Ted Talk Tuesday: Emily Esfahani Smith

There’s more to life than being happy…

Everybody wants to be happy.  I think I’m safe in assuming that.  I’ve yet to meet the person who walks around all day saying to themselves, “You know, all I really want out of life is to be miserable.”  That just doesn’t happen.  Generally though, we all define happiness a little differently.  Some of us want the traditional form of happiness which manifest itself as a big house with the white picket fence, a good job, wonderful spouse, and a couple of well-behaved kids.  Others might define happiness as a life of adventure, constantly travelling, experiencing new cultures, and trying new things.  But what people can sometimes misunderstand is that their search for happiness is either missing something or really isn’t a search for happiness at all.  According to Emily Esfahani Smith and her TED Talk regarding happiness and meaning, what people are truly searching for, and no doubt what they need, is meaning in their lives.

Esfahani points out that finding meaning in life is much more impactful than the search for happiness.  Indeed, she points out that the lack of meaning in life is a large reason for the rise in stress and depression.   So, by now I’m sure you’re wondering what the difference is between happiness and meaning?  Well Esfahani explains just this distinction during her presentation.  By her definition, happiness pertains specifically to individual moments, whereas meaning is associated with something bigger that has a larger impact on someone’s entire outlook on life and touches each area of their existence.

For those of us who have spent any amount of time on personal development, Esfahani’s speech may sound like a regurgitation of the last book we’ve read, but I think she does offer a bit of a different spin on a somewhat familiar topic.  During her talk she provides 4 pillars that help build a meaningful life.  They are belonging, purpose, transcendence, and storytelling.   Belonging is about being in impactful relationships that are based more on love rather than specific beliefs.  Relationships that are more about feelings and respect as opposed to those based solely on surrounding ourselves with people who agree with you.  Esfahani then goes on to talk about purpose which she points out is less about what you want out of life and more about what you have to give.  Again, I found this to be a refreshing take on a familiar topic.  Too often we think of personal development and goal setting as a way to get things out of life, when it is equally important to concern ourselves with what we can give to others.  The third pillar of meaning is transcendence, which based on Esfahani’s definition could loosely be described as finding a passion.  She explains how important it is for people to find things in which we can “lose ourselves.”  This is different for everyone, but some examples can be art, writing, nature, sports, or really anything that someone can be so passionate about that they lose sense of time or place whenever they are focused on that activity. And finally, the fourth pillar is storytelling.  But instead of how we tell stories to others, Esfahani tells us that this pillar of meaning is more about the story we tell ourselves and how we interpret our own lives.  She explains how this is the most important pillar simply because it helps to validate and build up all the other pillars.  Whenever we are telling ourselves a positive story, the rest becomes somewhat easier than if we’re always degrading ourselves.

After giving her unique explanations of the pillars, Esfahani then provides an interesting take on meaning that I think people tend to ignore.  As her presentation goes, she explains that a life of meaning can be both positive and negative depending on our own circumstances.  For example, gangs provide a life of meaning, as do churches.  Obviously these are two very different ends of the meaning spectrum.  This stresses the importance for everyone to focus on building positive institutions of meaning to avoid subconsciously feeding the negative ones.  Overall I found Esfahani’s presentation to be a worthwhile watch as I think she provided some unique explanations and definitions surrounding topics that can otherwise feel mundane and repetitive.  If you are interested in the topic of meaning or personal development I would recommend you check out this presentation!

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