Negative personal experiences add meaning to life

Happiness and meaningfulness are often described as positive experiences. But negative experiences can provide meaning in people's lives. The research was recently published in Current Opinion in Psychology and the Medical Xpress Blog.

“[T]rying to live in a world without challenge, troubles or difficulties is both not realistic and could actually make for a less meaningful life,” says University of Minnesota Professor Kathleen Vohs.

Researchers studied interviews with parents whose young children died recently and found nearly all parents used language seeking understanding of the event that caused the death. The researchers also studied interviews of less traumatic events —like fights with a spouse, job loss or illness—to determine how they can similarly cause a search for meaning.

These findings support Vohs's previous research that found:

  • happiness was about feeling good, avoiding feeling bad and having one's needs met;

  • meaning, however, was derived from behaviors and feelings reflecting concern for others and outcomes;

  • happiness is about the present moment and avoiding reflection, while meaning requires conscious reflection.

When a negative experience occurs, it can force an individual to reflect on why it might have happened, effectively fueling the processes that provide meaning in life.

Jeff Trueman