Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A life with meaning

Researchers found that when nursing home residents were given a plant for their rooms, those charged with caring for the plants themselves were more social and more healthy than those told nurses would take care of the plants for them. Fewer of these people died during the course of the study. Clearly it doesn't take much to give life meaning, to make sticking around seem worthwhile. Yet so many people, including those younger, healthier and with seemingly more to live for than those nursing home residents, find their lives meaningless.

Emily Esfahani Smith explores the vital importance of having a sense of meaning in one's life in her new book The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. She finds four pillars on which this sense of meaning rests.

Belonging: When there's somebody who thinks you matter, you are more likely to feel that you matter. And if you matter to them, they are likely to matter to you.

Purpose: The contribution one makes to the world need not be anything grand. It can be something as small as taking care of a plant.

Storytelling: The simple act of telling the story of your life to others can reveal what your life actually means.

Transcendence: The night sky, a religious experience, a baby's ear, the Grand Canyon -- such things can make us feel small and insignificant, yet at the same time make us feel a part of something grand and eternal.

Smith provides excellent examples of each of these pillars and builds a solid case for the importance of each in our lives. Yet she nearly lost me very early in her book. In her introduction she writes about how after her Iranian family settled in Montreal, their Sufi faith and weekly meetings with other Sufis gave meaning to their lives. But then she casually writes, "My family eventually drifted away from the formal practice of Sufism," as if the faith that supposedly gave their lives meaning was of no more significance than a house plant.

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