Emily Esfahani Smith’s TED talk challenges our understanding of happiness and offers us a better strategy. She begins her talk by saying: “I used to think the whole purpose of life was pursuing happiness…Chasing happiness can make people unhappy. Even though life is getting objectively better by nearly every conceivable standard, more people feel hopeless, depressed, and alone. There’s an emptiness gnawing away at people. We wonder: ‘Is this all there is?’”

What creates this despair in us isn’t a lack of happiness; it’s a lack of something else: a lack of having meaning in our lives. Emily outlines four pillars for creating meaning:

  1. Belonging: We’re in relationship with others and something larger than ourselves. In that relationship, we’re valued and loved for who we are, not for who we should be or what we’ve achieved. A way to demonstrate that we value and love others is to slow down, pay attention, and treat each other kindly.
  2. Purpose: Having purpose in life is less about what we get, than what we give. We use our unique strengths and talents to create worthwhile work to serve others. People flounder when they don’t have something worthwhile to do.
  3. Transcendence: Transcendence means moving beyond our separateness. We move beyond our ego selves when we’re immersed in worthwhile work. This connects us with something larger than ourselves.
  4. Story telling: Telling a narrative about ourselves helps us understand ourselves. But, what kind of story are we telling ourselves? Is it a good story when everything is going our way and a bad story when things go wrong? Or, do the “bad” stories make us stop, reflect, and look for deeper reasons for our existence? Meaning doesn’t exist on the surface of our lives; it exists in the unknown reaches we fear exploring.

The trap we fall into is defining happiness as a state of comfort and ease. Meaning comes from accepting the stress and struggles in life and working through them. They’re an opportunity to go deeper into ourselves, to bring out the best within us. Emily says that happiness comes and goes, but having meaning in life—serving something beyond ourselves and developing the best within us—gives us something to hold onto.

We ask “Is this is all there is?” when we feel hopeless, depressed, and alone. Rather, state “This is all there is” and then get to work, working with “all there is.” We can begin creating more meaning in our lives by moving beyond the “comfort equals good” equation. We create a meaningful life when having a good life also includes struggles.

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