Forget About Being Happy

The search for happiness is destined to fail. But meaning, whether it comes from religious faith or from elsewhere, can give us the energy and the will to live. Naomi Duguid reviews “The Power of Meaning” by Emily Esfahani Smith.

By Naomi Duguid

    Whirling dervishes perform in Bursa, Turkey, 2016. Photo: Getty Images

‘Is that all there is?” asks the song. Emily Esfahani Smith, who lived in a practicing Sufi household in Montreal as a child, is in search of an explanation for the depression and alienation that statistics tell us are widespread in people who live in the modern industrialized world, from Finland to Japan. The more prosperous the country, we’re told, the higher the rate of suicide. There was none of that apparent with the Sufis of Ms. Smith’s childhood. Instead they radiated joy.

Ms. Smith, a journalist and psychologist, is interested in what makes people feel a sense of well-being and how their problems of alienation and depression can be helped. The core thesis of “The Power of Meaning” is that meaning, whether it comes from religious faith or from elsewhere, is what gives us the energy and the will to live and to hope.

The idea that many people living in the “First World” are prey to depression and alienation is not new. Some analysts, including the author, argue that this phenomenon can be explained, in part, by the loss of religion as a central element in people’s lives—a loss that leaves people isolated and without purpose. This seems to me too narrow a view. People struggling to feed their families or escape war zones don’t have time to worry about the meaning of life. Their purpose is clear: to survive. Only when basic necessities are assured—food and shelter, for example—is there opportunity to wonder if there is more to life and to feel alienated and depressed.

If people are depressed without religion to sustain them, then what? The substitute that the author suggests is a secular strategy: to find meaning in other ways. The key seems to be for people to look outward and connect with others rather than pay too much attention to themselves and their own feelings. It is others who give meaning to our lives, by giving us community and connection. Meaning and purpose can come from your job or your everyday life, from caring for your family or from doing work you consider meaningful, or from being involved in political and social movements.

This is not a book about how to be “happy.” In fact, it’s a persuasive attack on the idea that happiness is a goal we should aim for in life. A search for happiness is destined to fail, Ms. Smith suggests, for such a search is self-centered. But by finding meaning outside ourselves, we can thrive. Once life has meaning for us, we may then discover happiness, but in any case we will be more fulfilled.

The analysis that opens the book, and that structures the whole, is simple and elegant. It begins with a look at what gives meaning to life, the elements that Ms. Smith calls “the four pillars of meaning”: belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence. Ideally, for example in the Sufi community described in the introduction, religion and its associated spiritual communities provide all four: You belong to a group that has a theology or expresses a purpose, often transmitted through origin stories and other stories, and the rites and rituals of the church or group supply transcendent experiences. Of course, not all people’s encounters with religion are positive. But the author’s intention is not to sell us on religion but instead to use it as an entry-point to her analysis. There’s a chapter devoted to each of the pillars, in which each is analyzed and then examples are given about how individuals can address their need for belonging. The advice in each case involves engaging outward, creating a connection outside ourselves.

The last part of the book moves on from the personal to look at the larger picture. A chapter titled “Growth” looks at resilience, including the science behind why some people are strengthened by adversity and how we can learn from their stories. In general Ms. Smith might have improved her book with more vivid examples, but one example here she mentions is the case of a woman named Shibvon, whose tale is told in “Resilient Adults” (1996) by the psychologist Gina Higgins. Shibvon’s childhood traumas included horrific verbal and sexual abuse inflicted and enabled by her mother, until age 10, when she was sent to an orphanage.

Most women with that history would be shattered for life. Though Shibvon struggled with depression and anxiety in her teens, she survived to become a pediatric nurse, find a loving relationship and raise three children. One part of the explanation: At the orphanage she helped care for its babies and small children and was loved by them and needed. She also saw the Catholics nuns as a model: Their care for the children gave her a purpose and the ambition to help others, which she realized by becoming a nurse. Those who are afflicted by grief or pain can be helped to move beyond it and in fact be strengthened by sharing their pain with others or by finding a larger perspective on their situation.

To take another example, the great psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote of an elderly man in despair because his beloved wife had died. Frankl suggested to him a different perspective: What about the suffering that his wife would have experienced if he had died first? She had been spared that.

“The Power of Meaning” is not a self-help book. It will elicit the occasional “aha” of recognition as it highlights our need for human connection, but it provides no specific prescriptions or steps to take. Instead, Ms. Smith describes the approaches that various people have taken to finding meaning and gives us the analysis of experts and researchers in psychology, medicine and the social sciences to explain why some strategies work. This is where the book will be helpful to those who work with the depressed and the vulnerable: troubled adolescents, patients facing an early death from disease, or those recovering from serious trauma.

Perhaps the stories and ideas here will inspire individuals who are in distress and wondering how to move forward to try to look outside themselves. 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.

Ms. Duguid is the author, most recently, of “Taste of Persia.”

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