Q&A with Emily Esfahani Smith

The stories we tell ourselves.

You’ve said that one of the ways we can live a more meaningful life is through storytelling—“the story you tell yourself about yourself.” If each of us is the author of our own stories, how can we shape our own narratives in a way that is constructive, true and hopeful?

We are all storytellers whether we realize it or not. We all tell stories about who we are, where we came from, where we’re going, and why things happen the way they do. There’s the grand story of our life—the myth we tell about how we came to be the person we are—and there are also the stories we tell ourselves on a day-to-day basis about the smaller events in our lives. Let’s say you receive an email from your boss that says “urgent” in the subject line, and the body of the email reads: “Call me immediately.” How do you interpret that email? What sort of story do you tell yourself about why your boss wants to talk?

The psychologist Dan McAdams has studied the stories people tell about the whole arc of their lives, and in his research has found that people leading meaningful lives tell stories defined by redemption, growth, and love—for example, getting fired was terrible but it helped me discover my true calling as a nurse helping others. People who believe their lives lack meaning tend to tell what he calls “contamination stories,” where the good is ruined by the bad, like I got my dream job, but it made my marriage fall apart.

Decades of research in cognitive behavioral therapy and narrative psychology has shown that people can indeed change their stories to tell ones that move them forward rather than hold them back—all while respecting the facts. If you’re telling a negative story about your life, you can ask yourself what evidence there is for that story and whether there is any evidence that would change the story you’re telling.

This isn’t Pollyanna-ish thinking. Human beings have a very strong “negativity bias,” meaning that when something bad happens to us, it makes a much stronger impression than when something good happens. When we’re crafting these narratives about our lives or the things that happen day-to-day, we are likely discounting the good things that are happening that would enable us to tell a more hopeful story. Including and accounting for the good brings us closer to the truth and allows us to tell more positive stories that move us forward.

I was speaking to a friend recently, for example, who told me she thought that she was about to get a negative performance review at work. Yet the day before, she had told me about some phenomenal praise she received from her boss about a major project she was working on. Somehow, she had forgotten that piece of evidence, and this was causing her to tell a more negative (and less reality-based) story. So we should pay more attention to the good things, and try to weave them into our narratives.

If you’re having trouble doing this, you might try telling your story in the third person or imagine that a loved one is telling you this story. We tend to see things more clearly (and compassionately) when we have some distance. “Expressive writing”—a form of journaling devised by psychologist James Pennebaker—is also an effective strategy that helps people tell more hopeful, meaningful stories over time.

Today’s youth often feel extraordinary pressure to do something profound with their lives. You’ve advised the next generation to see the value in leading ordinary, humble lives. How do you convey that message to someone who has been preached to since grade school that success and happiness are possible only if you get into the best college, become a leader in your profession, and/or make a lot of money?

I think there are two things to untangle here.

The first is the desire that many young people have to do something extraordinary with their lives, like end a humanitarian crisis, write a great novel, or make a ground-breaking scientific discovery. I think there’s something very healthy and even noble to be ambitious in this way when you’re young, even though those aspirations are idealistic. But hopefully, as you get older, you adjust your expectations and goals to something more realistic. The fact is, for most of us, our grand dreams won’t come true. Only a tiny fraction of people end up leading epic lives, while the rest of us live more ordinary ones. Part of growing up is recognizing and accepting your limitations, and coming to terms with the fact that you won’t accomplish all the things you set out to do. Most people lead hidden lives, not headline lives. And yet, it’s the ones leading hidden lives who often find the most meaning in them. George Eliot, in her novel Middlemarch, puts it this way: “The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Simply being aware of all this helps young people adjust their expectations for what a meaningful life constitutes.

The second issue is: what are young people ambitious for? I think a lot of them start out with these idealistic ambitions, but over time, their ambition becomes corrupted by a success culture that pushes them into achieving, striving, and rising for the sake of accumulating prestigious awards and money. They lose track of their passions and true ambitions—of their very selves. They come to define their success and worth in terms of how many followers they have on Instagram, where they go to school and work, and how much money they make. To be clear: I don’t blame them. I blame the culture that’s feeding them these messages.

To address both points, I think we need to redefine what success really means. It’s not about leading an epic life of extraordinary accomplishment; it’s not about getting into the right clubs. It’s about something much deeper, actually.

According to many psychologists and spiritual sages, life is a series of developmental stages that people must pass through in order to grow and mature. Being successful in a psychological and spiritual sense requires mastering the tasks and meeting the challenges of each phase before passing onto the next one. When you’re young, your job is to learn about yourself and the world. In middle age, the key task and challenge is learning to become a generative person—meaning, you focus less on your own goals and ambitions, and focus more on helping the younger generations come up and accomplish theirs. As you grow older still, the key challenge is to gracefully relinquish your old roles and identities as you retire and become an empty-nester, and to deepen your spiritual life, in whatever way that makes sense for you.

With each stage, you turn more outward and learn with greater certainty that you are not an atomistic individual whose job is simply to rise in the world, but that you’re part of a larger heritage, and that your job on this earth is to maintain and repair the little corner of the world that is your inheritance. In Hinduism, this idea is called “maintenance of the world;” in Judaism, tikkun olam (repairing the world); in Christianity, propter chorum (Why do the monks chant? Propter chorum–for the sake of the choir). Zen Buddhists talk about “tending the garden” or taking care of your piece of this world.

What does all this mean for young people? It means that at this stage of their lives, their job is to learn about themselves and the world so that they can discover what their true path is. Another way to put it: their job is to resist the snares of the success culture so that they don’t lose themselves in it. As the ancient Greeks said, know thyself.

Today’s workforce has a higher rate of turnover, and so for a company that wants to hold on to strong employees but may be competing against this new paradigm,  what do bosses and managers need to do to offer their employees meaning in their work?

In The Power of Meaning, I write about the four pillars of meaning: belonging, purpose, transcendence, and storytelling. For most people, the most important and powerful source of meaning is belonging—those bonds to and daily interactions with family, friends, and colleagues. Given this, I would recommend bosses and managers focus on creating a culture of belonging where employees feel valued and like they matter. In a study of hospital cleaners, researchers Jane Dutton, Gelaye Debebe, and Amy Wrzesniewski found that when the custodial staff of the hospital were ignored or treated poorly by doctors and nurses, the cleaners concluded that they and their work were not valued. But when others acknowledged them in simple ways—like by inviting them to a potluck lunch, asking them how they were doing, and thanking them for their work—they felt valued and like their work was more meaningful. I take away two lessons from this research. First, there’s a powerful connection between feeling like you matter and feeling like your work matters. Second, belonging exists in small moments of connection and it’s a choice; we can choose to cultivate belonging with others in the things we do and don’t do.

Managers and bosses can also create a culture of meaning by reminding employees of the bigger picture. In my book, I profile the apparel company Life Is Good. At staff meetings and company-wide gatherings, managers share letters from people who have been inspired in some way by the Life Is Good message—like those who wore Life is Good apparel to get through chemotherapy or an amputation. These letters help everyone on the team, from the receptionist to the designer, see how their work is contributing to something bigger.

Employees themselves can do this, too, to bolster their sense of meaning at work. When you’re bogged down in the daily tasks of work, it’s easy to forget why this work is meaningful. But in those moments, I think of this story: One day, President Kennedy was walking the halls of NASA and came across a janitor. He asked the janitor what his job was there, and the janitor responded, “Mr. President, I’m helping to put a man on the moon.” You can also find meaning in your work by remembering that it’s a way to support your family or to do other things that make your life meaningful, like travel.

In the late 1990s, Bhutan’s prime minister introduced the concept of “Gross National Happiness” to a United Nations forum as a paradigm for alternative development. This was a groundbreaking idea. Today, the UN annually commemorates World Happiness Day. This feels like a significant shift for a traditional institution typically focused on quantifiable measurements like GDP. What lessons can we take away from the UN’s adoption of happiness as a human right and goal?

The main lesson is that people and societies need more than just material security and wealth to thrive; they need meaning. For years, countries have defined their health and prosperity by economic measures like GDP—and, in America, many people take it one step further and define their very worth as human beings by how productive they are. Busyness and productivity have become stand-ins for meaningfulness. But that attitude has created a society in which more people feel hopeless, depressed, and alone, and where “deaths of despair” (by suicide, drugs, and alcohol) have been on the rise. The turn toward well-being as a goal of policy recognizes that life is a search for daily bread as well as daily meaning, to paraphrase Studs Terkel. Policy should therefore be focused not just on economic advancement, but on creating the conditions that allow people to thrive psychologically and spiritually.

This idea is in the marrow of the United States. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson identifies “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as inalienable rights. Later on, the historian James Truslow Adams coined the phrase “the American Dream” and defined it not just in economic terms, but also in spiritual and psychological ones. “The American dream that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century,” he wrote, “has not been a dream of merely material plenty, although that has doubtless counted heavily. It has been much more than that.” The real American Dream, he argued, “is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

You grew up in a Sufi meetinghouse, where twice a week dervishes would come over to your home to meditate, tell stories, and drink tea. Your family had a real sense of community. For the Sufis, the goal was to diminish their egos so that they could grow closer to a higher reality that we might call God. If Western society is increasingly secular, how can society find ways to minimize its ego to find greater resiliency within themselves?

In my book, I write about how the four pillars of meaning can help us build more resilience. As a reminder, they are belonging, purpose, transcendence, and storytelling. People who have these pillars in their lives are able to weather the major and minor adversities of life with more fortitude, and to experience growth in the face of them.

One reason religion is and has been such a powerful source of meaning in people’s lives for thousands of years is because all four pillars are present. Religion offers people a community to be a part of, a purpose to work toward (like being a good person or growing closer to God), opportunities for transcendence in rituals like prayer or meditation, and a story for why the world is the way it is and why we are the way we are. In the absence of religion, we need to find new ways to build these pillars on our own. That can be tough, but there are ways to do it. You can cultivate belonging in micro-moments of connection with the people you love or even a stranger on the street. You can experience transcendence in nature, by listening to music, or meditating on your own. You can build the pillar of storytelling by keeping a journal or participating in the programs of organizations like StoryCorps or The Moth. For purpose, there’s a study showing that kids who do chores tend to have a greater sense of purpose because they see themselves as contributing to the family and the creation of home. These acts may be tiny on their own, but taken together over the course of a life, they light up the world.

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Emily Esfahani Smith

Emily Esfahani Smith is a writer and editor in Washington, DC Her book The Power of Meaning (Crown, 2017)  is an international bestseller and has been translated into 16 different languages. The former managing editor of the New Criterion, Smith’s articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, and other publications. In her writing, Smith draws on psychology, philosophy, and literature to write about the human experience—why we are the way we are and how we can find grace and meaning in a world that is full of suffering.

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