Mother Teresa was one of the 20th century’s greatest humanitarians. But she wasn’t perfect. Just like anyone else, she had her struggles, including depression and spiritual doubt.
Before she became Mother Teresa, she was Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu. At 18, she became a nun and took the name Sister Mary Teresa. Before long, she was in India teaching children from the poorest Bengali families. But it wasn’t until she was 36 that she found her true calling.
She began working with Calcutta’s poorest and sickest. She famously devoted her life to “the unwanted, the unloved, the uncared for.”
She opened schools, orphanages, leper colonies, clinics, and other facilities. She worked personally with the poor and the sick around the globe. And she often did so at risk to her own health and safety. She helped so many people, that she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 and became a saint in 2016.
Mother Teresa is remembered as a cheerful person who was always smiling, but her private letters showed another side. She called her happy appearance “the cloak by which I cover the emptiness & misery.” In the 1950s, she found herself in an existential crisis. She felt abandoned by God. But even as she struggled, she did not lose heart in her work. She continued her mission to help the poor and sick, offering love and support wherever she could. While she may not have always been as happy as she appeared, she had a deep sense of purpose. And this purpose gave her life meaning, even through her suffering.
According to author Emily Esfahani, purpose is critical to a meaningful life. She says modern society is obsessed with superficial ideas of happiness. But a lack of happiness is not the reason for the despair we often see in the world. It’s the lack of meaning.
Esfahani spent five years trying to find out just how a person can live a meaningful life. She found that a sense of purpose, or using one’s strengths to help others was crucial. Mother Teresa, of course, had this in spades. Esfahani also explains that a sense of belonging, moments of transcendence, and the way we frame our life stories are also important for living a meaningful life.
Esfahani says we live in a world of increasing loneliness and depression. And she counsels that pursuing happiness does not actually lead to happiness. Instead, we should be seeking a life of meaning. She says, “Happiness comes and goes. But when life is really good and when things are really bad, having meaning gives you something to hold onto.” Watch Esfahani’s TED talk to learn more about her research on living a meaningful life.