By Dayna Mason
We hear a growl in the woods. We decide a bear may be coming for us and we prepare to run. This type of meaning-making ensures our survival. But sometimes the meaning we assign is based on faulty beliefs or past trauma and not helpful to our survival or wellbeing. When we take the time to question our judgments, we can gain new understanding, and experience greater happiness and wellbeing.
How we attribute meaning
There is no inherent meaning in anything. We are the ones who invent the stories. Meaning exists in the mind, not in the world.
We assign meaning, both good and bad to everything in our lives—events, objects, relationships, etc. This meaning-making is hardwired in us for survival. One of the first questions we repeatedly ask as children, is “Why?” We seek to understand our environment and everything in it to judge what effect it may have on our lives, so we can structure our behavior for predictability and viability. In other words, we create meaning and behave accordingly to stay alive.
There are two ways we assign meaning. The first is to assign meaning to a pattern of events that becomes beliefs or “truths” which stay with us long-term. Such as the childhood experience of our parent’s divorce which leads to the belief, “relationships don’t last.” The second is to assign meaning to specific events (external and internal—thoughts, feelings, memories) and only lasts as long as we focus on them. For example, if a friend walks into the room and doesn’t say hello to us, we may decide they don’t like us. This meaning is limited to this specific event.
In both cases we will behave as if our judgment is the truth. Because we think it is the truth. The reality in the first case is that our parents got divorced and in the second case our friend walked into the room and didn’t say hello. That’s all. Nothing more.
If we decide our friend didn’t say hello because they didn’t see us, we would have a different reaction than if we thought they didn’t like us. We only need look at the way two people face the same difficult circumstances, yet react completely differently, to see that there are no universal reactions to challenges in our lives.
How we respond is determined by what we believe.
Meaning-making for personal growth
The COVID-19 pandemic presents meaning-making growth opportunities. According to clinical psychologist, Paul T.P. Wong, PhD, “Crises are a chance for people to give up dead wood—toxic habits or patterns—and explore who they truly are and what really matters in life.”
Researchers have identified a phenomenon called “post-traumatic growth” which occurs when a person experiences positive changes—a higher level of psychological functioning—from a crisis as a result of actively searching for good in something terrible.
Our common coping response to struggle is to search for an underlying purpose to make our discomfort more bearable. Whether we look for the good or the bad in our circumstances dictates our degree of suffering and our long-term personal growth.
Choosing meaning in challenging times
There are many reasons for the COVID-19 pandemic floating around the internet. Unanticipated as well as sinister reasons assigned to natural, accidental, or intentional causes. When we have an idea about something in our minds, we tend to pay attention to information that supports our idea and ignore information that discredits it. This is called confirmation bias. We seek and find “evidence” to support whatever reason we decide is true. Even if that evidence is simply that someone we respect said so.
When we ask ourselves “What’s so?”, we can gain clarity about what is actually occurring in our reality rather than our perception of reality. For some of us, what’s so is that we’ve been told there is a virus that is spreading rapidly and that we can help save lives by staying at home, social distancing and washing our hands. From that reality we can assign meaning that helps us feel better or worse about that reality, empowered or scared.
If we believe that our staying at home is saving lives, we’ll likely feel helpful about participating in the greater good for our community and feel empowered by our contribution. If we believe our staying at home will not save lives and is part of a conspiratorial plot to control us, we’ll likely feel resentful, fearful and disempowered. In both scenarios the reality is the same: We are staying at home. But, in the first one we feel good about it and will potentially grow from the experience, while in the second one we feel bad about it and may end up traumatized by the experience.
Psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl explained in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, that there is nothing worse than perceiving that our suffering is useless. However, if we can find meaning in life, we won’t just endure suffering; we’ll see it as a challenge.
Meaning in life
Wellbeing researcher Laura King suggests that our lives are experienced as meaningful when we feel they have significance beyond the trivial or momentary. That they have purpose, or a coherence that transcends chaos.
According to a study published in Health Psychology Review, experiencing meaning in life not only nurtures us, but has been linked with improved health and quality of life, longevity, and lower rates of mental disorders including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
When we believe our lives are worthwhile, meaningful, we experience a higher quality of life regardless of our circumstances.
Frankl proposed that we can find meaning in life through loving actions towards others, constructive attitude toward unavoidable suffering, and through being part of a bigger context.
The meaning we attribute to our circumstances, lives and existence, determine our response to and experience of life as well as shapes our future.
We get to decide what we want this moment and ultimately our lives to mean. Let’s choose consciously and wisely.
Meaning in Life Questionnaire (MLQ):
The Meaning in Life Questionnaire (MLQ) is a 10-item measure of the presence of meaning in life, and the search for meaning in life. It is free to use for educational, therapeutic, and research purposes.
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