Emily Esfahani-Smith Returns to Campus

Author Emily Esfahani-Smith ‘09 spoke to a collection of Dartmouth students, faculty, and community members last Friday to promote her new book, The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness. Her talk was structured as a discussion with Professor Russell Muirhead of the Government department where both parties enumerated the differences between happiness and meaning.

Ms. Esfahani-Smith, a former editor and current board member at The Review, was elegant and erudite as she captivated the almost alarmingly packed auditorium. She opened the discussion arguing that pursuing happiness makes one a “taker” while pursuing meaning makes one a “giver.” Thus, happiness is inherently self-oriented, a quality which accounts for its ultimately unfulfilling nature.

Image Courtesy of Dartmouth

Image Courtesy of Dartmouth

The nature of happiness was something that Ms. Esfahani-Smith studied extensively during her time in Dartmouth. As a philosophy major, Aristotle’s writings on happiness had a particularly large impact on her as an undergraduate. Nevertheless, during her graduate studies in Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, Ms. Esfahani-Smith discovered that fulfillment is much more indicative of a person’s emotional well being than happiness is. Fulfillment, she asserted, comes directly from having meaning in one’s life.

As described in her book, meaning is built upon four pillars: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. Belonging refers to a sense of community, either coming from a social circle or a family. Purpose could come from a job, or community service work, but is essentially the belief that one’s work has meaning. Storytelling is the narrative that you construct about your own life. Transcendence is a connection to something greater than the temporal.

Ms. Esfahani-Smith emphasized that a meaningful life often coming from the combination of these four qualities in a ration that suits the individual. She, along with Professor Muirhead, did caution the room of students against placing too much emphasis on finding a job that is meaningful.

Professor Muirhead discussed the sympathy he has for students entering the workforce who feel forced to choose between “meaningful” and work that allows them to be financially secure. Ms. Esfahani-Smith warned, however, that it is the unattainable expectations that students put on their work that leads to unfulfillment.

Originally religion gave meaning to the student’s lives. Eventually that gave way to secular attitudes, and ‘great books’ courses with classical writings and philosophy imparted meaning to the lives of students. Now, as she very astutely pointed out, even at liberal arts schools like Dartmouth, only the most motivated students receive a comprehensive education in these areas.

Instead students often leave their undergraduate education with the belief that the pursuit of meaning and the pursuit career success are the same. This creates impossibly high standards for meaningful work. When students’ work does not meet these standards, they feel that their entire life lacks meaning.

With her four-pillar system, Ms. Esfahani-Smith gave students hope by reminding them that they do not need to despair if their job is not the “calling” that they were promised it would be. She gave them the much needed reminded that fulfillment comes from a balanced life and human connection. Her talk was visibly well received by students and faculty alike.