Are emotionally extreme life experiences more meaningful? What makes an experience meaningful?
What does it take to live a meaningful life? In trying to answer this question, most researchers focus on the valence of the life experience: is it positive or negative?
Researchers who focus on positive emotions have amassed evidence suggesting that we are more likely to find more meaning in our lives on days when we experience positive emotions.
In contrast, researchers taking a meaning-making perspective tend to focus on meaning in the context of adjustment to stressful events. These two areas of research are often treated separately from each other, making it difficult to answer the question about which valence of our emotional life—positive or negative—is most likely to be meaningful.
Both perspectives may be at least partly right.
Meaningfulness and happiness
In their classic paper ”Some Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life,“ Roy Baumeister and his colleagues zoomed in on the different outcomes associated with happiness (controlling for meaning) and meaningfulness (controlling for happiness).
Whereas happiness was positively correlated with the frequency of positive events in one’s life and negatively related to the frequency of negative events, greater meaningfulness was related both to a higher frequency of positive events and a higher frequency of negative events, as well as reports of more stress, time spent worrying, and time spent reflecting on struggles and challenges.
What’s going on here?
How can meaningful life be positively associated with both positive and negative experiences?
In a new paper, Sean Murphy and Brock Bastian suggest that a focus on emotional valence may have been a red herring for the field. By intentionally pitting “positive” experiences against “negative” experiences, researchers have focused on the difference between these experiences.
However, Murphy and Bastian argue that this has neglected our understanding of similarities in how the positivity and negativity of experiences are related to meaningfulness. They raise the intriguing possibility that the more relevant factor may be the extremity of the experience, not the valence. Perhaps both extremely pleasant and extremely painful events relative to more neutral events share a common set of characteristics that might lead them to be found more meaningful in life.
They set out to test this idea for the first time.
Across three studies, they collected reports of the most significant events in people’s lives across the emotional spectrum and measured the meaningfulness of the experiences. In line with their prediction, they found that the most meaningful events were those that were extremely pleasant or extremely painful.
They also looked at various qualities of the event that might explain the impact of emotional extremity on meaningfulness. They found that emotionally extreme experiences were found more meaningful in life in large part because of their emotional intensity and the contemplation they inspired (e.g., “I find myself analyzing this experience to try to make sense of it”).
Watch out this video to know about the science of emotions:
In fact, they consistently found that positive and negative events inspired contemplation to about the same degree. While the field has focused mostly on how traumatic events inspire contemplation, this finding is in line with research looking at the rumination that often occurs following positive moods.
Their findings on emotionally extreme experiences also point to the importance of intensity in building a meaningful life, a factor that hasn’t received as much attention in the field as the valence of the emotion. This work is important because it ties together literature on the meaning that has often been treated separately, or even in opposition, to each other. As the researchers note, the “commonalities reveal a more complete and nuanced picture about what determines the events we find meaningful and memorable.”