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Why meaning might matter more than happiness

"Whatever good or bad fortune may come our way, we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value." Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha.

What is the most meaningful thing that happened to you this year?

What inspired you, and gave you strength and resilience?

For me, it was the response to a story one of my sons and I wrote earlier in the year.

It was our way of trying to make sense of something that made no sense at all.

And the response was almost overwhelming.

People, young and old, families from all around the world got in touch, saying how much the story had touched them.

How it had given them a reason to hug their children tighter.

Being able to look back and highlight meaningful moments is important.

Looking back, looking forward

When you cast your mind back on the last 12 months, what do you focus on?

Do you remember your achievements with pride or do you tend to dwell on times when you didn't live up to your hopes and expectations, or those placed on you?

The process of reflecting on our personal history and identities, or the stories we tell ourselves are one important step towards leading a meaningful life.

That's what American writer Emily Esfahi Smith has found.

She is a writer and instructor in positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and wanted to investigate what it means to live a meaningful life.

She believes living a meaningful life might matter even more than happiness.

"What we want is to know our lives matter, that what we do makes a difference," she says.

Whether it's through work, your family and friends, or your connections to the community, we all want to feel we are creating a legacy of a meaningful life.

And after reviewing literature and philosophers, and interviewing hundreds of real people about what gave them a sense of meaning, Esfahi Smith came up with four key elements of what it takes to live a life of meaning.

  • Belonging: Finding your tribe, or as Esfahi Smith describes it, "developing relationships where you feel understood, recognised and valued".
  • Purpose: The feeling like you are doing something worthwhile, that you are using your strengths. This scientific survey can help you identify your particular strengths.
  • Storytelling: We all tell stories about ourselves and create a narrative about our past which helps us make sense of who we are today.
  • Transcendence: This means finding those awe-inspiring moments, whether it's being in nature or feeling you are part of something larger than yourself. You might feel this through meditation, yoga or something creative, such as music.

On storytelling, think about whether you are telling yourself a positive or negative story about what brought you to this moment in life.

"Creating a unified sense of who we are, based on what we have done in the past, or what we choose to focus on, can give our lives meaning," Esfahi Smith says.

"What we choose to focus on [from our past] is what we become."

Watch Emily Esfahi Smith's Ted talk.

Sophie Scott more stories

Read more from Sophie Scott on living an authentic life:

ABC News medical reporter Sophie Scott

Why does meaning matter?

As I've written about before, it's easy to lose that sense of meaning in daily life.

It's all too easy to get swept up in the daily pressures, and the endless to-do list that never gets done.

It's even more important as we plunge headfirst into the festive season.

But maybe recapturing a sense of meaning could be as simple as thinking about those four pillars and how to incorporate them into your daily life.

Setting a course for a happy life is a very worthwhile endeavour, as I found while writing Roadtesting Happiness.

As the scientific studies show, being happier can help you live longer and be healthier.

But maybe focusing on these four pillars of meaning is just as important too.

To find out which of the four pillars is most important to you, head over to Emily Esfahi Smith's website to do a short quiz.

Get in touch and tell me, what makes your life meaningful? What are those moments that enrich your life?

Original Article

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