[00:00:19.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success. Introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:11.8] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success; the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than two million downloads, listeners in over a hundred countries and part of the self-help for smart people podcast network.
In this episode, we discuss happiness. Can the pursuit of happiness backfire? Why are people more depressed and more anxious than ever in a time where the world is physically safer and healthier than it’s ever been in history.
We look at the crisis of meaning in our society and examine how we can cultivate real meaning in our lives beyond ourselves, and move towards an existence of purpose with our guest Emily Esfahani Smith.
Do you need more time? Time for work, time for thinking and reading, time for the people in your life, time to accomplish your goals? This was the number one problem our listeners outlined, and we created a new video guide that you can get completely for free when you sign-up and join our e-mail list. It’s called How You can Create Time of the Things That Really Matter in Life.
You can get it completely for free when you sign up and join the e-mail list at successpodcast.com. You’re also going to get exclusive content that’s only available to our e-mail subscribers. We recently pre-released an episode and an interview to our e-mail subscribers a week before it went live to our broader audience, and that had tremendous implications because there was a limited offer in there with only 50 available spots that got eaten up by the people who were on the e-mail list first.
With that same interview, we also offered an exclusive opportunity for people on our e-mail list to engage one-on-one for over an hour with one of our guest in a live exclusive interview just for e-mail subscribers. There’s some amazing stuff that’s available only to e-mail subscribers that’s only going on if you subscribe and sign-up to the e-mail list. You can do that by going to successpodcast.com and signing up right on the homepage. Or if you’re driving around right now, if you’re out and about and you’re on the go, you don’t have time, just text the word “smarter” to the number 44-222. That’s S-M-A-R-T-E-R to the number 44-222.
In our previous episode, we discussed how the impossible becomes possible We looked at how to create paradigm shifting breakthroughs, dug into the science and research at the frontier of peak human performance to understand what’s at the core of nearly every gold medal or world championship, the powerful concept of flow.
We examined how to create flow in our lives, how you can use it as a tool to become 400% more creative, to learn skills 200% faster and much more. We dug into all of that with our previous guest, Steven Kotler.
Now for our interview with Emily.
[0:02:56.6] MB: Today, we have another exciting guest on the show, Emily Esfahani Smith. Emily is a journalist, positive psychology instructor and author. She’s a graduate of Dartmouth College and earned her masters of applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Her articles have been read over 30 million times. Her TED Talk has been viewed over 1.3 million times and her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Time and much more.
Emily, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:03:21.6] ES: Thanks for having me.
[0:03:22.9] MB: Well, we’re really excited to have you on the show today and really pumped to dig into some of the things you talk about. Let’s start off with something that I think a lot of people almost assume as a given and don’t even really question or drill back down and think about is should we be pursuing happiness?
[0:03:40.7] ES: This is the question that motivated me to write my book The Power of Meaning. Actually, my book grew out of an article that I wrote for the Atlantic that was called There is More to Life than Being Happy. I was in graduate school in positive psychology at the time, which is this field that integrate, studies the good life, meaning, happiness, things like that.
As I was learning that research working as a journalist and began to get really concerned and bothered by this message that we received constantly in our culture that a good life is a happy life and that we should pursue happiness and that the whole – they struck as me as odd, was because I knew so many people in my life and as many people growing up who weren’t focused on that pursuit. They were engaged in really stressful activities, like their work, raising children, dealing with illnesses, helping in their communities, and they were stressed out, they would get frustrated. They weren’t focused on their own happiness and they weren’t even happy much of the time. Yet to me, there seem to be a real value and significance in what they were doing.
Then coming upon the research, it confirmed my intuition, which was that there is this whole new body of work that shows that when we pursue happiness and prioritize it the way our culture encourages us to do. It’s this very self-oriented pursuit and that it can make us actually unhappy and feel lonely.
In contrast, when we look to another way of living our lives, one that’s focused on the pursuit of meaningfulness, or on doing things and contributing in ways that lie outside of yourself that this is a much more a fulfilling path and leads to a deeper sense of satisfaction.
[0:05:37.9] MB: I want to explore that idea a little bit more, this notion that the pursuit of happiness can somehow make us happy – or sorry, the pursuit of happiness can make us unhappy, or potentially anxious?
[0:05:48.9] ES: Okay. I think it’s an interesting finding, because there’s so much out there about 10 steps to happiness, all these books that you can buy to make yourself happier. I think that there are two reasons at least why the pursuit of happiness can backfire. I think the first one is that we have really high expectations of what a happy life should be. This really interestingly have my historical perspective are concept of happiness has changed over the course of western civilization, but especially over the last 200 years, where happiness used to mean a state of leading a meaningful life. Happiness was in a positive emotion, the way that we think of it today.
Then about 2, 300 years ago, the definition started changing to mean, feeling maximizing positive feelings and minimizing negative feelings. If that’s the definition of happiness and you’re expecting to be in that state all the time, you’re going to be disappointed, because feelings and emotions come and go. It’s not possible to be happy all the time. The very definition of an emotion is that it’s a fleeting state. I think we have this unfair expectation for what a happy life look like that’s just not realistic.
I think the other thing is that when you set your sights on the pursuit of happiness, it can put you in this mindset that very much focuses you on yourself, because you’re constantly evaluating am I happy? Is this making me happy? How is this affecting me? That mindset takes you away from pursuing things that are actually deep and meaningful, because those deep and meaningful things won’t necessarily make you happy. We know from the research that it’s when you pursue the meaningful objectives and projects and relationships that you end up with a deeper sense of happiness down the road.
It’s the very – this mindset that focuses on happiness takes you away from what’s really important. When you’re taken away from what’s really important, you’re depriving yourself of this deeper sense of happiness that you may want.
[0:07:52.8] MB: I think it’s really interesting that the data supports this idea that in many sense, people are physically the safest they’ve ever been, objectively living – at the highest end living that they’ve ever been living at. Yet, suicide rates are rising in many cases. People are less happy, despite being physically more comfortable and healthier, etc.
[0:08:13.2] ES: Exactly. When I came across that bit of research, it really surprised me. Basically, human beings Steven Pinker is this social psychologist who writes a lot about this, that nearly every conceivable measure if you look across the span of history, life has been getting better for human beings. You’re much less likely to die from a violent death than you were at any point in human history.
Every year, millions of people are being lifted out of poverty, quality of life has never been better for people. Less people die of sickness and illness than they ever have before. It’s a really good time to be alive.
Yet at the same time, there is this crisis of meaning that a lot of people are dealing with, and that’s reflective in these rising suicide rates, rising rates of depression, anxiety and loneliness. What’s really interesting is that when social scientists try to figure out what’s driving these rising tide of despair, this increase in suicide and depression and what have you, they find that it’s not a lack of happiness in life, but a lack of meaning.
I want to just say something more about this point, because I think it’s a little bit counter-intuitive. I think when we look at somebody who’s feeling depressed, or suicidal, or anxious or whatever. Or when we feel those ways ourselves, we think, okay, I feel that the solution is to feel better. That means, making myself go happier.
In fact, that’s not going to get you out of the rut. What’s going to get you out of the rut is engaging in some meaningful project, because that’s the way you get outside of your own head, outside of these voices that are telling you how bad you are, how terrible life is and reengaging with the world, coming outside of yourself and realizing, “Well, actually I do have a role to play. I am needed. The things I do matter.”
I had a professor of psychology in grad school who was also a clinical psychologist. In other words, he saw patients in addition to performing research. He said something that really stuck with me, which is that one of the best cures for depression is going out and volunteering in your community, because it gets you outside of your head and makes you feel like you’re making a difference.
[0:10:26.3] MB: This distinction between meaning and happiness, I think a lot of people might conflate those things, or even think that they’re the same thing. Tell me about what distinguishes meaning from happiness and how are they different?
[0:10:37.6] ES: It’s such a good question. When I first came upon this body of work distinguishing, meaning in happiness, I think it was a lightbulb moment for me, because like many, I thought – I use those terms interchangeable. Yet, I felt this dissatisfaction with the way our culture was talking about what a good life is about. It occurred to me that once I was able to pull these terms apart and understand them as separate ways to live a good life that that dissatisfaction went away. It was clarifying.
Happiness as I alluded to earlier, it’s a positive mental and emotional state. If you feel good, you’re happy. If you feel bad, you’re unhappy. It’s transient. It comes and goes. It lives in the moment. Meaning though is bigger. Psychologists say that the defining feature of leading a meaningful life is connecting and contributing to something beyond yourself. For some people that might mean, raising their children, or being involved in a family unit.
For others, it might mean contributing to their communities, whether it’s a church community, a religious community of any kind, their work community, or it could be more cosmic than that, like feeling connected to God, or nature, or the universe. That’s a defining feature of meaningful life. When people say their lives are meaningful in surveys and things like that, they list them as meaningful, because three conditions have been satisfied.
One is they believe their lives have a sense of worth and significance. You think your life matters. The second is their lives are driven by a sense of purpose. There’s some goal, or principle that is motivating them and driving them into the future. Finally they think of their lives as coherent. That means that when they look across their life, their own lives and also when they look at the world in general, they don’t see their experiences and the world around them as random occurrences, as disconnected, as nonsensical, but they see what’s happening around them as part of a larger whole that makes sense and that helps them understand why they are the way they are, and why the world is the way it is.
[0:12:56.0] MB: Obviously, your work ed has been – Martin Seligman’s research has been foundational to much of the work that you’ve done. When I read the book Learn Happiness, or Learn Optimism for the first time, one of the most standout lines for me was this phrase that’s almost like a throwaway phrase. It’s towards at the end of the book, but he says that the self is a very poor sight for meaning.
I think that really underscores what you’ve unearthed as well, this idea that in today’s society, everybody’s so caught up in their own pursuit of me, me, me and happiness and self-focus, when in reality happiness, or not happiness but me they see, I may even be contemplating them now, meaning really derives from something much richer and something beyond you. It’s something contributing or serving something beyond yourself.
[0:13:42.2] ES: Exactly. No, I love that sentence from Marty’s book that the self is a pursuit for meaning. It’s exactly right. You have to connect to something beyond yourself. That could be just an encounter with another person. I think for me, it’s a constant lesson that I have to relearn and it seems every single day that when I tune in to somebody else, whether it’s a stranger I’m getting to know for the first time, or I’m having a conversation with my husband or my friend, that there is such a powerful bond and meaningful bond that is formed when both people are present and listening to each other and truly there for one another. It fills you up and gives you that sense of fulfillment.
I think one of the things about meaning is that we think it’s this huge thing that you have to find or tackle and at meaning. When you think of it in terms about Marty is saying, it lies outside yourself, you find that there are lots of ways that you can search for meaning and find it in your day-to-day life.
[0:14:43.5] MB: That’s a really, really key point and something that I think personally I’ve definitely gotten tripped up on, and I think it’s easy for people to get tripped up on is this idea that you have to find – as you call that capital and meaning, you have to spend days, weeks, years trying to figure out what’s the purpose of my life when in reality, in many cases it’s the small moments that really help build towards that.
[0:15:05.1] ES: Exactly. I was talking to someone the other day who grew up a foodist. He’s a serial entrepreneur now, but he had this foodist way of looking at things. We were talking about meaning and he said something that I thought was really powerful, which is that living a meaningful life is about doing whatever you’re doing in the present moment well.
Being a parent, doing that well, washing the dishes, doing it well, this podcast, doing it well. There’s something about just this active mastery that takes us outside of ourselves and that gives us a sense of pride and fulfillment.
[0:15:41.5] MB: In today’s society, a lot of our major social institutions and things that people use to ascribe to and derive meaning from beyond themselves, things like even the nation, the country, patriotism used to be such a bigger thing. Religion is obviously is eroded tremendously, so that the family unit has eroded. How do we think about cultivating, creating meaning in a society, in a world where all of those previous pillars of meaning have eroded and people are in many ways adrift now?
[0:16:11.9] ES: That is the problem of being a person in the modern world. It’s essential existential problem. There were all these sources. Meaning, that we’re defaults sources of meaning. You didn’t have to – it’s not like you were choosing to be for most people anyways, choosing to be – to ascribe to certain religious dogmas, or choosing to identify with your nation that was just part of the water, the air that you were breathing and it conferred meaning in life.
You see that when you go to countries that are not yet developed. Third-world countries, where they haven’t experienced modernity yet, they still are very much living in that world. They get so much meaning from religion and their communities and their tribes, or their sense of nation. In those countries too, you find that there is lower suicide rates and all these other markers of a crisis of meaning don’t exist there as they do in the modern world, excuse me, in developed countries.
The question is what do we do about that? I think that one answer is clear. We don’t want to go back to a time where the material circumstances of our lives are worse, but we have more meaning in our lives. We want countries like Sierra Leone where there is this high sense of meaning, but it’s so poor we want them to enter into the modern world, so they can have a higher quality of life. Then if you don’t want to move backwards, how do you move forward?
I think that the existential philosophers, like Niche, like Sartre, they talk about this that in the modern world, the challenge of being alive is the challenge of choosing to find meaning on your own. There’s a million paths ahead of you. It can be overwhelming, there’s no default path to meaning anymore, so you have to choose. That can feel overwhelming, but it’s a responsibility that we each have to take.
One of the things that motivated me to write my book was trying to understand, okay, if you are at that fork in the road, when you’re trying to figure out which path do you take to lead a meaningful life, are there certain things, certain pillars let’s say that you can lean on that will help you find meaning in your life? There were. In my research, I interviewed a bunch of people, read thousands really of pages of research, psychology, philosophy, literature, you name it, and I started noticing that there were these four themes that came up again and again in the stories people told me and in the research that I was reading.
They are what I think of as the wellsprings of meaning. Whatever path you choose, these four things, a combination of them, or maybe all four of them are what bring meaning to our lives. The first one is belonging. Having a sense of belonging, being in communities and relationships where you feel valued for who you are intrinsically and where you value other people in turn.
The second one is something I mentioned briefly earlier, and it’s purpose. Purpose is about making – having something worthwhile to do with your time. What that often means is having some pursuit or project that involves making a contribution to the world. Maybe your purpose is to find a cure for cancer. A lot of people have more local purposes, more humble purposes that are equally powerful for them, like raising their children, being a good person.
There is a study that shows that kids who do chores around the house have a stronger sense of purpose. It’s a wonderful example of what that guy I said what was telling about, that meaning comes from doing something in the moment and doing it well. Well, for the chores, I think what was going on is that the kids felt like they were a part of a larger project, which was helping with it, maintaining of a household, helping their parents out. It was this thing that made them useful and valued.
The third pillar is transcendence. These are those moments when your sense of self starts to turn down or turn off completely, and you feel connected to something much bigger than yourself, whether it’s nature, the universe, humanity as a whole, God, people had these experiences during meditation, listening to music, going to an art museum and having an encounter with beauty. There are a lot of different ways to experience transcendence.
Then the final one is storytelling. Storytelling goes back to what I was saying about coherence earlier. When I’m talking about storytelling, what I’m really talking about is the story that you tell yourself about yourself, about how you became the person that you are today. I think that’s a framework that I present in my book, that if you want to live a meaningful life, try to cultivate these pillars of belonging, purpose, transcendence and storytelling. That will set you on your way.
This week’s episode is brought to you by our partners at Brilliant. Brilliant is a math and science enrichment learning tool. You can learn concepts by solving fascinating challenging problems. Brilliant explores probability, computer science, machine learning, the physics of everyday life, complex Algebra and much more. They do this with addictive interactive experiences that are enjoyed by over 5 million students, professionals and enthusiasts around the world.
One of the coolest things that I really also like about Brilliant is that they have these learning principles and two of them in particular really stick out to me as powerful and important principles. One of them is that learning is curiosity-driven. If you look at some of the most prolific thinkers and learners in history, people like Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, they were incredibly curious individuals, just really, really curious. It’s so great to see that one of their learning principles is this principle of curiosity.
Another one of Brilliant’s learning principles that’s absolutely critical is that learning needs to allow for failure. If you look at Carol Dweck, if you look at the research behind Mindset, this is one of the cornerstones of psychology research. You have to be able to fail to learn and improve. You have to be able to acknowledge your weaknesses. You have to be able to push yourself into a place where it’s okay to make mistakes. These learning principles form the cornerstone in the foundation of Brilliant. It’s such a great platform. I highly recommend checking it out.
You can do that by going to brilliant.org/scienceofsuccess. I’m a huge fan of STEM learning and that’s why I’m so excited that Brilliant is sponsoring this episode. They’ve been a sponsor of the show for a long time and there’s a reason; they make learning math and science fun and engaging and exciting.
You can get started today with Brilliant by going to brilliant.org/scienceofsuccess. That’s brilliant.org/scienceofsuccess. If you’ve been enjoying our weekly riddles in Mindset Monday, we’re also collaborating with Brilliant to bring some awesome and exciting riddles to our Mindset Monday e-mail list.
[0:23:26.6] MB: Let’s dig in a little bit more, maybe starting with belonging. How can we better cultivate or find that belonging, coming back to this idea we talked about before in a world where oftentimes it feels like there’s traditional ways that people used to find it have eroded or evaporated.
[0:23:45.3] ES: For me, there are few ways I go about this in my own life. The one is what I was talking about earlier, which is just forming these micro-connections with other people. I think it’s so easy to go through life, basically objectifying others. I don’t mean that even in a sexual sense. They usually use that term objectifying in a sexual sense. What I mean is just the other person is just an object in your periphery and you don’t really see them for who they are and the fact that they have a whole story, a whole history that if you just knew a little bit about it, would bring you two closer together.
I was at a conference this weekend where there were a bunch of people I didn’t know. I’m someone who’s introverted that’s always a little bit intimidating of the situation. This goes back to what I said earlier about this lesson that I had to learn over and over again; as soon as you start talking to people on a deep level expressing interest in them, forming this micro-connection, they open up and then you open up, and then they’re just fond of belonging that form between you that can be really powerful. Maybe you don’t see them again, but for the rest of your life, maybe stay in touch, who knows? Maybe they become the person that you end up marrying.
In that moment, that bond of belonging forms and it’s powerful. Recognizing that belonging is a choice that we make and it lives in the moment and that we can choose to cultivate it with another person just by the presence that we bring to a conversation.
The second thing is yes, a lot of the old communities are dying. There are ways to form new ones. I would encourage people to take the leadership, to take the initiative, to do this in your own life, whether it’s work or just in your own community. I’ll give an example, so I’m involved with this project called the Ben Franklin Circles. These are basically small groups of people that meet all around the country to talk about values and character and what it means to lead a good life.
Franklin, our founding father of course had these 13 virtues that he thought were critical ingredients to leading a meaningful life. The virtues include things like humility and industriousness and frugality. Some of them are super old-fashion, like chastity. The idea is that each meeting we get together and we talk about one of these ideas, one of these virtues and whether it’s still relevant in modern life and how it’s still relevant in modern life.
I run one of these circles here in Washington DC and we meet about once a month, once every two months. What was really powerful to me as I started doing this is how quickly a community forms and how quickly people were willing to make themselves intimate and vulnerable to each other. I mean, these were strangers beforehand and almost immediately we were able to form a community, and the reason I think is because we were gathering together to talk about this common interest that we have in what it means to live a good life. Two, to talk about things that really matter to us, like values and virtues and character.
To do at Washington DC is specially powerful, because right now there is so much in our country and in this city in particular that’s tearing people apart. Doing this group was a reminder that whatever our political differences are, whatever our religious differences are, no matter where we’re from in the country, there is a common set of values that we share, and if we come together around those values, we can really cultivate belonging.
[0:27:23.4] MB: I love that example and it’s such a great way to take responsibility for proactively creating that belonging within your own life. I love to dig into this concept of storytelling as well. That seems really, really interesting to me. How can we go about changing the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves?
[0:27:44.2] ES: I think the thing to – the first thing we have to remember with storytelling that helps us in that process of changing the story is recognizing that we’re telling a story. I think that we don’t always realize that we are creating this constant narrative in our heads about who we are, about why this or that and that happened to us, why this person said that to us, how our childhood affected us, it’s all these little stories that we tell about just daily occurrences, and then also the broader story of our narrative art that we’re telling.
We don’t always realize that we’re telling a story. We think that, “Oh, this happened and this happened, then this happened and all of a sudden, here I am.” Really, what making narrative and interpretative choices about what details we include in the story and which ones we don’t include, because it would be impossible to include every single detail in that narrative.
It may be that as we’re making these narrative choices, we end up telling a story that hold us back, rather than moves us forward. Let me give you an example. There is a few different types of stories that psychologists find that people tell about themselves. One of them is called a contamination story, so a story that moves from good things happening to bad things happening.
In the research, there was I remember one example coming up of a woman who met this man. They were going to have the baby together. It’s really, really wonderful. Then he died unexpectedly and that was the story that she told. It was really good, then it went to really bad. People tell stories like that, in turns out are more anxious and depressed and believe their lives are less meaningful.
That’s a story that would perhaps hold you back, because you’re in this negative mindset, you dwell on it, you illuminate, you’re not able to move into the future in a healthy way. That have been the story, the opposite from a contamination story is a redemptive story. It’s a story that moves from bad things happening to good things happening. Let’s take that same example. Let’s say that you have the same woman and she says, “I met this man. It was wonderful. We had a child together and he died and it was terrible. It was traumatizing. He was the love of my life. I didn’t have many more and then my child no longer had a father. I felt like I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
“Then as time went on, I realized that this experience as difficult as it was, made me grow in so many ways. It deepened my spiritual life, it made me realize what my true purpose was, because he died of cancer and I started doing activism work in cancer centers and groups. It was horrible, but given that it happened, it made me grow in all these ways.”
That would be redemptive story. They’re just terrible thing that happened, but she finds a silver lining in it that makes the suffering seem worthwhile in some way, even though all things be equal she still wouldn’t have wanted her husband to have died. People who tell stories like that redemptive stories, they rate their lives as more meaningful. There are these types of stories that we can tell that are more conducive to leading whole meaningful lives. A redemptive story is one of them, there are other kinds of stories as well; stories that are defined by love as the theme, stories of agency. In other words, stories where you’re in control in making things happen and where you feel like your life matters, and stories of growth, which is like the one I just said. The themes overlap as well.
The question then is okay, for telling a bad story, how do you start telling one that’s better? There are a lot of different ways that you can do this. I mean, some people go to a therapist, they seek out professional health and that’s really helpful to them. I think that you don’t necessarily have to do that. You can reflect on your story and do the work on your own too. If you’re willing to be introspective, put the time and effort into it.
There’s a really rich body of research around narrative writing, so sitting down and writing about your most difficult experiences for 15 minutes a day, for three to four days in a row. It turns out that people who do that end up finding more meaning and what happened to them, as those three or four days go on and they end up finding some positive meaning specifically, some silver lining.
If they start by telling a contamination story, they end by telling a redemptive story. This isn’t for everyone of course, but it’s for statistically amount of people. What does that tell? I think it tells us that writing, journaling, reflecting on your experiences in a deep and sustained way is one way to change your story.
I just too as a final point for this, that it’s not going to happen overnight. These Sundays, it was 15 minutes three to four days in a row. I think for a lot of people, it’s going to be a process, especially when it comes to more difficult experiences, a process that can take years to work through.
[0:32:35.7] MB: I think it’s fascinating that you can look at two completely opposite perspective on the same event and you can tell yourself these almost polar opposite stories and the story that you tell yourself about it has a substantial impact on your emotional state, your reaction and your behavior, even in many cases can be years down the road.
[0:32:56.2] ES: Exactly, exactly. I mean, it affects your health. Those studies that I talked about where they’re writing for three to four days, one of the major findings is that the people who did that were healthier later on. They were less likely to be sick. They measured their blood. Their immune system was in a better shape. The fact is pretty profound.
[0:33:15.8] MB: Changing gears a little bit, I want to look at the current culture that we have around ambition and success and reconcile the pursuit of those kinds of things with the pursuit of meaning. In your mind though, are those things conflicting, or could they have healthy relationship with one another?
[0:33:36.0] ES: Yeah, it’s a really interesting question. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. I think there is this sense in our culture that among a certain group of people who are maybe what we would call part of the elite, that you have to accomplish, you have to be successful that living a meaningful life is about achieving credentials, like going to a good school, getting a certain type of job, buying a house, etc., etc., etc., getting that promotion, making it to the C-suite, on and on it goes.
You constantly looking up the ladder, not realizing that there’s – there are people ahead of you having this competitive mindset and trying to get ahead. I think that that can be a really damaging way to think about how to lead your life. I mean, it’s the reason why I think people are experiencing so much burnout. I think it’s a big part of why there is so much spiritual emptiness among people as well. It’s part of why we have the meaning prices is because we define our worth and our sense of significance in terms of our career success.
The problem with that is that when we’re not successful and not all of us will be, we’re not going to all accomplish our dreams and become the people we hope we will become in terms of our careers, there is this real reckoning that happens. We were forced to conclude that, “Oh, maybe my life isn’t worthwhile, because I didn’t do all these things. Now my friends are doing them and I’m not doing them.”
I think there’s a real problem there, and I think that the solution to it is redefining success more in terms of leading a meaningful life. A psychologist on the 20th century who I think is helpful here, his name is Ericson. Ericson thought of life as a series of developmental stages. As you go through life, your job is to master certain developmental tasks. When you’re young for example, you’re learning how to trust other people and trust the world around you. As you become a teenager, you’re trying to figure out who you are and what your purpose is. As you become a middle-age adult, the task is to become generative. This word he coins called generativity.
What it means is that you’re making a contribution to your society. If in the first half of life you’re thinking about how you can – what you are, who you are and what your purpose is, and the second half of life you’re thinking about how to help other people rise up, how to mentor them, how to raise children, how to be a community leader. For him, that is the definition of success and living a meaningful life.
I think that if you’re caught in this mindset of I need to succeed, I need to accomplish, I need to climb that ladder and it’s unfulfilling to you, maybe or if you’re caught in that mindset and you didn’t succeed and if you feel like a failure in some regard, maybe reframing what success is about would be helpful and reframing it in terms of not winning all the time, but of being a person who contributes to others and who helps other people move along in their path.
[0:36:53.3] MB: I think that’s a great definition. It’s funny. I mean, I think in many ways our show title, the Science of Success can be misleading at times, because it’s not just about the traditional trapping of success. It’s really much more about when we talk about success, it’s that definition that you’re talking about. It’s living a meaningful life, it’s doing what you want to do in your life. It’s not necessarily just the acquisition of fame or money or reputation or whatever.
For listeners who want to concretely implement some of the ideas and things that we’ve talked about today, what would be one piece of homework or one action item that you would give them as an action step to implement some of the ideas that we’ve discussed?
[0:37:30.6] ES: I talked about writing earlier and journaling. I think it gets a bad rep, especially today when there is like gratitude journal, your best self-journal that can seem a little hokie. I think there’s something to be said about having a Google Doc on your computer, or having a pad of paper, where you can sit down and write about the things that you’re trying to process, whether that’s your definition of success, some experience of failure that you had that was really painful, a moment of adversity that you’re trying to overcome.
Just sitting and writing about it and reflecting on it in a deep and sustained way for maybe 20 minutes a week, I think that that’s really powerful way to build meaning and to develop wisdom as well, which is a really critical component of living a meaningful life.
[0:38:19.8] MB: For listeners who want to find you and your work online, what’s the best place for them to find you?
[0:38:25.2] ES: I’m on Twitter. My handle is @MEsfahaniSmith. I also have a website emilyesfahanismith.com. You can also find my author page on Facebook.
[0:38:37.2] MB: Well Emily, thank you so much for coming on the show, sharing all these wisdom. I think a really important conversation around how we can misconceived of happiness and how we can really focus more around creating meaning in our lives.
[0:38:49.4] ES: Thank you for having me.
[0:38:50.7] MB: Thank you so much for listening to the Science of Success. We created this show to help you our listeners master evidence-based growth. I love hearing from listeners. If you want to reach out, share your story, or just say hi, shoot me an e-mail. My e-mail is email@example.com. That’s M-A-T-T@successpodcast.com. I’d love to hear from you and I read and respond to every single listener e-mail.
I'm going to give you three reasons why you should sign up for our e-mail list today by going to successpodcast.com, signing up right on the homepage. There are some incredible stuff that’s only available to those on the e-mail list, so be sure to sign up, including an exclusive curated weekly e-mail from us called Mindset Monday, which is short, simple, filled with articles, stories, things that we found interesting and fascinating in the world of evidence-based growth in the last week.
Next, you're going to get an exclusive chance to shape the show, including voting on guests, submitting your own personal questions that we’ll ask guests on air and much more. Lastly, you’re going to get a free guide we created based on listener demand, our most popular guide, which is called how to organize and remember everything. You can get it completely for free along with another surprise bonus guide by signing up and joining the e-mail list today. Again, you can do that at successpodcast.com, sign up right at the homepage, or if you're on the go, just text the word “smarter”, S-M-A-R-T-E-R to the number 44222.
Remember, the greatest compliment you can give us is a referral to a friend either live or online. If you enjoyed this episode, please leave us an awesome review and subscribe on iTunes because that helps boost the algorithm, that helps us move up the iTunes rankings and helps more people discover the Science of Success.
Don't forget, if you want to get all the incredible information we talked about in the show, links transcripts, everything we discussed and much more, be sure to check out our show notes. You can get those at successpodcast.com, just hit the show notes button right at the top.
Thanks again, and we'll see you on the next episode of the Science of Success.