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The 4 Pillars of Meaning That Will Help Us Emerge From the Pandemic Better Than Before

by EMILY ESFAHANI SMITH

When researchers and psychologists look at who copes well in a crisis, it’s those who have adopted a spirit of “tragic optimism.” The term was coined by Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist who wrote Man’s Search for Meaninga book about his experiences in the concentration camps. Tragic optimism is the ability to find hope and meaning in life, despite the suffering and loss inherent in life.

One study, for example, tracked a group of young adults in the weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks. It found that some students were more resilient than others—that is, some of them were more likely to develop the symptoms of depression, while others did not. What set the resilient ones apart? It was their ability to find some good in what was happening around them. They reported experiencing more positive emotions like love and gratitude. Importantly, this didn’t mean they were “Pollyannas.” In the study, people who were more resilient reported feeling just as anguished about the attacks as the less resilient ones. But later on, their ability to find the good protected and sustained them.

When I was researching my book The Power of Meaning, I interviewed a lot of people about what makes their lives meaningful and I looked at what psychology researchers, philosophers, religious figures, and other luminaries had to say. Putting it all together, I realized that there are four pillars of a meaningful life.  I also learned that people who have a strong sense of meaning in life—or the ability to find meaning in their lives, despite their circumstances—are far more resilient to suffering.

The good news is that we can build these pillars of meaning in our lives in good times as well as bad times. The four pillars are:

Belonging: Being in relationships or communities where you’re valued for who you are intrinsically, and where you value others for who they are intrinsically. Belonging is about feeling seen, heard, loved, and cared for. It’s something that we can choose to cultivate in the moment—and we can experience it with anyone. You can experience belonging by holding a loved one’s hand, making eye contact with a stranger, and sharing a smile, tuning in and really listening to what a friend is saying on the phone, and so on. These little micro-moments of connection are small but powerful. So there are ways to experience and build this pillar even in this time of social distancing.

Purpose: Psychologists say purpose is a long-term goal that orients your life, is meaningful to you, and makes a contribution to the world. This sounds big, but purpose actually comes in all shapes and sizes. Many parents told me their purpose is raising their children. A lot of people find purpose at work. I spoke to a hospital cleaner, for example, who was part of a larger study on meaning at work, and she said that her job isn’t merely to mop the floor or clean bed pans, but to help sick people heal. Today, a lot of people might be struggling with this pillar. Some people have lost their jobs or are not able to play the roles in their communities that might ordinarily give them purpose, like being a Little League coach. These roles make people feel useful and needed. They give us a why—a reason to wake up in the morning. When we don’t feel useful or needed, we suffer. But even though some people may be struggling on this dimension today, I see people finding creative ways to be purposeful. In my neighborhood, for example, younger adults have assembled “help groups” to shop and run errands for older adults and other immunocompromised groups. Others have set up “virtual tip jars” to support service workers in the community. Many companies are offering their services for free to help others. A sure way to find purpose is finding a way to help others. It can be big or small.

Storytelling: This pillar refers to the story you tell about your life. How did you become the person you are today? What experiences shaped you? What did you lose from them and what did you gain? Storytelling brings clarity to our experiences. We assemble the disparate experiences of our lives into a coherent narrative. But the thing is, sometimes we tell stories that hold us back and make us depressed, like, “I’m no good” or “The world is terrible.” These types of stories make people feel anxious, that their lives have less meaning. The good news is that we are the authors of our own stories and can change the way we’re telling them if they’re holding us back. We can edit and interpret the story in new ways while staying true to the facts. The research shows that people who are leading meaningful lives tend to tell stories about their lives defined by redemption, growth, and love. What’s the story that you’re telling yourself about this time? What’s the story you’d like to tell about this time when you look back on it in a few years?

Transcendence: This is one of my favorite pillars. Transcendent experiences are those moments when we’re lifted above the hustle and bustle of daily life and come into contact with something bigger. They are experiences of beauty and awe that take us outside our own head, make us feel smaller, and at the same time more connected to the world and people around us. There are lots of ways to experience transcendence, like in nature, through religious or spiritual practices like meditation, music, dancing, and so on. These experiences bring us into the present moment. As the poet Anthony Hecht wrote: to give yourself over to a transcendent experience, “Is a sort of blessedness … One escapes from all the anguish of the world into the refuge of the present tense.” I’ve found that going on daily walks has been a portal to transcendence for me these days. I leave my phone at home and try to pay attention to the beauty around me—the birds, trees, the kids playing outside, and so on. It’s helped me find some peace during this scary time.

So how do we emerge better and stronger than before stronger after the crisis? We hear a lot about post-traumatic stress disorder these days. The conventional wisdom is that when crisis or tragedy hits, a lot of people are completely undone by their suffering. But this isn’t the full story. It turns out that only a small number of people develop PTSD. What’s far more common is the phenomenon known as post-traumatic growth. After a crisis, most people report having deeper religious, a richer spiritual life, a newfound appreciation for life, and a renewal of their purpose in life.

The engine of post-traumatic growth is one of the pillars I mentioned above—storytelling. The people who grow most after a crisis spend a lot of time reflecting on the tragedy, trying to understand how it changed them. In the process, they usually discover that the adversity changed their lives in positive ways. Frankl called this “the human capacity to creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive.”

It’s a painful process, though, and it can take time. It requires reflecting on your pain and acknowledging everything you’ve lost. But by embracing those hard feelings, you eventually come to a deeper place of understanding about yourself and the world.

This essay was featured in the April 26th edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.

EMILY ESFAHANI SMITH

Emily Esfahani Smith is a writer in Washington DC who 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. 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 8 million times.