Kathleen Vohs poses in front of a black background

Professor Kathleen Vohs Explains How Negative Experiences Can Add Meaning to Life

Thursday, April 18, 2019

People tend to seek out positive experiences to enrich their lives. But are there also hidden benefits to having negative experiences? While someone involved in such a situation might not enjoy it, a new study indicates the answer appears to be “yes.”

The research was recently published in Current Opinion in Psychology.

Happiness and meaningfulness are often described as forms of positivity, but the authors of this study posit that conceptualizing meaningfulness as inherently positive obscures the ways in which negative experiences can provide meaning in our lives.

“It’s almost a truism that people desire positive experiences and avoid negative ones,” said Kathleen Vohs, a University of Minnesota behavioral scientist. “Yet trying to live in a world without challenge, troubles, or difficulties is both not realistic and, we thought, could actually make for a less meaningful life.”

Happiness and meaning are not one and the same

To determine if negative experiences did provide meaning in people’s lives, the researchers reviewed data Vohs had previously collected through surveying hundreds of Americans multiple times across several months. Respondents reported to what degree their lives have meaning and, separately, how much of their lives were happy. Using statistical techniques that allowed the researchers to pinpoint the unique aspects of meaning in life and happiness, they looked at what predicted having a meaningful or happy life. 

Previous research found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that happiness was about feeling good, avoiding feeling bad, and having one’s needs met.  People said their lives were happier when they spent more time focusing on the present moment and avoiding self-reflection. In contrast, people reported that their lives have meaning more so when their behaviors and feelings stemmed from concern for others and outcomes beyond just what was good for oneself. Additionally, lives that had more meaning were also those in which people devoted time for conscious reflection.

Negative events present an opportunity to reflect 

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. Reviewing interview data from parents whose young children recently had died, Vohs and colleagues looked for meaning indicators. Few of these parents used language expressing happiness, but nearly all of them used language seeking understanding of the event.

Less traumatic events like fights with a spouse, job loss, or physical illness can similarly cause a search for meaning.

“Our research showed that while people don’t necessarily like or appreciate negative events, it is exactly those events that stimulate the mental processes that produce meaningfulness,” Vohs said. “That is, negative events seem to provide an opportunity to draw meaning from them, and recognizing that offers a new perspective on the value of negativity in everyday life.”

Despite the potential to add meaning to their lives, researchers said they do not expect people to seek out negative experiences. Instead, they suggested that when negative events occur, people could use it as an opportunity to reflect.

In addition to Professor Vohs, the research team included Jennifer Aaker, professor of marketing, and PhD student Rhia Catapano, both of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.

Fall 2019 alumni magazine cover

This article appeared in the Fall 2019 alumni magazine

The Carlson School is celebrating its centennial. In this issue, we examine our storied history (and the people that made it possible) and look forward to the next 100 years of excellence.

Fall 2019 table of contents