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Are Purpose & Meaning Better Than Happiness?
Emily Esfahani Smith is a writer in Washington DC. In her writing, she draws on psychology, philosophy, and literature to write about the human experience—why we are the way we are and how we can find grace and meaning in a world that is full of suffering. Her book The Power of Meaning, an international bestseller, was published by Crown and has been translated into 16 different languages. The Wall Street Journal called the book “persuasive,” “elegant,” and “valuable” while the Prospect (UK) dubbed it “an intelligent page-turner.”
She is also an international speaker who has delivered dozens of keynote addresses and workshops at corporations, conferences, non-profit organizations, libraries, universities, and high schools around the country and world. In 2017, Smith delivered a talk called “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy” on the main stage of TED, which was based on her book. It’s been viewed over 9 million times.
The former managing editor of The New Criterion, Smith’s articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and other publications. Her articles for The Atlantic “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy” (about the Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl) and “Masters of Love” (about romance and marriage) have reached over 30 million readers. In 2017, the New York Times published her article about rethinking success called “You’ll Never Be Famous—And That’s OK.” And her profile for the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine of Joe Rago, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who tragically died at the age of 34, was shortlisted for a Folio magazine award in 2018. In 2019, she was a Poynter Journalism Fellow at Yale University.
Smith is also a reporter for the Aspen Institute’s Weave project, an initiative founded by the New York Times‘ David Brooks to address the problems of isolation, alienation, and division. At Weave, Smith finds and tells the stories of people who are working to rebuild the social fabric.
Smith studied philosophy at Dartmouth College. She received her master’s degree in positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, where she continues to serve as an assistant instructor in positive psychology.
Born in Zurich, Switzerland, Smith grew up in Montreal, Canada. She now lives in Washington DC with her husband, Charlie.
“What it is I wanted to do with my book was, as you suggest, bring purpose down to earth a little bit, because if it’s so grand and so out of reach, like going to the Himalayas, then that means that few of us can actually accomplish it. But that’s untrue. There are ways to find purpose just all around us. I think that a way to think about purpose is just that people find purpose in doing whatever it is that they’re doing well. So, if you’re a parent, doing a good job at parenting. If you’re washing the dishes, doing a good job with that. And realizing that these small acts of purpose, what makes them purposeful is that they connect to something beyond yourself. I think parenting is an example. When I talk to people and ask “What gives your life purpose?” children is the thing that comes up again and again, because it’s this project that’s bigger than you are, and it is making this major contribution to society by raising people to kind of be citizens. And also, it makes a contribution to their lives, because you’re investing in the growth and development of your kids. Stepping away from relationships, there are also kinds of tasks and the projects of daily life, whether it’s work or our hobbies, that we can find purpose by again understanding how those tasks connect to something bigger.”
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