How to Make Meaning From Hardship
Challenges can really get us down and hurt our mental health. But there are things we can do to make them less bad. Here's how to turn your negative experiences into meaning-making moments.
*This page may include affiliate links; that means I earn from qualifying purchases of products.
We prefer pleasure over pain, happiness over sadness, and positive experiences over negative ones. But might negative experiences actually make us happier in the long run? Some evidence suggests that, yes, we can use those tough experiences to build ourselves up instead of letting them tear us down. In fact, any experience—from small things like a fight with a romantic partner to big things like losing a loved one—has the potential for helping us gain a greater sense of meaning in our lives.
Why does this happen? Challenging experiences often threaten to take away something that gives us meaning. We can let ourselves become overwhelmed by loss, or we can strive to gain a greater understanding of ourselves, others, and our place in the world to recover the sense of meaning that was lost.
Here are 7 ways to turn negative experiences into meaning-making moments:
1. Explore the impacts.
One way to make meaning from a negative experience is to explore its impacts. Ask yourself: How has this experience changed you? What have you learned? Who are you now that this thing has happened? By exploring how the events affected you and integrating them into who you are, you help generate a greater sense of meaning.
2. Know your narrative.
Each of us has an ever-evolving story about ourselves—a through-line about what happened when, why it happened, and how it led to whatever came next. We use these stories to understand how the hodgepodge experiences in our lives fit together. When we are able to integrate our negative experiences into our personal narrative, it feels like the events, and our lives, are part of a bigger picture. And as a result, we get a greater sense of meaning from them. To suck more meaning from your negative experiences, try writing down your story or timeline and reflecting on how each experience affected the others.
3. Imagine “what ifs.”
Perhaps counter-intuitively, thinking about what “could have happened” can help cultivate meaning. By imagining that we didn’t take the road where we got in that car accident or didn’t marry that person we are now divorcing, we play out scenarios that help us better understand what actually happened. This mental processing helps us gain insight into broader patterns that underlie all of our experiences. So if you find yourself thinking “What if?” don’t fight it. Feel free to explore hypothetical realities, but be sure to use these thoughts to better understand this reality and why it is the way it is.
4. Generate awe.
Experiencing awe may also help foster meaning in life. Awe can generate positive feelings (like when we witness the birth of a new baby) and negative feelings (like when we witness a tornado, fire, or flood destroy a whole neighborhood). Awe makes time seem like it’s standing still and helps us be more open to learning. So by focusing on how your negative experiences generate feelings of awe, you may be able to more easily open your mind to meaning-making moments.
5. Strengthen your social bonds.
Let’s face it: When we feel lousy, sometimes we just want to retreat into a corner and hide. But if we use negative experiences to motivate us to reach out to people who care about us, then we can strengthen our relationships instead of harming them. By opting to cope with our rough times by seeking out social support, we seize more opportunities to create meaning-making moments with the people in our lives that matter to us.
6. Connect to your past.
When our sense of meaning is threatened, we can help make sense of the situation by connecting to our past. For example, by noticing vintage items, looking at old photographs, or remembering positive stories behind our mementos, we may remind ourselves of the interconnectedness and meaning behind all things. So during rough moments, take some time to reflect on objects that bring back memories. Use these objects to help you create a thread that takes you from the beginning of your life up until this moment.
7. Reflect on your future path.
When something bad happens to us, sometimes we’ll start to question the decisions we’ve made in the past—decisions that led up to this point. To make more meaning from this moment, though, take the opportunity to think about how you will make decisions differently in the future. Perhaps your near-death experience can lead you to choose to spend more of your life engaging in things that matter to you. Or maybe the end of your friendship can lead you to choose friends that accept you for who you really are. There is great potential for difficult experiences to prompt us make better decisions regarding the lives we create for ourselves. If we accept this challenge, we can live more satisfying and meaningful lives.
Vohs, K. D., Aaker, J. L., & Catapano, R. (2018). It's Not Going to Be That Fun: Negative Experiences Can Add Meaning to Life. Current opinion in psychology.
About Dr. Tchiki Davis
Dr. Davis is founder of The Berkeley Well-Being Institute. After getting her PhD in psychology at Berkeley, she started creating online content & programs to boost well-being—some of these have reached more than a million people. As author of Outsmart Your Smartphone, and contributor to Psychology Today, The Greater Good Science Center, and Shine Text, Dr. Davis aims to share her insights on happiness & health with people all across the world. Learn more about Dr. Davis.