Finding meaning in life with Emily Esfahani Smith

Wes Moss is the host of the radio show “Money Matters,” which airs from 9-11 a.m. Sundays on News 95.5 and AM 750 WSB. CONTRIBUTED BY NICK BURCHELL

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Wes Moss is the host of the radio show “Money Matters,” which airs from 9-11 a.m. Sundays on News 95.5 and AM 750 WSB. CONTRIBUTED BY NICK BURCHELL

There’s more to life than being happy.

Those words might sound contradictory coming from me, the author of “What the Happiest Retirees Know: 10 Habits for a Healthy, Secure, and Joyful Life.” As surprised as you are to read them, I’m even more shocked to be typing them. It’s all a testament to the strong case Emily Esfahani Smith makes in her best-selling book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters.” She argues that finding meaning in life is more important than happiness.

Between her profound writing and extremely popular TED Talk, I was so intrigued that I convinced her to come on myRetire Sooner” podcast to elaborate.

After receiving her master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, Emily sought to explore the tension between living a happy life and a meaningful one. “In our culture, there’s so much emphasis on happiness and leading a happy life that I just assumed that’s what we all want,” she says. But, she soon discovered that there was an entirely different angle from which to view the meaning of a good life. It had less to do with feelings and more to do with contributing to something bigger than ourselves.

Emily has since made it her mission to show people how to eschew happiness for meaning using her Four Pillars: Belonging, Purpose, Transcendence and Storytelling.


Emily says belonging is about a relationship between two people who intrinsically value each other. In my life, that means a person I could call with either good or bad news. Belonging can exist in any landscape, if people are willing to harvest it. A bit abstract, but that’s okay because it’s about significance, not precision.

Human beings need to feel a sense of belonging, and we should be wary of acquaintances that don’t provide one. “You could have a relationship with a spouse or a parent or even a close friend that actually isn’t defined by belonging,” Emily says. “You’re valued for what you’re willing to do or how you look. Or in the case of gangs and cults — for who you hate and the violent acts you’ll do — and not for who you are.”


According to Emily, purpose is the pillar most linked with meaning. Psychologists seem to categorize it as “this overarching life goal of value that leads you into the future and motivates you.”

It’s the why that gets a person out of bed in the morning, but it can look different for each of us. Thomas Jefferson might’ve sprung from slumber each day with a burning desire to write the Declaration of Independence, but that doesn’t take anything away from the mom or dad who is purely focused on raising a family. “I think a lot of people think you have to find your capital P purpose or your capital C calling in order to have purpose in life or in your work, but that’s not true,” says Emily.

This can be especially tricky, but no less important, for folks looking to retire. If their career was their purpose, they need to find a new one. Sitting on the couch doesn’t count. Unless it’s Saturday.


Transcendence is the most challenging pillar for me to master. Emily interprets it as “experiences of awe or wonder or moments where you feel connected to something sacred.” She says it doesn’t always feel like a moment to revere, but rather “a sense of peace and stillness.”

She tells the story of people who gazed upon 200-foot-tall eucalyptus trees until the catharsis took over. If you’re like me, I’d recommend a hot dog, a cold beer and the fireworks show at Centennial Olympic Park.

It can be anything you want, as long as you mute your id, ego, superego and any of the other distractions Sigmund Freud coined words to describe. Turn on, tune in, and drop out. Or, at least, do your version of that.


Emily describes this as the narrative you write about how you became the person that you are today.

When circumstances occur in our lives, positive or negative, how do we interpret them?

“The act of storytelling itself is a meaning-making act because you’re taking your disparate experiences and bringing them together into a coherent whole,” she says. But, adding a more hopeful story adds an additional layer of meaning.

Folks often tell themselves negative stories that create obstacles and prevent progress. I’m no good. I’m ugly. I’ll never change. Insults do damage, even when we’re slinging them at ourselves. Emily says that “People who are leading meaningful lives tend to tell stories about their lives that have more positive themes. In particular, themes of redemption, growth, and love.”

Emily points out that a lot of what psychotherapy attempts to do is get people to shift their narratives from a negative self-concept to something more positive.

The bottom line for Emily is similar to the habits I see from the most fulfilled retirees. No one nails every single pillar just like no one follows every habit I recommend. But, the more you do, the stronger your sense of meaning will be.

And just like with retirement planning, it’s never too late to start. If you haven’t yet found meaning in your life, read Emily’s book and put it into practice. Maybe you’ll find belonging and gratitude in your morning discussion about overthrowing King George, or maybe you’ll invent the world’s most delicious potato salad. The what is less important than the when. And the when is NOW.

Wes Moss is the host of the podcast “Retire Sooner with Wes Moss,” found in the podcast app right on your smartphone. He has been the host of “Money Matters” on News 95.5 and AM 750 WSB in Atlanta for more than 10 years now, and he does a live show from 9-11 a.m. Sundays. He is the chief investment strategist for Atlanta-based Capital Investment Advisors. For more information, go to

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