Esfahani Smith shares powerful message with Doane students

Emily Esfahani Smith with Doane students

During her first visit to Nebraska, Emily Esfahani Smith spoke to Doane University about a fitting topic for the semester’s Hansen Leadership Program speech, defining the meaning of the good life.


Does that mean leading a happy life? Not necessarily, said Esfahani Smith, a journalist who has studied and taught positive psychology, publishing articles on the subject in The Atlantic, New York Times and elsewhere. In her studies, as well as her personal life, she found that chasing happiness -- the dream job, the perfect boyfriend, the best meal -- was often accompanied by an emptiness.


“I began to come across some research that really surprised me and led me to change my perspective on what a good life is about,” Esfahani Smith said on Sept. 27 during her speech at Doane. “We're told constantly in our culture that good life is a happy life, and that we should pursue happiness, that if we pursue happiness, we will be more attractive more successful more well-liked. All these benefits will come to us if we can just make ourselves happy.


“But it turns out if you look out the at the research of happiness, the pursuit of happiness can really backfire. The research shows that when people chase happiness and value with the way our culture encourages us to do, they actually end up feeling unhappy as a result and lonely too. The pursuit of happiness is very self-focused.”


Instead, Esfahani Smith suggested to those gathered at the Chab Weyers Education and Hixon Lied Art Building, try to turn your focus toward finding meaning. Esfahani Smith spent five years studying the subject and interviewing hundreds of people about what brings them meaning, and paired their answers with breakthrough research and personal experiences in her book, “The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters.”


Esfahani Smith said she began to focus on the concept of meaning thanks both to her unique upbringing and the research of Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. Esfahani Smith grew up in a Sufi meetinghouse in Montreal, where she was surrounded by devout people who meditated, retold ancient stories and drank Persian tea together. These rituals, they believed, connect them to something bigger than themselves.


Frankl, who wrote, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” found in his interviews with fellow concentration camp survivors that a defined purpose -- completing medical research that could benefit others, reuniting with a son -- developed resiliency in them.


“If you have a purpose, you withstand any circumstance, no matter how horrendous it is,” Esfahani Smith told Doane students.


Esfahani Smith’s 2017 Ted Talk on the subject, titled, “There’s more to life than being happy,” has been viewed millions of times online. Hansen Leadership Program Director Abby Vollmer said that Esfahani Smith intrigued the selection committee because the journalist offered a message of achievement that wasn’t tied to financial success or professional accomplishment carried out on a grand scale.


"There was something in Emily's message about the search for meaning, and that you don't have to go out and save the world to lead a meaningful life that students went, 'Wow that's actually comforting to hear someone say that,'" Vollmer said. "Because we always get these Ted Talk-inspired ideas, and (it is reassuring) to hear someone say that we can actually go out and be a really good public school teacher. That can be a really meaningful life."


Esfahani Smith said that a key goal of her speech, and her conversations with students is to bring the idea of finding meaning down to earth. College students in particular are inundated with messages suggesting that this is the time of your life to carve out your purpose and meaning, she said. But she said that doesn’t mean you need to go find yourself on a journey to a mountaintop, or any other cliche of that variety.


“You can find meaning in whatever it is you're doing,” Esfahani Smith said. “So many people here want to be educators. That's a very meaningful path, you know? Finding meaning in these local ways is almost more important than trying to change the world in some grand way.”


That message resonated with Tayma Sebek ’20, chair of the Hansen Leadership Advisory Board.


“I love the point that she brought up, that little miniscule things we are doing everyday are getting me to finding the point of my purpose,” said Sebek, a junior majoring in elementary education. “I love what she said about that.”


In her book, and her speech to Doane students, Esfahani Smith utilizes four key concepts to help readers and listeners find and shape meaning in their lives -- belonging, purpose, transcendence and storytelling. She describes them as pillars. At Doane, she found four actual pillars, built by members of the leadership program, awaiting her in the entryway of the lecture hall where she spoke.


“You think they’ll let me take them on the plane?” Esfahani Smith said after her speech.


Students were asked to sign the one bearing the message that they most deeply connected to.  Sebek signed the belonging pillar.


“Belonging really resonates with me as a teacher, because I'm a really empathetic person, and I always want to reach out to people and be a part of something larger than myself,” she said.


Shay Andersen, an advisory board member, also signed the belonging pillar. After the speech, Andersen said that she felt a deeper connection to the idea of storytelling that Esfahani Smith presented. On a day where she faced a challenge in her chosen field of study, the junior elementary and special education major said Esfahani Smith’s message helped her revisit the incident.


“I’m actually in practicum right now,” she said. “I actually had an incident today where I kind of felt like a failure because I was not getting to reach the student like I had before,” Andersen said. “But now I went back and thought about it, and he had a really hard day yesterday, and there's other factors that could have affected why I couldn't reach him today.”


Andersen said that Smith’s emphasis on storytelling, and how individuals can write their own stories, impacted how she reviewed the experience with the student. During the speech, Smith said that you can find yourself connecting all the day’s lousy data points -- sleeping through the alarm, losing your keys, getting shaving cream on a shirt -- and determining that you’re a failure. But editing the story to include key positive data points -- perhaps you overslept because you were up late with an ill loved one -- has been shown to change outlooks on lives.


Each year, the Hansen Leadership Program brings two speakers to campus as part of the Hansen Speaker Series. Any student can apply to be on the board each year.