What makes life meaningful? I’ve spent the past few years absorbed in that question while writing my book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. To understand how we can each lead more meaningful lives, I traveled all across the country, from the Chihuahuan Desert in West Texas to a fishing village in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay to a medieval prayer service in Seattle; I interviewed dozens of people, from a drug-dealer-turned-entrepreneur to a woman dying of terminal cancer to a zookeeper in Detroit; I spoke to philosophers, neuroscientists, psychologists, and sociologists; and I read thousands of pages of research studies, philosophy, literature, and theology.
Along the way, I discovered that the happy life and the meaningful life are quite different—and that pursuing meaning instead of happiness ultimately leads us to have richer lives. I also discovered that there are four universal pillars, or building blocks, of a meaningful life that we can all tap into to lead lives of depth and significance: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence.
Of course, I’m not the first person to write about meaning. The problem of meaning is as old as the human species and central to the human condition. Human beings are by nature creatures that make meaning, seek meaning, and yearn for meaning. Here’s a selection of my five favorite books that take up this eternal quest.
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In 1942, Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist in Vienna, was transported to a Nazi concentration camp. By the end of the war, most of his family had died in the camps—but Frankl lived. Man’s Search for Meaning, based on his experiences during the Holocaust, is about how to find meaning amid suffering. Frankl worked as a therapist in the camps and tells the story of two suicidal inmates he counseled there. These men had lost hope and felt they had nothing more to live for. But when Frankl helped them remember their unique purpose on earth, they regained the will to live. For one man, it was caring for his child, who was living in a foreign country, after the war; for the other, a scientist, it was completing a set of books. He who knows the “why” for his existence, Frankl paraphrases Nietzsche in the book, can withstand almost any “how.”
This beloved children’s story has plenty of wisdom for adults, too. The prince lives on a tiny planet, where he cares for a special rose that he loves dearly. But she is a vain and needy flower, and the prince eventually grows weary of her, deciding to leave his planet and explore the broader universe. In his journey—one of self-discovery—he comes across a bed of beautiful roses and is devastated. He thought his one rose was unique. Eventually, he realizes that she indeed was: “It’s the time you spent on your rose,” as a wise little fox tells him, “that makes your rose so important . . . You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose.” There’s a lesson here about living a meaningful life: When we devote ourselves to difficult but worthwhile tasks—whether that means tending a rose or pursuing a noble purpose—our lives feel more significant.
This gorgeous novel tells the story of a teenage boy named Pi, who, in the aftermath of a shipwreck that has killed his family, finds himself aboard a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.
Lost in the Pacific Ocean for 227 days, starved, desperate, and forced into a game of survival with the tiger, Pi pushes forward, even though he has lost everything. Pi’s story of resilience and growth in the face of tragedy is incredible once you realize what really happened on board the lifeboat. There’s more to the story than the boy and the tiger. Though what really happened is tragic, Pi chooses to tell a different story. His story parallels what really happened, but is hopeful and redemptive rather than bleak and nihilistic. “Which story do you prefer?” he asks at the end. The novel is a beautiful illustration of how storytelling helps us craft meaning in life. Telling a particular story about his trauma ultimately helps Pi make sense of it and grow.
Before Jonathan Haidt became the chronicler of our moral and political divides, he wrote this fascinating book about how modern psychology research and ancient teachings from philosophy and religion can help us lead more meaningful lives. For anyone looking for a primer on the psychology and philosophy of the good life—psychology 101 meets philosophy 101—this is the book you want to read. Haidt examines different ideas—“hypotheses”—of what a meaningful life consists of and examines timeless questions, like whether you have to believe in God to lead a meaningful life, whether happiness comes from within, and what true love is. His discussion of the self as divided between an “elephant” and a “rider” is not to be missed. Reading this book may change your life. It changed mine.
Too many people believe that if they chase career success, material wealth, and status, they will find happiness and fulfillment. In this novella, Tolstoy shatters those assumptions. Ivan Ilyich is a judge who leads a superficial life devoted to climbing the social ladder. Then one day he falls and hurts himself as he is hanging curtains in his new home. It’s a symbolic fall, but one with very real consequences: Ilyich sustains a terminal injury. The reader watches Ilyich struggle through a long and painful death—and, as a result of dying, he comes to the devastating realization that his life was false and meaningless. But he also comes to see where true meaning in life lies. Ilyich finds comfort in Gerasim, a peasant who treats him with compassion and helps him realize that a truly meaningful life lies in humble acts of love and service. The question is—does Ilyich discover this fact too late?
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