Jan 30

“The Power of Meaning” By Emily Esfahani Smith

One of the most inspiring and helpful lessons I learned while writing my book was that not all of us will find a calling in life—but that doesn’t mean we won’t find meaning in life. There are sources of meaning we can all tap into all around us all the time, no matter who we are or what we’ve accomplished. Emily Esfahani Smith (author of The Power of Meaning)

Would you rather strive for happiness or for meaning? Author Emily Esfahani Smith, who did her research, opts to point you toward a meaningful life first and foremost. Her new book is The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters.

Publishers Weekly: “She states that despite a culturally ingrained appreciation for the pursuit of happiness, Americans report being more miserable than ever. Paradoxically, pursuing happiness for its own sake often leads to unhappiness, whereas studies show that meaningful endeavors instill a deeper sense of well-being.”

As presented on her website, Smith’s “four pillars upon which meaning rests”:

  • Belonging: We all need to find our tribe and forge relationships in which we feel understood, recognized, and valued—to know we matter to others.
  • Purpose: We all need a far-reaching goal that motivates us, serves as the organizing principle of our lives, and drives us to make a contribution to the world.
  • Storytelling: We are all storytellers, taking our disparate experiences and assembling them into a coherent narrative that allows us to make sense of ourselves and the world.
  • Transcendence: During a transcendent or mystical experience, we feel we have risen above the everyday world and are connected to something vast and meaningful.

Kirkus Reviews sums up The Power of Meaning:

Smith found these pillars emphasized in her own childhood, growing up in a Sufi community whose members did not doubt the value of their own lives. But even without the bulwark of religion, individuals can build their own pillars. No matter what work one does, even menial jobs, ‘when we reframe our tasks as opportunities to help others, our lives and our work feel more significant.’ Similarly, when we ‘feel understood, recognized, and affirmed by our friends, family members, and romantic partners,’ that sense of belonging bestows meaning. Creating a narrative about our lives ‘allows us to understand our lives as coherent’ and helps to define our identity; sharing those stories becomes an important way to connect with others. Awe when thinking about the vast universe or infinity can make us feel ‘connected to something massive and meaningful.’ Underscoring the power of connection, the author assures readers that finding meaning is not the result of ‘some great revelation’ but rather small gestures and humble acts.

Emma Seppälä: “A powerful invitation to live a life that is not only happy but filled with purpose, belonging, and transcendence. By combining scientific research and philosophical insights with moving accounts of ordinary people who have deeply meaningful lives, Smith addresses the most urgent questions of our existence in a delightful, masterful, and inspiring way.”

Feb 12

“Me, Myself, and Why”: Jennifer Ouellette Self-Searching

…(O)ur sense of self is a construct, which is not the same thing as saying that it’s illusionary, I think it’s very real, but it is certainly not your genetic code or simply your synapses or simply any one thing, it’s all those things integrated together that makes us who we are. Jennifer Ouellette, author of Me, Myself, and WhyPsychology Today

For various reasons science writer Jennifer Ouellette became intrigued with self-identity. She writes in Scientific American about this leading to her new book Me, Myself, and Why: Searching for the Science of Self:

I had my genotype sequenced, visited neuroscientist David Eagleman’s lab to participate in an fMRI study, took a couple of personality tests, and peered at drunken fruit flies, courtesy of behavioral geneticist Ulrike Heberlein. But the self is a complex entity. So the book also covers online identity and our relationship to our avatars, as well as the murky waters of sex and gender. The final third of the book gets all meta, delving into consciousness and how we construct our personal narratives from the cloth of autographical memory. And yes, I even sampled LSD, to great comical effect.

In an article in Slate, Ouellette shares 10 things she learned about herself (and some of what she learned about other selves). With each one below, excerpts of her explanations are presented:

  1. Genes are deterministic but they are not destiny…It’s even more complicated for personality traits, health risk factors, and behaviors, where traits are influenced, to varying degrees, by parenting, peer pressure, cultural influences, unique life experiences, and even the hormones churning around us as we develop in the womb.
  2. It’s nature and nurture, not one or the other…
  3. My brain scan—courtesy of neuroscientist David Eagleman’s lab—told me nothing about who I am…
  4. Being shy and being introverted are not the same thing.
  5. When it comes to the central question—are alcoholics born or made?—science equivocates by answering truthfully, “Eh, it’s a bit of both, actually.”
  6. We bond psychologically with our avatars and those bonds are stronger the more similarities we share with our pixilated alter egos.We need to be able to look at our avatar and feel “This is me.” But our identities are always in flux.
  7. [Regarding gender identity]…(R)igid binary thinking needs to change. Such stereotypes arise from lazy thinking, and while they might make it easier to deal with the complexity in the world, they also make it far too easy to lose sight of people as individuals—and they can cause very real psychological harm to those children who don’t fit the stereotypes.
  8. I become “that person” at the party if I take LSD. You know the one. Did you see that episode of Mad Men where they all dropped acid and that one woman was crawling around on the carpet? Yeah, that was me. I bonded with an oriental rug on a deep, molecular level, and yet it never calls.
  9. When I die, and my brain shuts down for good, my self will cease to exist, because consciousness is emergent.
  10. We are the stories we tell…Our memories might not be as accurate as we think—we fabricate and embellish even when we believe ourselves to be truthful—but this so-called autobiographical self is key to how we construct a unified whole out of the many components that contribute to our sense of self…If you really want to know who I am, let me tell you a story.

In the following book trailer, Ouellette gives a similar recap but in person:

Jun 06

Ophira Eisenberg Relates Her Traumatic Car Accident

Thanks to a link from Craig and Judy Kellem’s Hollywoodscript.com Newsletter, I recently learned of comic Ophira Eisenberg.

In a recent New York Times article, “Telling Tales With a Tear and a Smile,” writer Jason Zinoman states:

What distinguishes Ms. Eisenberg is how thoughtfully she adjusts to the form she’s working in while retaining the essence of her bleakly stylish humor. In her stand-up she cheerily describes suicidal tendencies or finding her husband’s ex-girlfriend’s severed head. (‘Oh my God, she’s prettier than me.’) When she was single, she says, she put on her JDate profile that her hobbies include ‘depression and making you guess why I’m angry.’ This same mordant intensity appears in her storytelling, but in a slower cadence with more gravitas.

Zinoman then points us not to one of her standup routines but to Ophira Eisenberg in storytelling mode. She tells her audience a true story about surviving a terrible car accident when she was a young child. In sharing this experience, “…she shows how a story can use humor but not be shackled to it, how it can be emotional without pandering, and how difficult ideas can be articulated entertainingly.”

Eisenberg has told this difficult story for The Moth,” which is “an acclaimed not-for-profit organization dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling. It is a celebration of both the raconteur, who breathes fire into true tales of ordinary life, and the storytelling novice, who has lived through something extraordinary and yearns to share it.” The clip below runs over 11 minutes and is worth your investment:

In case you opted not to watch the clip, I’ll summarize. The gist is that when Ophira was eight years old she was in a car accident caused by an 18-year-old who ran a red light. Her mom was driving Ophira, her brother, and her best friend Adrienne.

Ophira spent months in the hospital. Adrienne’s mom was one of her visitors. “And I would always ask her like ‘Why aren’t you bringing Adrienne? I want to see Adrienne.’ But, somehow, she would just change the subject and I would go with it.”

Adrienne’s mother and Ophira’s decided one day it was time to tell her the truth. “‘We think that you’re healthy enough to hear this now. But remember when you described being unconscious? It felt like you were sleeping for a really, really long time? Well, Adrienne never woke up.’ I heard what they were saying but I don’t think I got it. I mean, I don’t think my 8-year-old brain could comprehend that. I didn’t cry ’cause I
didn’t know what that meant. I just knew that I should stop asking for Adrienne.”

Eventually, at the age of 16, she found a letter Adrienne’s father had written to Ophira’s mother. “I had
never thought of what my mother went through because she never showed me her pain or vulnerability
for one second. I can’t imagine the blame she felt, the guilt, the responsibility of taking care of
someone’s else’s child and then it all going horribly wrong. But she showed nothing but love.”

“…And my dad really was a pillar of strength…I wasn’t really the strong one. They were the strong ones because they had carefully led me to this place where I could live like an absolutely normal sixteen-year-old kid and Adrienne was never going to be sixteen. It hit me hard staring at the handwriting of her mourning father and I couldn’t run off to my Barbie Dream House. And for the first time I sat down at that dining room table and I cried.”