Crafting a life that’s meaningful

Team Huddle Harmony Togetherness Happiness Meaning Concept


Living a life with meaning is more important than pursuing happiness. That’s the conclusion of Emily Esfahani Smith, author of The Power of Meaning. In an interview, she tells of being a student and listening to a lecture about the difference between a happy life and a meaningful life.

‘It was eye-opening and provocative because it showed me that the happy life was associated with things like feeling good, being in good physical health, and being a giver versus a taker…

‘The meaningful life was associated with doing things for other people, connecting to something that’s bigger than you and being a giver versus a taker’,

As she thought about it, it made sense ‘because so many of the people that I know and admire aren’t focused on pursuing their own personal happiness. They’re focused on leading meaningful lives and what they can do for others’.

The problem with happiness

Unfortunately, our culture encourages us to pursue happiness as if it’s a significant goal. However, research shows that if you set happiness as your goal, Smith says, ‘You can actually end up feeling unhappy and lonely’.

‘But if you set meaning as your goal and devote yourself to living a meaningful life, you experience this deeper and more endearing form of wellbeing down the road’.

What does meaning look like?

Here’s a problem because it means different things to different people. It can’t be pinned down to a list of things or activities. Smith discovered in the interviews she conducted that individuals found meaning in their own ways.

However, certain themes came through:

  • Having relationships that are defined by a sense of belonging
  • Having a purpose or something worthwhile to do with their time
  • Having ‘narratives that help them understand themselves in the world’
  • Having experiences of transcendence or self-loss

From her interviews and extensive research, these became the building blocks of a meaningful life. In short, ‘Having a sense of belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence’.

‘Humans are meaning-seeking creatures’

That’s how Smith sees us and adds, ‘We weren’t put on this earth to feel happy all the time. We were put on this earth to find meaning and to live meaningful lives and to know that our lives matter’.

And there’s a warning: ‘When we feel like we don’t have meaning or our lives don’t matter, then we become vulnerable to depression, suicide, despair’.

How does this help you prepare for retirement?

This is a reminder that happiness is not the best goal to set as you prepare for your retirement. It’s impossible to be happy all the time. Life isn’t always fair and there is sadness that impacts on our life—and it often helps us grow as individuals.

Besides, as we survive difficult times, we build resilience. And resilience helps us cope.

None of this means that we shouldn’t desire happiness in our lives, but it shouldn’t be at the core. Happiness can’t last because it’s basically an emotion. Meaningfulness lasts. For more about happiness, go here.

For those planning retirement, it’s worth asking what will help give life meaning in retirement? What can I do now to make that a part of my life then?

Bruce Manners: the author of Retirement Ready?, Refusing to Retire, and founder of

Category: Emotional Health, Lifestyle, Planning

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