Feeling Adrift? Here’s How to Strengthen Meaning in Your Life

“You don’t have to radically transform your life in order to find meaning in it.”

Emma Seppälä is the Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism, the Co-Director of the Yale College Emotional Intelligence Project at Yale University, and the author of The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success. She recently joined Emily Esfahani Smith, author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, for a live Heleo Conversation at Soho House in Manhattan. There, they discussed the ways we can all strengthen meaning in our lives, how stress holds us back from happiness, and why a service mindset can bring purpose and a sense of belonging to our relationships.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view the full conversation, click the video below. 

Emma: Can you describe the keys to leading a meaningful life?

Emily: Four themes emerged again and again in the research. They are what I call the pillars of meaning. The [first is] a sense of belonging—being in relationships and involved with communities where you feel valued and like you matter, and where you treat others like they’re valued and they matter.

The second was purpose, some stable and far-reaching goal that involves contributing to the world.

The third was storytelling, how you make sense of your experiences and the world that you’re living in. What’s the story that you tell about your own life and about who you are?

Finally, transcendence, moments where your sense of self diminishes and you feel connected to something bigger. It often happens in religious contexts, through prayer or meditation, but people can also experience it in nature, through art, and in other secular ways.

Emma: Did you come across statistics about what percentage of our society feels like they’re living a meaningful life versus those who aren’t, and the repercussions for that?

Emily: A study from several years ago shows that about a quarter of people don’t have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful or what their purpose is. In America that would amount to about 100 million people, and there is evidence that it’s similar in other developed countries.

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The repercussions for wellbeing are enormous. If they don’t have meaning, people are more likely to suffer from depression, have suicidal thoughts, fall prey to drug and alcohol abuse. If they’re students or young people they’re more likely to fall off track academically. Meaning is the thing that motivates you and gives you a reason to get out of bed. If you don’t have it then you feel adrift and alienated.

Emma: What’s been your personal way of finding meaning in your life?

Emily: A sense of belonging. My relationships are very important to me. Then transcendence, which I know is also important for you. Tell us a little bit about what your sources of meaning are.

“The greatest predictor of well-being, after food and shelter, is a positive sense of connection with other people. Yet, in American society 25% of people say they have no one to speak to about a personal problem.”

Emma: On a personal level, it’s a sense of belonging, but also a sense of service. My entire dissertation was about belonging, social connection. The literature shows that the greatest predictor of well-being, after food and shelter, is a positive sense of connection with other people. Yet, in American society 25% of people say they have no one to speak to about a personal problem.

A sense of connection not only increases your well-being but increases your health and longevity. A powerful way of connection is service—community service, volunteering, some purpose that’s greater than yourself. That has been linked to longevity and faster recovery from disease.

A study that was conducted on hundreds of people that had been through major life stressors, which impact longevity, found that for a subgroup of those people, it was as if that big stressor had not happened. Their longevity was not impacted. When they looked at the factors why, those were all people who volunteered. There was something protective about living a life of meaning that involves service.

We experience that ourselves. You’ve had a bad day and it feels like everything is going wrong and all of a sudden someone calls you and something is really going wrong in their life—it’s not just spilled coffee—and you’re there to help. Your mental state shifts, you’re energized, you’re up again.

Marketing is telling us that what we should be striving for is material. Yet it’s in the relational and the service that we provide to others that we get our greatest sense of purpose and meaning.

Emily: Taking the focus off yourself and helping others does two things: one, it gives you that sense of purpose, and two, it cultivates belonging. We all need to feel like we have a role to play in society or in our relationships to others, and if we don’t, then we start to languish. Service is a great way to satisfy both those pillars of meaning.

Emma: It doesn’t mean you have to go feed orphans—you can even do it within your profession. [When] I was doing my master’s in East Asian Studies and wanted to go into psychology, Michael Morris, a professor at Columbia Business School, took me in. He was like, “This is what you need to do to get into grad school.” He didn’t need to do that. Him taking those few hours out of his life changed my life forever.

Those are little things we can all do. The potential for making a difference is at our fingertips all the time and it’s tremendously uplifting. It’s not at a cost.

“We can all adopt a service mindset no matter what we do. You don’t have to radically transform your life in order to find meaning in it.”

Emily: Especially as our traditional shared sources of meaning disintegrate from our culture, community and religion, people put so much pressure on themselves to find meaning in work. They think, “I have to go eradicate poverty, move to Somalia.” When, in fact, the jobs where people report the highest sense of meaning are jobs in the service sector. We can all adopt a service mindset no matter what we do. You don’t have to radically transform your life in order to find meaning in it.

One of the things that I love about your book is that you try to redefine success. What should our definition of success be?

Emma: There’s a sense in our society that in order to be successful we have to sacrifice our happiness and, in some ways, sacrifice ourselves. There’s a sense that if you want to achieve, then you need to not sleep and be really stressed and in high adrenaline mode all the time.

At first I was confused, because I’m from France and work is not really valued there the way it is here. There, people never say, “What do you do?” They say, “Where did you go on your last vacation?” Something about the United States is so creative and industrious and productive. Yet, what I also witnessed here was that people were paying the price with their health. That there was a sense of “I’ve always got to be working, I can never take time off.” If you look at the data, we’ve got it wrong.

I’ll share a story. Stanford University is one of the most beautiful places. You bike down this palm-lined avenue to class, the sun is always shining, there’s great scholars. I felt like I was in heaven. Yet, my first year there, there were three suicides on campus. You could be in this incredible place but people, in their minds, are in a place of distress. We started these science of happiness classes to try to alleviate some of that. A student came up to one of my colleagues, who co-founded the class, and said, “I’ve got to drop out of this class because it goes against everything I’ve ever learned.”

My colleague said, “What do you mean?”

She said, “My parents told me I have to be successful, when I asked them how do I become successful, they said, ‘You have to work hard.'” When she asked, “How do I know if I’m working hard enough?” they said, “When you’re suffering.”

It’s shocking, but it’s a belief that we have. It’s in the air. That’s why 50% of Americans across industries are experiencing burnout—it doesn’t matter if you’re in the medical field or the nonprofit sector. Also, 75% of the American workforce is disengaged at work, 25% of which are actively disengaged.

Something’s not quite working and we all know that. Creativity is the number one most-valued trait amongst CEOs for the incoming workforce, because you need to innovate, to come up with new ideas. How do you become most creative? Not when you’re stressed, hyperfocused, not sleeping, and high on caffeine. We’re at our most creative when we’re in the shower, or when we’re taking a walk, or when we’re just about to go to sleep and have an aha moment.

When you take time off to completely disengage from your work, that’s when you get maximum creativity. That’s just one of the many examples of how things that we’re trying to access to maximize our success are best achieved when we have greater balance or are taking better care of ourselves.

Emily: Idleness is really important for creativity. I also found that it’s important for leading a meaningful life. There’s two tie-ins, the first one has to do with purpose. Psychologists and philosophers understand purpose as you taking the best that’s inside of you—your gifts, your strengths, your talents—and contributing them to the world in some way. How do you know what your talents are? How do you know what you’re interested in?

The only way to find out is by giving yourself the time to explore, be curious, to read random books, to follow those Wikipedia entries. Self-knowledge is really important; “know thyself,” the ancient philosophical imperative. That can only happen if we take the space to disengage and unplug.

The other way that it plays into meaning is through storytelling. We can only tell our life stories and reflect on our lives when we have moments to sit down and contemplate what happened. Maybe the most resonant experience of that is when we’re dealing with adversity. It’s a glitch in our life story that we have to integrate into the narrative, and the only way we can do that is to take the time to think about it.

Emma: What are some tips about how to engage with your life with greater meaning?

Emily: Getting into service mindset is an immediate thing you can do: taking small steps to ask yourself, what’s one thing that I can do today to make someone else’s life better? It can be as simple as emptying the dishwasher or bringing in snacks to the office. In these little acts, meaning builds and grows. Happiness is contagious, it’s the same with meaning.

“There’s this really tight connection between belonging and meaning. If we invite others to belong, we rate our lives as more meaningful and they rate theirs as more meaningful.”

Another way, when it comes to belonging, is realizing that belonging is a choice that you can make. You can invite people to belong, to come into your orbit, or you can choose to eject them.

I interviewed this guy for my book, Jonathan. He lives in New York and has this morning routine where every day he stops at the same corner and buys a newspaper from the same vendor. Over the years he and the vendor have developed a routine where they share a conversation with each other, exchange some kind words, ask each other about their families. It’s this micro moment of belonging that leaves them both feeling elevated. New York is such a large city, it can feel so impersonal.

One day Jonathan realized he didn’t have small bills to pay for the paper, and the vendor didn’t have enough change. The vendor said, “Don’t worry about it, you can pay me back next time, or just don’t worry about it at all.” Jonathan insisted. He went out of his way to a bodega to buy something he didn’t need just to pay the vendor.

When he came back and gave the vendor the money, the vendor drew back and was clearly hurt. He realized that the vendor was trying to reach out and cultivate this moment of belonging, elevating their relationship to a higher level of intimacy and trust, and Jonathan had rejected that bid. Both of them left feeling a little more diminished as a result.

When people are rejected, even in these smallest of ways, they rate their lives as less meaningful. There’s this really tight connection between belonging and meaning. If we invite others to belong, we rate our lives as more meaningful and they rate theirs as more meaningful.

Fortunately, Jonathan and the vendor were able to restore their relationship. Jonathan came the next day, gave him a cup of tea, and they still share a conversation. That story shows that we can build meaning in these small moments, and it’s in our power to do so.

Emma: Some people think this is a soft topic or a utopian view: “Okay, ‘life where you’re being nice,’ but this is a harsh world and this is a dog eat dog society.” But if you look at the data on professional success, it’s those individuals who are most helpful to their colleagues and who go out of their way to help them even if it doesn’t benefit them that actually end up doing better in the long run. It makes sense. Those are the kind of people you want to promote, to invite to the new company you just joined. Those are people you want as your colleagues.

Think about if there was somebody that did something for you and it didn’t bring them any benefit. If that person were to call me one day and say, “Emma, I really need a favor,” I would drop everything. Whoever in our life was there for us in a way that they wanted the best for us with nothing in exchange, when something turns around and need something, we would do it right away. That’s true loyalty.

A lot of companies think you have to buy loyalty with a bigger paycheck, more benefits. People prefer to work in a workplace where they have positive social relationships rather than a place where they get paid more. We are social creatures. The most important thing in our life is those relationships.

Audience: Could you say more about how to work with the pillar of transcendence? Also, Emma, you’ve written about mindfulness and formal meditation practice. Could you say anything about the role of that in happiness?

Emily: The word transcend means to go beyond or to step above. These are experiences where you step outside yourself and connect to something beyond yourself. I interviewed one person who said that during a meditation experience, his sense of self completely dissolved. He said it was like he realized the self was just a veil and when it fell away he felt connected to everything around him. This wellspring of compassion arose in him and afterwards—a hallmark of a transcendent experience—he was left with a different perspective on the world.

William James, the American psychologist and philosopher, said that these experiences are noetic, which means they impart knowledge on you, and that knowledge is what gives you that sense of meaning. It’s this new schema that changes the way you view the world. Often your sense of value changes.

There’s a study of astronauts who, when they saw the world from space, had this transformative experience called the overview effect, where they realized that they couldn’t see the borders of the earth, that all of humanity was one. What the study reported was that their values shifted from very ambitious, self-centered ones, to more other-focused, meaning-centered values. When they came back they often devoted themselves to humanitarian projects. Those are big examples. You can find it in smaller ways, too, like music, viewing art. It’s the same effect but on a smaller scale.

Emma: A bit about meditation: research shows that when we experience a lot of stress we become self-focused. If you’re feeling stressed, walking down the streets of Manhattan, have a meeting, and your cellphone is ringing and your adrenaline is rushing, then your best friend might walk by and you might not notice. We get tunnel vision. Maybe for our ancestors, when they were running away from a predator in the savanna, it was good for them to be focused on themselves at that moment.

We have this false belief that stress is important in order to produce. What it does is make us feel less belonging. Meditation, but also many other things like music, allows us to experience life through a lens that is not narrow, that is not confined and therefore can lead to those noetic experiences that are beyond words.

“The truth is, life is stressful. There’s nothing we can do about that. We’re going to deal with hardship. One thing we can do is not add to it by having this belief that you can only be productive if you’re high on adrenaline.”

Emily: Stress makes having these experiences much more difficult. If you’re trying to sit down to meditate and your mind is running, it’s hard to get into that transcendent space. Do you have any tips how to overcome stress?

Emma: The truth is, life is stressful. There’s nothing we can do about that. We’re going to deal with hardship. One thing we can do is not add to it by having this belief that you can only be productive if you’re high on adrenaline. That’s why everyone is like, “I’m so tired, I have so much to do, I need another coffee.”

[Another] thing you can do is become resilient in the face of what is coming at you, to strengthen your own nervous system. I’ve worked with some of the most stressed individuals in our society, veterans who came back from Iraq and Afghanistan. They had trauma, which means that they are constantly in fight or flight, their system is always in a mode of high adrenaline. They can’t sleep, have a hard time focusing, have a hard time with relationships.

We used a breathing intervention with them, which sounds really simplistic. But through the breath, you can calm your heart rate and your blood pressure in minutes. That’s something we take for granted. Even though it’s in our daily expressions, “take a deep breath,” we don’t take it seriously. With the veterans we did a weeklong breathing program, which is very intense and was effective for their trauma.

Audience: Being from a religious upbringing, there’s been this inherent “goodness” instilled in my life. I enjoy doing service and engaging with people in a way that uplifts them and makes them feel better. But I worry, [what if] my motivations for doing it are based in self-satisfaction and not in the act of genuinely trying to help somebody else?

Emily: At the end of the day, service is service, and that’s putting something into the world that was needed. Ultimately, we’re all flawed and we all struggle with what motivates us, but if we’re doing something good in the world, then that’s wonderful.

It reminds me of a study where people told a story of themselves either as being a generous person or a person who benefits a lot from the generosity of others. The people who told the story of themselves as being a generous person ultimately were more generous. They went out and did more acts of service and were more giving in the workplace, more charitable at home.

The way that we understand ourselves and how we craft our own identities has real effects for how we live our lives. If you’re trying to make sense of what’s motivating you and what kind of person you are, then just ask yourself, what kind of person do I want to be? Tell that story and then live it in the world.