Happinest Podcast

07: Finding Meaning When Your Kids Leave with Emily Esfahani Smith

Seeking Eudaimonia: Striving and Contributing to Something Beyond Yourself

With Emily Esfahani Smith, a writer, editor, speaker and author of The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness, an international bestseller that draws on psychology, philosophy and literature to explore why we are the way we are and how we can find grace and meaning in a world full of suffering.

Smith’s articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and other publications. She has also appeared on NBC’s The TODAY Show, CBS This Morning, and NPR.

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What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • The defining feature of a meaningful life is connecting and contributing to something beyond yourself. That could be raising children, connecting to the community, to nature, to God.
  • There’s a myth in our culture that you have to do something extraordinary to lead a meaningful life, like curing a disease, or becoming a monk. But meaning exists in the “daily stuff of life.” You can find it in small interactions you have with your spouse, or with a person at the coffee shop.
  • You can find transcendence many ways, such as in meditating, reading poetry, religion, engaging in the arts, viewing an artifact at a museum, listening to music, being in nature. These kinds of experiences can transport you into stillness and beyond, dissolving your sense of self and enabling you to feel part of something vast.
  • If we pursue meaning instead of happiness, it often leads to a deeper form of joy.
  • Twentieth Century psychanalyst Erik Erikson recommends that in midlife we master “generativity,” which means giving back to future generations. Raising children is one way to be “generative.” After the kids leave, you can find new ways to be generative, such as mentoring younger people.
  • People who have a strong sense of belonging to a community transition more easily into the empty nest.
  • People find a powerful sense of purpose and meaning in raising kids, which satisfies a human need to strive for something beyond yourself. When the kids leave, it can pose an existential challenge. To ease the angst, find new challenges beyond yourself.
  • Filling yourself with pleasure—or focusing primarily on Hedonic activities like partying, playing video games, getting a manicure or buying luxury goods— will make you feel good in the moment, but it won’t create the sense of meaning that raising children provided. To flourish, you must pursue Eudaimonia.
  • Aristotle says that Eudaimonia brings meaning and is the goal of life: It is hard work and involves living with virtue, maximizing your potential, striving toward a worthwhile endeavor, and contributing to the community. Finding meaning fills the existential void and leads to a deeper form of happiness.
  • Advice for empty nesters: Deepen your spiritual life and find transcendence, which you can do many ways, including being in nature, listening to music, going to religious services, meditating and performing acts of service to others in ways that are big or small.