The four pillars of meaning


We are living in a society where success is measured in terms of income, possessions and status, but having acquired these attributes does not mean that our lives by default is filled with meaning. So what is it that brings meaning to our life?

A person that has thought about this is the American journalist Emily Esfahani Smith. She believes that the meaning of our lives rests on four pillars; belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence. These four pillars have been referred to by philosophers throughout the ages from Aristotle to Baumeister, and their relevance is increasingly supported by hard scientific evidence.

A sense of belonging is a fundamental human need, yet we seem to surrender face-to-face human contacts to the artificial gratification coming from being liked by superficial “friends” on social media. When our social contacts become fragmented, meaningful conversations about the deeper values of life become rarer and rarer. Close relationships are fundamental to feeling valued, and the lack of them is one root cause of depression, but also day-to-day contacts like chatting with your colleagues or the person in the checkout counter of your grocery store adds constant small injections of meaning.

Purpose comes from doing something for others without asking for something in return. We all have skills and abilities, which we could use for the benefit of others. It does not need to be something big like working as a volunteer in an African refugee camp, but any small tasks be it as part of our work or on our spare time that brings value to others ignites purpose to our lives.

Storytelling is about creating a narrative of our lives. This story is based on the main events of our lives and provides us with the corner stones on which we can base our lives. We are the result of the events that have formed our lives, and an understanding and appreciation of them and the lessons they have taught us, regardless whether it has been positive or negative experiences, are of great value to put our lives in context. To test the importance of these events one could consider the “what if” questions, how life could have evolved if these events had not taken place.

Transcendence is the feeling of being a small part of something bigger than yourself. During these moments one is emerged in a feeling of being connected to everything, with no barriers to the surrounding universe. This is a feeling that may bring serenity and peace of mind, where the importance of the ego ceases to exist. In the Buddhist tradition, the ego-death during transcendence, is a preparation for our inevitable physical death, which could then be embraced with no fear.

Culturing the four pillars of meaning in your daily life, could be a source of living a richer and happier life.

This blog post was inspired by Emily Esfahani Smith (2017). The power of meaning: Crafting a life that matters.

Read her book or listen to her TedTalk.

Illustration: – Dimitris Vetsikas

svensk_flagga   Detta blogginlägg på svenska

Author: Karl Ekdahl

International public health leader and creativity blogger.

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