The Four Pillars of Meaning
Human beings believe life has significance and worth when we have purpose and meaning. Well-being increases when we have a feeling that life makes sense, and that our part in it matters. It turns out, we need 4 things to create meaning in life. Research shows that when we have these 4 components, we feel resilient in moments of suffering and peace at the end of our lives. Emily Esfahani Smith explains these 4 pillars of meaning in her book, The Power of Meaning, as well as her talk for coaches that I was privileged to attend. Enclosed is a recap of her work and how to apply it to your own well-being.
Pillar 1: Belonging
Belonging is when I am valued for who I am intrinsically in a community. Belonging is the basket that holds the need for human connection. When we belong, people are asking us how we are. We feel and experience love. We receive human connection through friendship and attention with regularity. Where do you feel belonging in your life? I feel really lucky to live in a small town where belonging happens while walking down the street. I feel like I belong when I am greeted and smiled at. This reminds me how important it is to extend hospitality wherever I go to create a culture of belonging. I choose smiling, greeting and eye contact. What are the factors that create belonging for you? How do you nurture belonging in your life? Have you ever viewed success as the quality of meaningful relationships in your life?
Pillar 2: Purpose
Having purpose in our lives means to feel that what I do has value and meaning outside of myself. When I have purpose, I feel like I am contributing to others in some way. Smith looked at a Blue Zone of centenarians on Okinawa, Japan and discovered that these 100-plussers experienced purpose through praying, playing music, tending the garden, or checking in on friends. Purpose and service go hand in hand with the feeling of mattering.
My service is to middle and high school girls through Girl2Girl. Girl2Girl is a teen empowerment program sponsored by Eyes of Hope, Stoughton, Inc. that helps develop and amplify youth voices in our community through connections, experiences and providing a safe space to explore. Every week I meet with teens and other mentors to talk, laugh, create, and belong. It’s true that I receive far more than I give.
In what ways can you give? What is one small way you want to serve another this week? Mother Teresa said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Research has proven that it’s the small things done in great love that makes all the difference.
Pillar 3: Transcendence
Transcendence is experiencing a moment of awe or wonder. Imagine lying under a full night sky of stars. This is a moment where we can feel small and in awe of the universe. In moments of transcendence, we turn the volume down on our own inner experience and get immersed in something bigger than ourselves. Activities that produce wonder and awe are being in nature, having a religious experience, being fully present in the moment and practicing mindfulness. Transcendence strengthens gratitude, hope, humor, and spirituality.
Smith tells of a study where Berkeley students sat and looked up into 100 year old trees for one full minute. After this activity they were more likely to help another for a much longer amount of time than non-awed students. I think this comes from having an open-hearted experience with awe. What is one small meeting with wonder you would like to create? Is there an obstacle to you practicing awe?
Pillar 4: Storytelling
We create meaning in our lives by the stories we tell ourselves. Little stories of how we view an event provide one type of meaning. If I had a disagreement with someone, is the story I am telling myself a victim narrative or a loving search for resolution? When I make meaning of that moment, it is the way I tell myself the story that creates my outlook. Example: I hate to argue with my husband. When we disagree, my habit is to say, “He ALWAYS gets his way!” Telling myself this is harmful to both of us. A different meaning is acknowledging that we both want our own ways. My story can preserve what is important to the both of us. So, this first story telling is how we view the moment.
There are also the big stories of our lives that we tell ourselves. “The epics of my life” as Smith calls them, are the themes and events that make up what I believe about myself. Smith stopped me in my tracks when she described how we weave data points through our lives that amount to what we think of ourselves. Using the data points of times we fail as our only narrative causes a deep belief that we are failures. We are using a select set of failing data points! Humans do this naturally because we have a negativity bias. We can see the negative more easily than recognizing our successes.
The good news is that we can rewrite the story we tell ourselves. Smith suggests creating a narrative arc that shifts to weaving a story of hope together. Our stories can become fuller and more hopeful when we weave redemption, resilience, and love through our life-arc. It is our growth that can transform our stories. I have the choice of focusing on all the ways that didn’t work or focusing on all the ways I moved past and learned in the moment.
Smith’s homework idea for rewriting your inner story:
Write your best possible future self. Imagine what would happen if everything went well in the next 5 years. Try to clarify the vision for the future by looking at the clues of what you want to have happen. This will help you orient your choices around getting more of what you want.
What is the story you are telling yourself about the future? Is it hopeful or fearful? Watch your storytelling. Try to change your inner narrative to craft the story you want to live.
Smith ended her talk with the idea that ordinary magic, the small tasks that we do in love is far more powerful than a great mythical something that will change the world.
My takeaway from Emily Esfahani Smith’s talk is that these 4 pillars are healthy sign posts to check in with wellbeing. The 4 pillars lead to a feeling of abundance. How is my belonging right now? Do I feel I have purpose? When was the last time I felt awe? What is the story I am telling myself? Life is constantly changing, and it is easy to keep on going without taking note. My focus this week is going to be on my epic storytelling. How about you? Leave a comment below to let me know what you choose!