Self Help

The Power of Meaning - Emily Esfahani Smith

Author Photo

Matheus Puppe

· 45 min read



  • Darrin M. McMahon praises the book as guiding readers on a rewarding journey to undertake the great human quest of finding meaning in life.

  • Chris Guillebeau commends the book for showing readers an alternative path to living meaningfully rather than sleepwalking through life without examining it. He says the book can help answer questions about how to find purpose and what role work plays in the search for meaning.

  • Emma Seppälä credits the book as a powerful invitation to live a life of purpose, belonging, and transcendence. She highlights how the book combines scientific research, philosophy, and moving personal accounts to address existential questions in a delightful, masterful, and inspiring way.

Overall, the praise quotes emphasize that the book guides readers on their quest for meaning through examination of how to find purpose, the role of work, and living a life of purpose, belonging and transcendence, using both academic research and real life examples.

  • Religion used to be the main path for many people to find meaning in life, but now it is just one option among many. This cultural shift has left many feeling adrift in their search for meaning.

  • The author’s personal search for meaning led them to philosophy in college but found academic philosophy had abandoned questions about how to live a good life.

  • Their college peers were mostly focused on career success and acquiring specialized skills rather than exploring life’s bigger questions. College aims more at jobs than moral/intellectual growth.

  • American colleges historically provided a curriculum centered on classics/theology to teach students about life’s meaning, but religious foundations eroded. Some educators tried to fill this role through exploring literature/philosophy.

  • The rise of research universities prioritized scholarship over teaching life lessons. Fields became specialized and humanities curriculum disintegrated, leaving students to choose own paths with no guidance on meaning.

  • Recently, positive psychology social scientists have investigated what makes life fulfilling by studying happiness, its causes and impacts. This led to a massive happiness industry but failed to actually increase societal well-being and satisfaction.

Social scientists have found that directly pursuing happiness often fails to make people happy in the long run. Philosophers like John Stuart Mill and Robert Nozick have argued that a life focused solely on happiness lacks depth and meaning.

Nozick devised a thought experiment about living in a tank that provides any desired experiences and constant positive feelings. Most people recognize that such a life, despite constant happiness, would be empty and meaningless. They value having a real identity and goals beyond just feeling good.

Psychologists study two paths to a good life - hedonia (happiness) and eudaimonia (human flourishing). Hedonia focuses on feeling good and maximizing pleasure. But eudaimonia, as described by Aristotle, involves using one’s talents to contribute meaningfully to others and society.

Research has found that while happy and meaningful lives overlap, they have different roots. A happy life correlates with selfishness and avoidance of struggle. A meaningful life correlates with contributing to others through activities like caring for family, even if that causes stress. Overall, pursuing meaning leads to a fuller and more satisfying existence than only seeking happiness.

  • In 1930, the philosopher and historian Will Durant was approached by a man who said he wanted to commit suicide unless Durant could give him a good reason to live. Durant struggled to provide a compelling answer.

  • This experience prompted Durant to write letters to notable figures of the time like Gandhi and H.L. Mencken, asking them how they found meaning and fulfillment in their own lives during the Depression era. He compiled their responses in a book called “On the Meaning of Life.”

  • Durant argued that modern philosophy and science had “disenchanted” people by discrediting traditional beliefs in a supernatural realm that once imbued ordinary life with meaning. Astronomers, geologists, biologists, historians, and psychologists had presented views of the universe and human existence that seemed to strip away meaning and purpose.

  • Facing a widespread crisis of meaning, Durant sought answers from leading intellectuals of his day about how they found significance despite this “existential vacuum” left by the loss of traditional sources of meaning and purpose. His book compiled their varied responses to this profound question.

  • Durant’s questions about what gives life meaning still matter today, as depression, suicide, and lack of purpose have reached epidemic levels globally.

  • A large study found that wealthier nations actually have higher suicide rates than poorer ones. This is because wealth is correlated with happiness but not meaning - poor countries reported higher levels of meaning despite being unhappier.

  • Lack of meaning, not happiness or unhappiness, predicts suicide rates. Many people today lack a sense of purpose and fulfilling direction in life.

  • Famous novelist Leo Tolstoy fell into a deep existential depression in his 50s, concluding that his acclaimed works and comfortable life were meaningless. He wrote about his crisis in “A Confession.”

  • Experiencing a guillotine execution and his brother’s death made Tolstoy lose faith in ideas of social progress. He became obsessed with finding why he existed and what gave his life meaning, but could find no answer, driving him to consider suicide. His depression highlights the ongoing human struggle to find purpose in modern life.

  • Tolstoy struggled with nihilism and the meaning of life until he found meaning in faith, specifically a stripped-down version of Christianity focused on Christ’s teachings.

  • Camus set out to prove one can find meaning without relying on faith in something infinite, as Tolstoy believed was necessary.

  • Camus grew up poor in Algeria and lost his father in WWI at a young age. He battled tuberculosis as a teenager, forcing him to confront mortality.

  • Camus wrote “The Myth of Sisyphus” in1940-41 while living in occupied France during WWII. It addresses the serious philosophical question of whether life is worth living without meaning or purpose.

  • Camus believes the world is absurd - we seek order and explanations but find only chaos and silence. While some find meaning through faith, he aims to prove one can live meaningfully even without religious or transcendent truths.

  • To Camus, life seems pointless if we can’t find external meaning, but he argues one can still face the absurdity of existence courageously and find purpose through rebellion, passion, and embracing what little time we have.

  • The essay discusses Albert Camus’s view of the absurdity and meaninglessness of life as expressed in his work “The Myth of Sisyphus”.

  • Camus rejects suicide and faith as solutions to the problem of an absurd world. He argues we must create our own meaning without appeal to God.

  • Although life has no inherent meaning, we have freedom to choose meaning and value through our choices and actions.

  • Camus uses the example of Sisyphus, condemned to eternally push a boulder up a hill, to show how one can find meaning even in futile tasks through defiance and passion for the struggle itself.

  • Though life entails “misery and greatness”, we should embrace and exert ourselves in it as Sisyphus did with his task. This gives life significance through our attitude and dedication.

  • Camus believed each person needs a “thing” or project to dedicate themselves to, like his own writing, in order to confront the world and create meaning from struggles rather than despairing.

  • In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, many people reached out to philosopher Will Durant expressing a desire to commit suicide due to feelings of hopelessness and lack of meaning.

  • Durant responded by arguing that life has meaning when one sees themselves as part of something larger and contributes to community through work and relationships. He believed engaging in productive activities, even simple ones, could help restore a sense of purpose.

  • In 1988, Life magazine similarly asked over 100 influential people what gives life meaning. Responses referenced themes of belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence.

  • Belonging involved connecting with and caring for others. Purpose meant having a positive impact or mission. Storytelling provided narratives to find understanding. Transcendence involved experiences of self-loss in something larger.

  • These four pillars of meaning - belonging, purpose, storytelling, transcendence - emerged across different cultures and eras as core to leading a meaningful life, both with and without religion. Even in difficult times, people can nurture these pillars in new ways.

  • On Tangier Island, Virginia, graves are integrated into daily life as a constant reminder of history and community. The living are surrounded by reminders of mortality but also of their connections to past generations.

Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay is a small, isolated community of around 480 people that considers itself not just the living residents but also their deceased ancestors as part of the community. Many current residents can trace their ancestry back to the original 18th century settlers.

The island’s physical, social, and spiritual center is the Swain Memorial Methodist Church. Services have a family reunion-like feeling where people refer to each other by first name. Residents see themselves as one big extended family, grieving and celebrating together and helping each other out.

While isolated geographically, Tangier is experiencing cultural changes from increased Internet and TV bringing mainstream culture. Younger generations are leaving for economic reasons as fishing regulations make it hard to enter that industry. As a result, the population is declining.

Edward Pruitt is one who left for college but struggled with the loss of his tight-knit community. He eventually learned to embrace his heritage despite challenges. Tangier Island is facing loss of population and traditional way of life but residents maintain a strong sense of shared history and community.

Here are the key points:

  • Edward is from Tangier, Virginia and feels a strong connection to his hometown, visiting every 5-6 weeks. However, he doubts he’ll move back permanently.

  • In 2010, Edward fell in love with Katie from Iowa. Their long-distance relationship during his year-long deployment to Iraq in 2009 was sustained by daily phone calls. They married in 2011 and now live in Norfolk, Virginia with their 3-year-old daughter.

  • Edward feels close bonds with former shipmates from previous military deployments, even if they weren’t good friends, because they shared the experience of being away from home and family.

  • Researcher Spitz observed infants in an orphanage who suffered from lack of parental affection and touch. They let out thin wailing cries instead of typical infant crying.

  • The infants experienced physical and psychological issues like being smaller and less confident. Some died prematurely, seemingly from a broken heart due to the chronic loneliness.

  • Modern research has shown that chronic loneliness compromises the immune system and leads to early death.

  • A film showed infant Jane before and after being reunited with her mother. Without her mother’s affection she was distressed, but with her mother returned she was happy and smiling.

  • This research helped spark a shift in understanding the importance of early attachment and parental love for healthy development. People need close relationships and a sense of belonging from a young age.

  • A woman threw a medieval-themed party in the 1960s that included a tournament and feast. About 50 people came dressed in period attire.

  • After the event, the group marched down the street “to protest the twentieth century,” beginning what would become the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA).

  • The SCA has grown to over 60,000 members worldwide divided into “kingdoms” based on geography. They hold regular events and an annual gathering of over 10,000 members.

  • The strong community is built on members investing significant time, shared values of chivalry, treating each other with dignity, and developing networks of close friends and broader support systems.

  • Being part of the SCA helps members develop confidence, social skills, and find purpose. It provides emotional support during hard times. The duty members feel to one another sustains the community.

The piece then discusses how cultivating both close relationships and small moments of human connection can enhance quality of life. It provides examples of members finding meaning through the SCA and a man developing a relationship with his local newspaper vendor.

  • Jonathan went to a newspaper vendor but only had big bills. The vendor offered to let him pay the next day, but Jonathan insisted on paying then.

  • Jonathan went into a store to get change so he could pay the vendor. He handed the vendor $1 and said “here you go, to be sure I don’t forget.”

  • This changed their relationship - the vendor took it as rejection while Jonathan meant to avoid forgetting. Jonathan realized later he should have accepted the kindness offered.

  • Psychologists have shown social exclusion, even briefly in studies, threatens feelings of meaning and purpose. Those made to feel rejected rate life as less meaningful.

  • A study had students socialize then half were told no one wanted to see them again - these students felt more meaningless. Rejection hurts both rejecter and rejected.

  • A study of hospital cleaners found feeling ignored or disrespected by doctors/nurses made their work feel less meaningful. Small positive interactions like greetings counteracted this.

  • “High quality connections” where people feel respected and valued boost meaning at work. Even mundane tasks feel worthwhile. Brief interactions can dignify or demean.

  • The passage tells the story of Ashley Richmond, a zookeeper at the Detroit Zoo who has dreamed of this career since childhood. She finds deep meaning and fulfillment in caring for animals like giraffes, kangaroos and wallabies.

  • Though the work is physically demanding and low-paying, Ashley loves interacting with the animals and ensuring their welfare. A core part of her role is enrichment - finding creative ways to stimulate and engage the animals since life in a zoo is easier than in the wild.

  • The passage describes Ashley interacting with a giraffe named Jabari during a feeding enrichment activity. She explains how enrichment helps animals feel in control and exhibit natural behaviors.

  • Ashley witnesses Jabari and his son Mpenzi necking and play fighting, showing they are thriving in captivity. Zoos have shifted their mission from entertainment to prioritizing animal welfare and conservation.

  • Zookeeping is Ashley’s calling and purpose. She finds deep fulfillment and meaning in her job of caring for animals, despite the challenges.

The passage profiles Coss Marte, a former drug dealer from New York who spent 7 years in prison. As a young man, Coss dealt drugs successfully and made millions but realized it was not fulfilling. In prison, he got health advice that motivated him to exercise and help other inmates lose weight too. This new role as a personal trainer was meaningful for Coss and helped inmates, but he still dealt drugs in prison. After solitary confinement, Coss wrote to his family but had no stamp. His religious sister’s letter suggested reading Psalm 91, which Coss initially rejected but then decided to read due to having extra time. This religious reading seemed to spark Coss finding his true purpose in life beyond just dealing drugs.

  • Coss was a drug dealer in New York who ended up in solitary confinement in prison. While there, he found a Bible and had a spiritual moment that inspired him to change his life.

  • He realized selling drugs was negatively impacting people and wanted to help society in a positive way. He came up with the idea to open a fitness business.

  • After being released from prison, he entered a business competition and won with his fitness center plan. He opened Coss Athletics, which became successful.

  • His experience shows the importance of self-reflection and understanding one’s identity and talents to find purpose in life. Knowing yourself helps align your goals with your values.

  • Psychologists have found being reminded of your “true self” makes life feel more meaningful, as it allows you to pursue paths aligned with who you are. Coss’s fitness business fit his identity and allowed him to help others.

  • Manjari Sharma’s story also shows how identity is key to purpose. Her interest in art emerged from her childhood experiences in India visiting temples, despite not originally planning to be an artist.

  • Manjari was inspired to create her series “Darshan” after seeing parallels between her experiences visiting Hindu temples as a child and later visiting art museums, which both involved anticipation and a connection to religious/spiritual art.

  • Darshan is a series of photographic portraits of Hindu gods and goddesses meant to stir viewers emotionally as they would be in a temple surrounded by divine presences.

  • Creating each portrait involved elaborate handcrafted sets and costumes made by a team of over 30 artisans in India. It was an ritualistic process where everyone was invested in bringing the deity representations to life.

  • The portraits use bright colors and psychedelic imagery to uniquely depict deities like Lakshmi, Saraswati, and Hanuman. Hanuman’s story of forgetting his powers until needed resonated with Manjari’s journey to find her artistic purpose.

  • Through moving to a new country and gaining clarity on her connection to myths/stories, Manjari discovered her purpose was to tell meaningful stories through her art that move people emotionally as she had been moved. Her Darshan series achieves this.

  • Living with purpose is ultimately about using one’s talents to benefit others and society, not just for personal happiness, as thinkers like Kant have argued one has a duty to develop their skills for various purposes.

  • The story is about Erik Kolbell and his daughter Kate experiencing a traumatic brain injury after being hit by a car at her summer job as a teenager. She had to undergo multiple brain surgeries and intensive rehabilitation.

  • In the aftermath, Erik struggled to find meaning or a “silver lining” in what happened. He wondered “where is the good?” as Kate faced further surgeries.

  • After Kate’s final surgery to replace part of her skull, she had many visitors in recovery who had cared for her over the summer. Doctors, nurses, a chaplain, and social worker who had been involved in her case all came to wish her well.

  • This “parade of smiling faces” is what helped Erik find the meaning and good that came from the devastating experience. Seeing how many people cared for Kate and wanted to support her recovery provided him comfort and showed him the impact those medical professionals had made. It reminded him that even through serious trauma, caring for others can create purpose and positivity.

So in summary, the story illustrates how adopting a service mindset and focus on helping others, even in difficult medical jobs, can imbue work with meaning and significance according to research discussed earlier in the piece.

The passage discusses the storytelling event program The Moth and how it helps people craft personal stories. It describes The Moth’s origins from nights of casual storytelling between friends on a porch. The founder George Dawes Green brought the idea to New York but found it lacking the intimacy of sharing ordinary people’s stories.

The Moth now puts on hundreds of live storytelling events annually where people tell true, personal stories from their own lives without notes. The artistic director looks for stories that show change or personal growth. Telling a story helps storytellers gain insight and perspective on their own experiences.

One example is given of a man, Jeffery Rudell, who told a story about being estranged from his parents after coming out. In preparing for The Moth, he realized he had been in denial for years about the lack of a future relationship with them and was able to find resolution. The passage notes that telling a story at The Moth is often like years of therapy for the storyteller.

It concludes by discussing the human need for storytelling to find meaning and impose order, especially in defining one’s identity and understanding how they became who they are. Storytelling helps make sense of life experiences and our place in the world.

Emeka was a talented football player with dreams of playing in college and beyond. However, he suffered a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the neck down. This was a massive blow, as Emeka lost his ability to play football and had to come to grips with living with a disability for the rest of his life.

Through the difficult process of rehabilitation and adjustment, Emeka did some soul-searching. He realized the person he was before - focused only on partying and himself - was flawed. After starting to volunteer as a youth mentor, Emeka found new purpose helping others. He adopted a more positive identity centered around serving others rather than himself.

Emeka sees his injury and new path positively. Psychologist Dan McAdams’ research on “narrative identity” and life stories suggests telling “redemptive stories” that find meaning in suffering may contribute to a more meaningful life. Emeka tells a redemptive story that his injury changed him for the better by helping him become the selfless person he is today. His ability to craft a positive narrative has likely helped in his adjustment and ongoing life journey living with disability.

  • People tend to tell stories about their lives defined by growth, connection with others, and agency/control. These positive stories allow them to craft a meaningful identity where they are in control, loved, progressing in life, and obstacles have been redeemed.

  • However, those with depression may tell contamination stories that could worsen their condition. But we are not stuck - we can choose to change our stories.

  • Psychotherapy helps rewrite stories in a more positive way to realize meaning can be found even after hardship. Editing stories improves mental health as effectively as medication or CBT.

  • Small edits to stories can impact behavior. A study found fundraisers who wrote about being generous made 30% more calls, acting consistent with their role as givers. Stories shape our identities and behaviors.

  • Reflecting on pivotal life moments and considering alternatives through counterfactual thinking increases sense of meaning. It helps appreciate current paths and see lives as coherent rather than random. Stories give order and design to life experiences.

  • Carlos was a Cuban boy who fled to the US in 1960 as part of Operation Peter Pan amid rumors that Castro would separate children from parents. He and his brother Tony were sent to live with relatives in Florida and later Illinois.

  • Carlos’s early years in the US were difficult- he lived in an orphanage with poor conditions and later had to work to support his disabled mother and himself after she joined them in Illinois.

  • As an adult historian, Carlos was reminded of his childhood when the Elián González case became news. He wrote a memoir reflecting on his lost life in Cuba before the revolution.

  • Carlos imagines alternative scenarios like the Bay of Pigs succeeding or Castro being overthrown. He wonders about the life and relationship with his father he could have had if staying in Cuba.

  • While an easier life could have been had, Carlos believes the challenges made him who he is today and gave him empathy for those struggling.

  • Research shows thinking about current hopes for the future leads to happiness, but dwelling on “lost possible selves” causes regret and unhappiness by focusing on closed paths. However, it can also promote ego development and self-reflection.

  • Stories like Carlos’s help people make sense of loss and how their lives could have unfolded differently. They can prompt reflection on one’s own values and experiences.

The story explains how attending a star party at the McDonald Observatory in Texas allowed Pi to understand and come to terms with his traumatic experiences after the shipwreck.

Pi endured months lost at sea in a lifeboat, witnessing savage acts of violence. While alone, he told himself the story of a tiger as a way to process what happened in a less direct, emotional manner.

Like Pi using fiction to cope, storytelling and reading stories can help trauma survivors gain perspective and insight into their experiences. Fiction allows readers to emotionally engage with difficult topics while maintaining distance.

At the star party, Pi’s tour guide shared ancient myths about constellations that communicated lessons about human fate and the unpredictability of the cosmos. Looking through the telescopes at nebulae and galaxies millions of light-years away, Pi was effectively looking back in time, paralleling his own ability to understand past events from a removed perspective due to the storytelling process.

Through the stars and myths, Pi found a meaningful way to understand his ordeal, just as fiction can provide insight for others coping with loss or trauma. Narrativizing the experience in the form of the tiger story allowed Pi to grapple with the events in a way that promoted healing and personal growth.

The passage describes different encounters with astronomy and the vastness of the universe. It starts with a boy at a planetarium asking his mother about the fate of the sun, to which she replies billions of years from now.

It then introduces Bill Cochran, an astronomer who studies exoplanets. The passage describes his work using the Kepler spacecraft to detect exoplanets and search for signs of life. While observing with a telescope at night, the vastness of the starry sky filled the author with awe.

Bill then shows the author the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image, which contains thousands of distant galaxies from hundreds of millions of years after the Big Bang. This perspective of looking back to the beginning of the universe filled Bill with “awe.”

The passage discusses how looking up at the night sky has always offered a sense of mystery and driven humanity to contemplate big questions. Though modern knowledge makes us feel insignificant, transcendent experiences like contemplating the universe can paradoxically fill us with meaning. It describes psychologist William James’s own transcendent experiences and his theories about their characteristics.

In the end, transcendent experiences leave us with a sense of connectedness, meaning, and peace by washing away anxieties about existence when confronted with something vast that evokes a sense of mystery and awe.

The passage describes research on the phenomenon of awe and its effects on how people see themselves. Researchers had study participants write sentences beginning with “I am” after viewing a massive dinosaur skeleton. Those in an “awe” condition were more likely to define themselves in broader, more universal terms like “part of the universe” rather than focusing on physical or personal attributes.

The paradox of transcendence is that awe makes one feel small yet connected to something greater. Meditators describe a similar experience of boundaries dissolving, feeling no separation from the world.

The passage then relates the story of Cory Muscara, who spent six months as a Buddhist monk in Burma meditating up to 22 hours a day. Initially the strict regime was excruciatingly painful, but over time he learned to observe thoughts and emotions neutrally rather than identify with them. This led to a sense of equanimity.

Near the end of his stay, during an intensely focused meditation, Cory had an experience where the distinction between himself and the pond he was observing vanished into a state of “oneness.” This suggests meditation can dissolve boundaries between self and world.

  • Cory had a transformative experience while meditating at a pond in Burma where he felt his sense of self dissolve and felt connected to everything. This experience of “nirvana-duality, communion” changed his life perspective.

  • Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg studied the brain activity of experienced meditators and found decreased activity in areas related to spatial awareness and distinguishing self from others, aligning with reports of unity and loss of self.

  • Astronaut Jeff Ashby was inspired by the early space missions as a kid and fulfilled his dream of becoming an astronaut. Seeing Earth from orbit gave him an “Overview Effect” that transformed his priorities from personal achievement to contributing to humanity’s greater good.

  • The experience of viewing Earth from the detached perspective of space often shifts astronauts’ values to be more aligned with environmentalism, global cooperation, and planetary stewardship due to feeling a sense of “connectedness” and vulnerability of Earth. After his missions, Ashby worked on sustainability projects reflecting this perspective.

The passage discusses the idea of transcendence and finding meaning through connection to nature or something larger than oneself. It describes John Muir’s transcendent experiences in nature as a young man that shaped his love and advocacy for protecting natural spaces.

It then describes research showing that briefly witnessing immense, awe-inspiring natural scenes like towering trees can produce a loss of self and focus on others. This “ego death” mirrors transcendent religious experiences and can help people accept the ultimate loss of self that comes with death.

The story of Janeen Delaney is presented, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer and felt disconnected until joining a study using psilocybin (the active compound in magic mushrooms) which has a history of facilitating mystical experiences. She hoped it would provide the sense of meaning and connection she lacked. The passage discusses how hallucinogens have long been used in religious and spiritual rituals across cultures to access transcendent realms and visions.

  • The passage describes research being done on using psilocybin (the active compound in magic mushrooms) to help terminally ill cancer patients reduce anxiety and fear about death.

  • The researcher, Griffiths, aims to conduct rigorous, structured sessions to avoid the mistakes of Timothy Leary, whose unstructured LSD research was criticized.

  • The passage then introduces Janeen, a cancer patient who participates in Griffiths’ research. During her psilocybin session, she has a profound mystical/transcendent experience that reduces her fear of death.

  • Janeen realizes through the experience that everything is interconnected and that death is just a natural part of the larger cycle or transformation of life. This helps her come to peace with her terminal diagnosis.

  • The passage discusses how transcendent experiences like Janeen’s can help those with a secular worldview find meaning and lessen the dismal prospect of death by revealing a sense of interconnectedness and appreciation for life.

  • Janeen is said to have passed away in 2015 still feeling at peace with death due to her psilocybin experience in the research study.

The passage discusses adversity and how traumatic experiences like losing a loved one can have both negative and positive impacts. While such losses can breed cynicism, despair, and shattered relationships, struggling through adversity can also push personal growth.

It describes the origins of The Dinner Party organization, started in 2010 by two young women in LA who bonded over recently losing parents. They noticed friends struggled to discuss their grief, so hosted dinners bringing others together. This grew into a nationwide nonprofit with meals in over 60 cities worldwide.

At one Dinner Party in NYC, several attendees open up about their losses. Christine’s mother died suddenly five years prior in a hit-and-run. Raúl’s friend drowned while the two were swimming, and others failed to help. Both grappled with making sense of senseless deaths.

Though adversity led to existential questioning, community and storytelling at these dinners helped bring meaning. Christine found new purpose becoming a pastry chef. The founders aimed to ease disarray from grief by cultivating belonging, purpose, narrative and transcendence - key pillars of resilience during hardship.

The passage describes the story of Bob Curry, a Vietnam veteran who struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for many years after returning from the war. He had flashbacks, nightmares, and drank heavily to cope. His PTSD was exacerbated by the Gulf War and 9/11 attacks. He eventually had a drunk driving accident that killed a man.

After being acquitted of homicide charges due to his PTSD diagnosis, Curry hit rock bottom. But visiting a veterans association post helped him feel understood by his fellow veterans. This inspired him to start Dryhootch, a community center for veterans offering peer support groups and activities to promote wellness.

Dryhootch has expanded across the Midwest and helped many veterans. For Curry, pursuing his “survivor mission” of helping other veterans has played a key role in his own recovery. Despite the trauma he endured, he has experienced post-traumatic growth and now has a mission and purpose. His story shows how trauma responses like PTSD and post-traumatic growth are not mutually exclusive and survivors can experience both.

Researchers Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun coined the term “post-traumatic growth” to describe positive changes that can occur as a result of struggling with highly challenging life crises or trauma. Through their research, they found that suffering can help people transform in fundamentally positive ways, and these transformations were more common than expected. While trauma negatively impacts some through PTSD, others are able to develop stronger relationships, find new purposes in life, discover inner strength, deepen spiritual lives, and gain a renewed appreciation for life through a process of deliberate rumination and introspection about their experiences. Later researchers like James Pennebaker found that expressive writing about trauma can aid this process of making sense of events and forging meaning, leading to better mental and physical health outcomes over time compared to those who do not process their experiences. While trauma itself does not cause growth, how people interpret and reflect on challenging events shapes whether they experience personal development or not.

  • Researchers study resilience by examining people who experience severe trauma or adversity but are still able to lead healthy, productive lives. Factors that distinguish the resilient include purpose, moral values of serving others, and social support systems.

  • Viktor Frankl helped a depressed doctor find meaning in his wife’s death by changing his perspective to appreciate how her suffering was spared. Frankl showed how finding positive meaning from trauma can provide peace.

  • Research by James Pennebaker found that writing about traumatic experiences can improve health by allowing systematic processing and discovery of new insights over time. Venting emotions is less helpful than thoughtful, narrative sense-making.

  • The story of “Shibvon” illustrates resilience despite facing severe childhood abuse and trauma. Though she struggled at times, she was ultimately able to have a career and happy family. Her resilience stemmed from finding purpose in caring for others, the love of her father and aunt, and connecting her difficult experiences to a broader meaning and mission in life.

The prisoners at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison camp in Vietnam gathered together for religious and patriotic services. While not all were devout, many drew on spirituality to help them endure their difficult circumstances. One prisoner said “If you can’t tap into a source of strength and power greater than yourself, you’re probably not gonna last.”

Research shows resilience is partially determined by genetics and early life, but can also be learned. Two studies found that framing stressful tasks as challenges rather than threats can make people respond more resiliently. Telling less resilient students that difficulties are normal parts of transitioning to college improved their GPAs and well-being over 3 years, halving the minority achievement gap. Having a sense of purpose and meaning can help people weather both major hardships and daily stresses through reframing challenges as steps toward fulfilling their values and goals. Maintaining meaning protects against the harmful health effects of stress.

The passage describes Compline, an ancient monastic prayer service, held at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle. Compline involves chanting psalms and prayers before bed to seek God’s protection at night.

Though rare outside monasteries, St. Mark’s has held Compline regularly since the 1950s, attracting hundreds of countercultural “hippies” in the 1960s seeking a spiritual experience. Today, the service still draws a diverse group of believers and non-believers, including students, artists and families.

The service involves candlelight, chanting by an all-male choir, and total silence from congregants. Attendees say it transports them out of their minds and reduces their concerns. The shared musical experience makes them feel connected to something greater.

While modern life breeds distraction and isolation, Compline offers refuge and community. It demonstrates how shared spiritual practices can foster meaningful experiences and feelings of belonging and transcendence that are difficult to find elsewhere.

The passage discusses the rise of cultures of meaning as more people seek purpose and fulfillment beyond materialism. It attributes this shift to several trends:

  • Modern life is full of distractions that make introspection difficult and transcendent experiences are viewed suspiciously in a scientific worldview. This has left many unsatisfied.

  • Research shows post-industrial societies are shifting from materialist to post-materialist values that emphasize self-expression and meaning.

  • Positive cultures of meaning use connections, purpose, storytelling and mystery to help fulfill this need. Examples highlighted include educational programs to help youth find purpose.

  • While positive cultures can arise, evil ones like cults also use similar techniques to attract followers. The key is whether a culture promotes positive values like compassion.

  • Examples featured include The Future Project, which places Dream Directors in schools to help students discover purpose, and the company Life is Good which founded on principles of positive mindset from the founder’s childhood.

The overall passage discusses how the search for meaning and purpose is driving the rise of positive cultures and institutions focused on helping fulfill these deeper human needs and motivations.

Here is a summary of the key circumstances described in the passage:

  • Bert and John started a T-shirt business in their 20s, designing and selling shirts on the streets of Boston and other East Coast cities while living out of their van. They struggled financially but bonded over conversations on their travels.

  • During one trip, they discussed how negative news dominates culture and decided they wanted to promote optimism. John sketched a grinning character named Jake, which became the symbol for their company Life is Good.

  • When they started selling shirts with the phrase “Life is Good” and the Jake image, they sold out quickly and found success. Their purpose was to spread optimism.

  • Unexpectedly, they began receiving letters from people who wore their clothes during hard times like illness, describing how the message helped them. This reinforced their mission’s impact.

  • They now run a $100 million brand and nonprofit helping kids in need, showing how Bert and John turned difficult early circumstances into a thriving, purpose-driven business.

The passage discusses how giving nursing home residents responsibility over a houseplant led to significantly better health outcomes compared to residents who did not care for a plant. Those caring for plants were more social, alert, active, and lived longer. Researchers believe this was because the plant gave residents a sense of purpose and control.

Broader research supports the idea that having meaning and purpose is strongly correlated with better health and longevity. While purpose declines as people age and retire, some organizations are working to combat this. helps retired people find new purpose through community fellowship programs. New York City has also launched an “Age-Friendly” initiative through policy changes and programs that engage seniors, like a mentorship program, to combat isolation and foster well-being in older adults. These efforts aim to redefine retirement as a time people remain actively engaged through new roles that utilize their skills and experience.

  • The passage discusses StoryCorps, an oral history project founded by journalist Dave Isay to document people’s stories and make them feel valued.

  • Isay became passionate about storytelling after listening to the story of Angel and Carmen Perez, two recovering addicts who shared their dreams. This inspired Isay to focus on documenting marginalized voices.

  • StoryCorps provides booths where people can record interviews with friends or family members, preserving their stories for history and strengthening human connections. Recordings are archived at the Library of Congress.

  • StoryCorps aims to combat issues like materialism by promoting acts of listening that foster belonging over consumerism. They encourage annual days of listening during holidays.

  • The passage tells the story of Mary Anna Elsey, who was adopted as a baby. She shares her experiences with adoption and identity, as well as reconnecting with her birth mother later in life through StoryCorps.

  • Mary Anna met her biological mother Effie for lunch in Charleston. Effie explained she gave Mary Anna up for adoption because she thought she’d have a better life.

  • The meeting gave Mary Anna perspective on herself and her relationship with her three daughters. She wondered if her early experiences affected her personality and struggles with loneliness/depression.

  • Mary Anna was becoming an empty nester as her daughters left for school. As a mother, her identity and purpose had been raising her daughters, so letting them go was painful.

  • In an interview booth at StoryCorps, Mary Anna opened up about these experiences and feelings in a way she wouldn’t with friends/family. She felt heard and that it helped her understand herself better and could help others facing similar issues.

  • For Mary Anna, the experience in the booth enabled insight and taught her the importance of openly sharing her thoughts/feelings with others. It also allowed her to create a lasting record for her descendants.

  • Dr. Breitbart developed a meaning-centered group psychotherapy program for cancer patients to help improve their mental wellbeing and quality of life.

  • The 8-session program helps patients reflect on meaningful past experiences, how their identity has changed since diagnosis, tell their life story, confront death and discuss how they want to die, explore sources of meaning like relationships and hobbies, and consider their legacy.

  • Breitbart conducted randomized controlled trials that showed the therapy increased patients’ sense of meaning and purpose, reduced anxiety, hopelessness and desire to die, and improved spiritual wellbeing and quality of life. These effects persisted and even increased over time.

  • Breitbart was inspired by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning”, which describes how finding meaning in suffering helped prisoners survive concentration camps. Maintaining purpose and dignity allowed some to withstand immense hardship.

  • Frankl’s work established that having a “why” or sense of meaning is crucial for coping with difficult circumstances and trauma. Breitbart applies these lessons to helping terminally ill patients find meaning even at life’s end.

  • Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist who founded logotherapy, which focused on helping patients find meaning in their lives.

  • As a student he questioned a professor who said life was just a process of oxidation. He wondered what the meaning of life could be.

  • Freud was impressed by a paper Frankl wrote and had it published. Frankl went on to establish suicide prevention centers and develop logotherapy.

  • In 1941 with the Nazis rising, Frankl had a visa to America but chose to stay with his parents in Vienna, honoring his father with a fragment of the Ten Commandments about honoring parents.

  • During the Holocaust, Frankl was imprisoned in concentration camps for three years where he experienced horrific conditions.

  • However, on one cold march he had an epiphany, realizing that love was the ultimate meaning and highest goal in life. Thinking of his wife gave him hope even in that dire situation.

  • After the camps, Frankl wrote about his experiences and insights, establishing logotherapy’s focus on finding meaning through love and serving others.

This introduction discusses the author’s interest in meaning and purpose, stemming from her exposure to Sufism as a child. She notes how questions about the meaning of life and finding meaning within one’s life are distinct but related topics. Fewer people now find religion as an important source of meaning amid secularization. Philosophy had also largely abandoned questions about meaning and purpose.

The author credits several people who mentored and influenced her work on this book, including Jonathan Haidt, Martin Seligman, Adam Grant, Jeffrey Hart, and others from various academic and publishing backgrounds. Friends and family also provided support. She conducted interviews and discussions with researchers and ordinary people to learn about their work and sources of meaning.

The introduction outlines how discovering one’s purpose was formerly a goal of education but this has been replaced by more utilitarian aims. However, surveys find a strong desire for meaning persists among students. The author will explore how people find purpose and what cultural and individual factors support meaningfulness.

Here is a summary of the key points from the provided text:

  • Political correctness, multiculturalism, and moral relativism contributed to the decline of searching for meaning through the humanities in academia. Some schools still maintain a humanities-focused curriculum.

  • There is now more consensus in the academy that faculty should teach virtues and values. Interest in questions of meaning and the good life have regained some traction in fields like philosophy and literature.

  • Positive psychology emerged in the late 1990s and studied well-being scientifically, drawing on both social sciences and the rich humanities tradition. It was founded by Martin Seligman and focuses on building flourishing rather than just treating mental illness.

  • Early happiness research studied what contributes to happiness, finding relationships, career, health and religion as factors. Over 10,000 papers on happiness are now published per year. Happiness became a pop culture phenomenon covered by media outlets.

  • While pursuing happiness was assumed to make people happy, some research found it can backfire and make people lonely or depressive if valued too highly above other goals like meaning. Researchers distinguish between hedonic well-being (happiness) and eudaimonic well-being (meaning and virtue).

That covers the key summaries and insights relating to the growth and trends regarding positive psychology, happiness research, and the resurgence of interest in meaning and humanities-based education from the provided text. Let me know if you need any part clarified or expanded upon.

Here is a 253-word summary:

The chapter discusses two main orientations or paths to well-being: hedonia and eudaimonia. Hedonia refers to pleasure and feeling good - this view goes back to Aristippus and the footsteps of Freud, who believed happiness was the purpose of life. However, Aristotle advocated for a different view of eudaimonia, which is commonly translated as happiness but more accurately means flourishing or living well. For Aristotle, eudaimonia involves cultivating virtue and using one’s rational capacities to their fullest potential.

Modern psychologists draw a distinction between these two orientations. Hedonia, or subjective well-being, is defined as pleasure, positive feelings, and enjoyment. It is commonly measured using scales that assess positive and negative affect. Eudaimonia refers to living according to one’s virtues, using one’s strengths, and engaging in meaningful pursuits. It involves seeking personal growth, having purpose and meaning, and contributing value to the world. While hedonia and eudaimonia overlap in beneficial ways, research has found they can also diverge - some people are high in one but low in the other. Eudaimonia appears to offer more significant benefits to health, relationships, and overall fulfillment than a focus solely on pleasure and short-term feelings of happiness. The chapter argues that Aristotle’s view of eudaimonia provides a more complete conception of well-being than hedonia alone.

Here is a summary of the key points from the section on Summarize: ee Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness:

  • Chapter 1 discusses how people today are experiencing a “meaning crisis” - more report experiencing a lack of meaning or purpose in life. Rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide have risen significantly.

  • Studies show having close social bonds and belonging are strongly associated with well-being and meaning in life. A lack of belonging has been linked to depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.

  • Early psychological experiments and theories suggested infants don’t need affection or bonding - just physical care. However, researchers like René Spitz and John Bowlby demonstrated through their studies that infants require an emotionally intimate relationship with a caregiver for healthy social-emotional development. Lack of attachment can cause distress, depression, stunted development.

  • A sense of belonging fulfills a basic human need and motivation. Two key factors are important for belonging - frequent and pleasant interactions with others, and a belief that these relationships are stable and enduring. Belonging enhances meaning and purpose.

  • The small isolated community of Tangier Island, Virginia is used as an example of a close-knit community that provides a strong sense of belonging for residents.

  • René Spitz published studies in 1944 and 1946 that showed negative effects on development in infants who lacked affection and care in institutions. His methodology was flawed but later studies by Bowlby and Harlow confirmed this.

  • Spitz showed a video of infants in institutions that was very distressing to watch. It is available online and shows the effects of maternal deprivation and trauma in childhood.

  • Chronic loneliness has negative health effects. Around 20% of Americans report feeling lonely and those ages 45+ are most likely to feel this way.

  • Studies show the average number of people Americans discuss important matters with has declined from the 1980s-2000s, indicating less social connectedness.

  • Close relationships and family are especially important sources of meaning in life. Feeling socially isolated or excluded is linked to lower sense of meaning.

  • Durkheim’s study of suicide showed social integration and community are important for well-being and prevention of mental health issues.

  • Studies by Oishi and Diener found people in poorer countries tend to report higher meaning in life, linked to stronger social ties and religiosity.

  • Trends of individualism, less socializing, frequent relocation are thought to drive increases in mental illness by weakening social bonds. Belonging through groups like the SCA can help address these issues.

Here is a summary of the key points from the Maha ̄aparinibb ̄ana Sutta (Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 2007):

  • Purpose: The purpose of the sutta is to describe the final days of the Buddha before his death and passage into nirvana. It aims to convey his teachings and last words of guidance to his disciples.

  • Quotes: The sutta contains Buddha’s instructions to his disciples, such as “Be lamps unto yourselves” and “Strive with earnestness.” Before passing into nirvana, Buddha says “All composite things pass away,” highlighting the impermanent nature of existence.

  • Context: The sutta recounts Buddha traveling through the countryside in modern-day India with his disciples in his final months. It describes his declining health and the efforts of Ananda, his attendant disciple, to care for him.

  • Themes: Key themes include non-attachment, impermanence, mindfulness, and living according to Dharma (Buddha’s teachings). The sutta emphasizes following one’s own enlightenment rather than being dependent on any teacher. It aims to preserve Buddha’s final words to guide disciples after his death/passage into nirvana.

Here is a summary of the key points about eudaimonic understanding of vocation and calling:

  • The idea of calling has religious origins but is now defined more secularly by researchers. It refers to work that is meaningful and matches one’s purpose.

  • Frederick Buechner conceptualized calling as the kind of work that utilizes your strengths to benefit the world. Specifically, where your talents and passions intersect with what the world needs.

  • Researchers have acknowledged the religious roots but define calling secularly as work that is personally meaningful and valuable. Things like careers, jobs and callings relate to how people see their relationship to their work.

  • Having a sense of calling is associated with higher well-being and life satisfaction. People who see their work as a calling tend to find it more meaningful and engaging.

  • While calling originally had religious connotations, the modern concept focuses more on finding purposeful and meaningful work that fits one’s values and strengths, regardless of religious or spiritual affiliations. It’s about connecting one’s self to a larger human purpose or cause through one’s career or occupation.

Here is a summary of the key points from 13): 240–65:

  • The passage discusses transcendence in various contexts, including in Buddhism, through mystical or spiritual experiences people have had, and through psychedelic experiences facilitated by drugs like psilocybin.

  • It describes research on the impact of psychedelic-induced mystical experiences, finding them to be among the most meaningful and important experiences of people’s lives. Some effects can last over 14 months.

  • Experiments with psilocybin have been conducted on healthy volunteers, cancer patients, smokers, and religious leaders/theologians. benefits for anxiety, addiction, and well-being have been observed.

  • Risks of “bad trips” are discussed. Precautions are taken in clinical research experiments. Timothy Leary’s evangelism around LSD is mentioned.

  • Experiences of transcendence through meditation, prayer, childbirth, awe, and encounters with nature are also discussed. Impacts on self-concept and sense of time are mentioned.

  • The overview effect experienced by astronauts of seeing the Earth from space is covered, along with effects on values and perspectives. Quotes from astronauts indicate profound, world-view shifting impacts.

Here is a summary of the key points from 2002), 25.:

  • Researchers estimate that about 75% of people will experience a traumatic event in their lifetime. Trauma can profoundly shatter people’s fundamental assumptions about the world.

  • However, trauma can also potentially push people to grow in positive ways. The idea of post-traumatic growth is a relatively new concept in mainstream psychology.

  • After PTSD was added to the DSM in 1980, researchers started exploring how some trauma survivors don’t just recover but flourish after struggling with trauma. This led to the concept of post-traumatic growth.

  • Trauma survivors often find meaning and purpose by helping others who are suffering from similar experiences. They can experience less depression and more meaning in life compared to those who don’t help others.

  • While trauma affects most people, only about half to two-thirds of survivors experience post-traumatic growth. A small percentage suffer long-term problems like PTSD. But many survivors demonstrate resilience and are able to find benefits in their experiences.

  • Psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun helped establish post-traumatic growth as a new area of study. They found trauma can produce positive psychological changes like greater empathy, appreciation for life, personal strength, and spiritual/existential growth.

That covers the key summary points from the provided source. Let me know if you need any clarification or have additional questions.

  • Peterson is a member of the Compline choir at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. To hear recordings of their services, check Compline is also offered at several other churches.

  • Peterson describes compline as providing an “unmediated experience of the Divine Presence.”

  • Research finds that adults don’t spend enough time in awe, wonder, and spirituality. An example is given of famous violinist Joshua Bell playing incognito in a DC subway but not being recognized.

  • Easterbrook argues society has a “work-and-spend” mentality lacking social connections and purpose, which can depress happiness. However, as material wants are fulfilled, values shift to place greater importance on self-expression and quality of life.

  • Research by Inglehart and theories of a “fourth great awakening” and “age of purpose” suggest society may be shifting back towards emphases on spirituality, community, and purpose. However, many teenagers remain unsure of their purpose.

  • Examples are given of nonprofit groups like The Future Project and Life is Good Kids Foundation that aim to help youth find purpose. Studies also link having a sense of purpose to positive health outcomes in older adults.

Here is a summary of the PDF document “WHO Guidelines for Developing an Age-friendly City”:

  • The document was published by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2007 to provide guidance to cities and communities on making urban environments more accessible and inclusive for people of all ages.

  • An age-friendly city adapt its structures and services to be accessible to and respectful of older people with varying needs and capacities. It encourages active aging by optimizing opportunities for health, participation and security in order to enhance quality of life as people age.

  • The guidelines outline eight broad domains of an age-friendly city: outdoor spaces and buildings; transportation; housing; social participation; respect and social inclusion; civic participation and employment; communication and information; and community support and health services.

  • Under each domain, the guidelines identify features that contribute to an age-friendly urban environment and make recommendations for policies, services, and structures to facilitate active and continued participation of older adults in community activities.

  • The goal is to allow people to live in the residence and community of their choice as they age and to encourage cities to involve older people in the planning and decision-making processes that shape their environments.

In summary, the document provides WHO’s guidance and recommendations for cities to develop inclusive and accessible infrastructure, policies, services and community supports to allow people of all ages, particularly older citizens, to actively age and safely participate in urban living.

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