The Current

Search for meaning, not happiness, says author

Could it be that being happy is overrated? It's the provocative thesis of a new book that just might change the way you think about life.
Author Emily Esfahani Smith says the quest for happiness has led us astray, we need meaningful lives instead. (Courtesy of Penguin Random House)

Read story transcript

It turns out the pursuit of happiness may not actually make people happier.

Journalist and author Emily Esfahani Smith says people end up happier if they pursue meaning over happiness.

"When you look around our culture, there's so much emphasis on being happy … but I think the happiness frenzy has distracted us from what really matters, which is leading a meaningful life," Esfahani Smith tells The Current's guest host Connie Walker. 
(Courtesy of Penguin Random House)

In her new book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters, Esfahani Smith details the differences between being happy and having meaning in your life. 

"Meaning is defined as connecting and contributing to something that lies beyond the self," she explains, adding that when asked, people often say find meaning in serving others, in maintaining loving relationships, or in having a job that contributes to society.

"You're not expecting to be happy. That's not the point of the search for meaning. You're trying to make the world better in some way, trying to do your part and what comes is all these well-being benefits and even some physical health benefits." 

Having a purpose in life is also crucial in giving your life meaning, Esfahani Smith says, adding that it doesn't have to be world-altering purpose.

She tells Walker that studies show children who help out around the house have greater purpose in their life (although it lessens somewhat if the chores aren't voluntary!)

The search for meaning is often difficult, says Esfahani Smith, because it involves obstacles and sacrifices. But its that difficulty that gives the effort value. 

"Unlike a happy life where you feel good all the time or are striving to feel good all the time, a meaningful life is full of challenges and adversity."

"If you're trying to make the world better in some way, it's going to be stressful and effort, and yet you do it because you think it's going to make your life count."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley.