that finding meaning is not the result of ‘some great revelation’ but rather small gestures and humble acts.” – Kirkus Reviews
“A wonderful, engaging writer . . . [Smith] offers clear, compelling, and above all useful advice for how to live with meaning and purpose.” Rod Dreher, The American Conservative
“This powerful, beautifully written book weaves together seamlessly cutting-edge psychological research, moving personal narratives and insights from great literature to make a convincing case that the key to a good life is finding or creating meaning.” – Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice; emeritus professor of psychology, Swarthmore College
“The Power of Meaning deftly tells the stories of people, contemporary and historical, who have made the quest for meaning the mission of their lives. This powerful yet elegant book will inspire you to live a life of significance.” – Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive
“A beautiful book, full of hope. While drawing on the best scientific evidence, it also stirs us with powerful narratives of living full of meaning.” – Lord Richard Layard, Director, Well-Being Programme, Centre for Economic Performance
“The search for meaning just got a little easier, and a little more fun. To follow Emily Esfahani Smith in this great human quest is to undertake a rewarding journey with a sure-footed guide.” – Darrin M. McMahon, author of Happiness: A History; Mary Brinsmead Wheelock Professor of History, Dartmouth College
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview
Chapter 1: The Meaning Crisis
On a fall day in 1930, the historian and philosopher Will Durant was raking leaves in the yard of his home in Lake Hill, New York, when a well-dressed man walked up to him. The man told Durant that he was planning to commit suicide unless the popular philosopher could give him “one good reason” to live.
Shocked, Durant attempted to respond in a way that would bring the man comfort—but his response was uninspired: “I bade him get a job—but he had one; to eat a good meal—but he was not hungry; he left visibly unmoved by my arguments.”
Durant, a writer and intellectual who died in 1981 at the age of 96, is best known for his books that brought philosophy and history to the public. The Story of Philosophy, published in 1926, became a bestseller, and his multivolume work The Story of Civilization, cowritten with his wife, Ariel Durant, over the course of forty years, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for its tenth volume, Rousseau and Revolution. During his life, Durant was known as a thinker with far-ranging interests. He wrote fluently about literature, religion, and politics, and in 1977, he received one of the highest honors bestowed by the U.S. government on a civilian, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Durant was raised Catholic, attended a Jesuit academy, and planned to join the priesthood. But in college, he became an atheist after he read the works of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer, whose ideas “melted” his “inherited theology.” For many years following his loss of religious faith, he “brooded” over the question of meaning, but never found a satisfactory answer to it. An agnostic and empirically minded philosopher, Durant later came to see that he was unsure of what gives people a reason to go on living even when they despair. This wise man of his time could not offer a compelling answer to the suicidal man who came to him in 1930—the year after the stock market crash that inaugurated the Great Depression.
So Durant decided to write to the great literary, philosophical, and scientific luminaries of his day, from Mohandas Gandhi and Mary E. Woolley to H. L. Mencken and Edwin Arlington Robinson, to ask them how they found significance and fulfillment in their own lives during that tumultuous period of history. “Will you interrupt your work for a moment,” Durant begins his letter, “and play the game of philosophy with me? I am attempting to face a question which our generation, perhaps more than any, seems always ready to ask and never able to answer—What is the meaning or worth of human life?” He compiled their answers into a book, On the Meaning of Life, which was published in 1932.
Durant’s letter explores why many people of his time felt like they were living in an existential vacuum. For thousands of years, after all, human beings have believed in the existence of a transcendent and supernatural realm, populated by gods and spirits, that lies beyond the sensory world of everyday experiences. They regularly felt the presence of this spiritual realm, which infused the ordinary world with meaning. But, Durant argued, modern philosophy and science have shown that the belief in such a world—a world that cannot be seen or touched—is naïve at best and superstitious at worst. In doing so, they have led to widespread disenchantment.
In his letter, he explains why the loss of those traditional sources of meaning is so tragic. “Astronomers have told us that human affairs constitute but a moment in the trajectory of a star,” Durant writes; “geologists have told us that civilization is but a precarious interlude between ice ages; biologists have told us that all life is war, a struggle for existence among individuals, groups, nations, alliances, and species; historians have told us that ‘progress’ is delusion, whose glory ends in inevitable decay; psychologists have told us that the will and the self are the helpless instruments of heredity and environment, and that the once incorruptible soul is but a transient incandescence of the brain.” Philosophers, meanwhile, with their emphasis on reasoning their way to the truth, have reasoned their way to the truth that life is meaningless: “Life has become, in that total perspective which is philosophy, a fitful pullulation of human insects on the earth, a planetary eczema that may soon be cured.”
In his book, Durant relates the old story of a police officer who attempted to stop a suicidal man from jumping off a bridge. The two talked. Then they both jumped off the ledge. “This is the pass to which science and philosophy have brought us,” Durant says. Writing to these great minds, he sought a response to the nihilism of his time—a response to the despondent stranger who had left him speechless. Durant begged them for an answer to what makes life worth living—what drives them forward, what gives them inspiration and energy, hope and consolation.
Durant’s questions matter today more than ever. Hopelessness and misery are not simply on the rise; they have become epidemic. In the United States, the rate of people suffering from depression has risen dramatically since 1960, and between 1988 and 2008 the use of antidepressants rose 400 percent. These figures can’t just be attributed to the increasing availability of mental health care. According to the World Health Organization, global suicide rates have spiked 60 percent since World War II. Some populations have been particularly vulnerable. In the United States, the incidence of suicide among 15- to 24-year-olds tripled in the last half of the twentieth century. In 2016, the suicide rate reached its highest point in nearly thirty years in the general population, and for middle-aged adults, it has increased by over 40 percent since 1999. Each year, forty thousand Americans take their lives, and worldwide that number is closer to a million.
What is going on?
A 2014 study by Shigehiro Oishi of the University of Virginia and Ed Diener of Gallup offers an answer to this question. Though the study was enormous, involving nearly 140,000 people across 132 countries, it was also straightforward. A few years earlier, researchers from Gallup had asked respondents whether they were satisfied with their lives, and whether they felt their lives had an important purpose or meaning. Oishi and Diener analyzed that data by country, correlating the levels of happiness and meaning with variables like wealth and rates of suicides and other social factors.
Their findings were surprising. People in wealthier regions, like Scandinavia, reported being happier than those in poorer ones, like sub-Saharan Africa. But when it came to meaning, it was a different story. Wealthy places like France and Hong Kong had some of the lowest levels of meaning, while the poor nations of Togo and Niger had among the highest, even though people living there were some of the unhappiest in the study. One of the most disturbing findings involved suicide rates. Wealthier nations, it turns out, had significantly higher suicide rates than poorer ones. For example, the suicide rate of Japan, where per-capita GDP was $34,000, was more than twice as high as that of Sierra Leone, where per-capita GDP was $400. This trend, on its face, didn’t seem to make sense. People in wealthier countries tend to be happier, and their living conditions are practically heavenly compared with places like Sierra Leone, which is racked by endemic disease, dire poverty, and the legacy of a devastating civil war. So what reason would they have to kill themselves?
The strange relationship between happiness and suicide has been confirmed in other research, too. Happy countries like Denmark and Finland also have some high rates of suicide. Some social scientists believe that this is because it is particularly distressing to be unhappy in a country where so many others are happy—while others suggest that the happiness levels of these countries are being inflated because the unhappiest people are taking themselves out of the population.
But Oishi and Diener’s study suggests another explanation. When they crunched the numbers, they discovered a striking trend: happiness and unhappiness did not predict suicide. The variable that did, they found, was meaning—or, more precisely, the lack of it. The countries with the lowest rates of meaning, like Japan, also had some of the highest suicide rates.
The problem many of these people face is the same one the suicidal man struggled with over eighty years ago when he asked Durant for a reason to go on. Though the conditions of his life were generally good, he nonetheless believed life was not worth living. Today, there are millions of people who join him in that belief. Four in ten Americans have not discovered a satisfying life purpose. And nearly a quarter of Americans—about one hundred million people—do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful.
The solution to this problem, obviously, is not for the United States to become more like Sierra Leone. Modernity, though it can sap life of meaning, has its benefits. But how can people living in modern societies find fulfillment? If we do not bridge the chasm between living a meaningful life and living a modern life, our drift will continue to come at a major cost. “Everyone at times,” wrote the religious scholar Huston Smith, “finds himself or herself asking whether life is worthwhile, which amounts to asking whether, when the going gets rough, it makes sense to continue to live. Those who conclude that it does not make sense give up, if not once and for all by suicide, then piecemeal, by surrendering daily to the encroaching desolation of the years”—by surrendering, in other words, to depression, weariness, and despair.
Such was the case with the famed Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. In the 1870s, around the time he turned fifty, Tolstoy fell into an existential depression so severe and debilitating that he was seized by the constant desire to kill himself. His life, he had concluded, was utterly meaningless, and this thought filled him with horror.
To an outsider, the novelist’s depression might have seemed peculiar. Tolstoy, an aristocrat, had everything: he was wealthy; he was famous; he was married with several children; and his two masterpieces, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, had been published to great acclaim in 1869 and 1878, respectively. Internationally recognized as one of the greatest novelists of his time, Tolstoy had little doubt that his works would be canonized as classics of world literature.
Most people would settle for far less. But at the height of his fame, Tolstoy concluded that these accomplishments were merely the trappings of a meaningless life—which is to say that they were nothing at all to him.
In 1879, a despairing Tolstoy started writing A Confession, an autobiographical account of his spiritual crisis. He begins A Confession by chronicling how, as a university student and later a soldier, he had lived a debauched life. “Lying, stealing, promiscuity of every kind, drunkenness, violence, murder—there was not a crime I did not commit,” he writes, perhaps with some exaggeration, “yet in spite of it all I was praised, and my colleagues considered me and still do consider me a relatively moral man.” It was during this period of his life that Tolstoy began writing, motivated, he claims, by “vanity, self-interest, and pride”—the desire to acquire fame and money.
He soon fell in with the literary and intellectual circles of Russia and Europe, which had built a secular church around the idea of progress. Tolstoy became one of its adherents. But then two dramatic experiences revealed to him the hollowness of believing in the perfectibility of man and society. The first was witnessing the execution by guillotine of a man in Paris in 1857. “When I saw how the head was severed from the body and heard the thud of each part as it fell into the box,” he writes, “I understood, not with my intellect but with my whole being, that no theories of rationality of existence or of progress could justify such an act.” The second was the senseless death of his favorite brother, Nikolai, from tuberculosis. “He suffered for over a year,” Tolstoy writes, “and died an agonizing death without ever understanding why he lived and understanding even less why he was dying.”
These events shook Tolstoy, but they did not shatter him. In 1862, he got married, and family life distracted him from his doubts. So did writing War and Peace, which he started working on soon after his wedding.
Tolstoy had always been interested in the question of what gives life meaning, a theme that runs through his writings. Levin, who is widely considered an autobiographical representation of Tolstoy, famously wrestles with the problem throughout Anna Karenina. He eventually concludes that his life is not pointless: “my life, my whole life, independently of anything that may happen to me, is every moment of it no longer meaningless as it was before, but has an unquestionable meaning of goodness with which I have the power to invest it.”
But soon after he completed Anna Karenina in 1877, Tolstoy took a bleaker view. The question of meaning cast a shadow over everything he did. A voice inside his head started asking—Why? Why am I here? What is the purpose of all that I do? Why do I exist? And, as the years went on, that voice grew louder and more insistent: “Before I could be occupied with my Samara estate, with the education of my son, or with the writing of books,” he writes in A Confession, “I had to know why I was doing these things.” Elsewhere in A Confession he puts the question in other ways: “What will come of what I do today and tomorrow? What will come of my entire life . . . Why should I live? Why should I wish for anything or do anything? Or to put it still differently: Is there any meaning in my life that will not be destroyed by my inevitably approaching death?” Because he could not answer the “why” of his existence, he concluded that his life was meaningless.
“Very well,” he writes, “you will be more famous than Gogol, Pushkin, Shakespeare, Molière, more famous than all the writers in the world—so what?” Tolstoy felt like the prophet of Ecclesiastes, who wrote, “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity! What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.” 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.