Author Emily Esfahani Smith Speaks on Belonging

Feeling that you belong, that you are valued, is crucial for authentic human happiness, said author and researcher Emily Esfahani Smith, who spoke at an all-school convocation in the Olcott Center on Monday.

Belonging, which is this year’s school theme at Loomis Chaffee, serves an essential purpose in helping humans to find meaning in their lives, and meaning is the key to happiness, said Ms. Smith, an assistant psychology instructor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World that is Obsessed with Happiness.

While studying philosophy in college and psychology in graduate school, Ms. Smith began to question the commonly-accepted ideals of a “success culture,” which assumes one’s happiness is derived from achievements in academics, career, finance, power, or notoriety. Research in philosophy, psychology, and human behavior do not bear out this formula for happiness, she said, and she shared several stories from her exploration that contradict the idea that being “successful” will make you happy.

“It is meaning … that makes life worth living. Humans have a need for meaning in their lives for emotional and physical well-being,” she said.

Through her research and writing, Ms. Smith identified four pillars of meaning in people’s lives. The most important pillar, she said, is a sense of belonging. “True belonging springs from generosity and love. You have to be willing to make yourself open and vulnerable,” Ms. Smith said, but the result is a more meaningful experience for everyone.

In the context of an organization like a school or workplace, belonging is the feeling that the community values every individual for who they are and what they contribute, she explained. When individuals feel valued in an organization, their work, even if it is not extraordinary, is meaningful. She encouraged her listeners to promote a “belonging mindset” and to strengthen the sense of community through moments of connection, such as listening to someone else’s story or putting away your cell phone when you speak with someone. These small but powerful outward expressions acknowledge that you value others.

After the convocation, Ms. Smith continued the discussion with a smaller group of students and faculty in the Parton Room of the Scanlan Campus Center. Her visit to campus was made possible with support from the Robert P. Hubbard '47 Speakers Series.

Ms. Smith’s book, published in 2017, is available in the school’s Alexander Bookstore or at booksellers nationwide.  Her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and other publications. She also reports for the Aspen Institute's Weave project, an initiative founded by David Brooks of The New York Times to address the problems of isolation, alienation, and division. In addition to her writing, Ms. Smith delivered the widely-viewed TED talk “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy.” She earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at Dartmouth College and a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania.