Extreme experiences feel more meaningful, regardless whether they are pleasurable or painful

Viennese psychoanalyst and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl (1984) advocated ‘the will to meaning’ as our ‘primary concern’. He urged us to recognise that happiness and success are by-products of living a meaningful life and pursuing our unique purpose. This awareness of meaning allows us to overcome hardship and suffering and contemporary researchers, including Julienne Bower and colleagues (1998) have demonstrated that finding meaning in painful experiences may actually improve immune system function. It appears, living meaningfully may not only enrich our lives but lengthen them too! But can meaning only be found in pain or can pleasurable experiences also set the wheels of meaning-making in motion? 

Until now, research has tended to contrast positive and negative experiences as opportunities for personal growth, seeing both as important but for different reasons. In contrast, Sean Murphy and Brock Bastian (2019) suggest that it is the extremity of an experience, not its valence, that provides the necessary conditions for meaning-making. The authors explore why this might be the case, focusing on the shared features of positive and negative experiences, including emotional intensity, social closeness and contemplation.

466 participants were asked to write about their most significant event of the last year or the past the past three months. Next, they rated the experience for meaningfulness, pleasure/painfulness, extremity and emotional intensity. Amongst other things, they also rated its rarity/uniqueness, how socially connected it made them feel and the extent to which it induced subsequent contemplation. 

The analysis revealed a curvilinear relationship between valence and meaningfulness; valence was not associated with meaningfulness per se, yet extreme experiences were more meaningful than less extreme experiences, regardless of pleasantness or painfulness. Both extreme positive and extreme negative events were associated with high levels of emotional intensity and this factor is posited as central to the perception of meaningfulness. 

The notion that highly emotional events lead to more vivid and durable memory traces is well documented (e.g. Christianson 2014) as is the suggestion that distinctive items are less vulnerable to forgetting (e.g. Reed Hunt and Worthen 2006). When applied to the recall of events in our own lives one can see how unique and intense experiences may periodically drift into conscious awareness, causing us to reflect upon them in an attempt to understand why they keep appearing to us. 

As expected, the authors found a significant association between contemplation and meaningfulness, highlighting the importance of paying attention to our inner mental life. However, the line between constructive contemplation and destructive rumination seems a fine one and the authors note that they are also researching trait rumination in a separate project. 

Feeling socially connected through shared experiences was also associated with perceived meaningfulness. Sociality was more common in pleasurable/positive experiences and contemplation in more negative experiences, yet both were found to be associated with extremity and meaningfulness. These associations were, however, only significant in the group who reported events from the past three months. 

A partial replication of the first study (n=395) evidenced the reliability of these trends but the authors outline a number of potential threats to validity. For example, people who report negative experiences may differ systematically from those who report positive experiences, signalling the possible impact of participant variables on the perceived meaningfulness of life experiences. Furthermore, approximately twice as many positive experiences were reported as negative and the authors felt the negative events that were reported may not have been representative of the wide array of less significant negative experiences faced in our daily lives. 

To remedy this situation, a final study employed a counterbalanced repeated measures design involving a further 472 participants who reported not only their most rewarding, enjoyable, or pleasant experience but also their most adverse, challenging, or painful experience from the past year. This simultaneously removed participant variables and increased the number of negative experiences to be used in the analysis. This time painful experiences tended to be less meaningful than positive, although the authors felt that this may have been because participants were forced to report one of each type of event and may have been reporting negative events of less gravity than in the previous study. Secondly, while social closeness was associated with pleasant experiences, the curvilinear association with extremity that was seen with emotional intensity and contemplation was not replicated.

Overall, Murphy and Bastian conclude that experience extremity, not valence, determines perceived meaningfulness and this is mediated by emotion intensity, social closeness and contemplation. Uniqueness was also related to meaningfulness and this is also understandable as rare events are likely to be more memorable due to their distinctiveness. This means they will be available for contemplation, potentially leading to meaningfulness, as the mind works to assimilate them into our richly inter-connected web of autobiographical memories.

The common wisdom that ‘everything happens for a reason’ may prompt many people to seek meaning in painful and unexpected negative life events, but this study demonstrates that positive experiences may similarly be subject to contemplation, if they are extreme and emotionally intense. However, it is possible that Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Peak-End’ rule can be usefully applied here. His carefully controlled experimental studies demonstrate that decision-making is often coloured by information garnered at the emotionally intense ‘peak’ of an experience (and the end), with less significance being attached to the sum total or average of the experience as a whole. Here, it would appear that we judge experiences as meaningful only when they are highly arousing meaning that we are less disposed to find meaning in the ‘quieter’, more mundane moments of our lives. Given that these more banal experiences are infinitely more common for most people, perhaps we can learn lessons from Murphy and Bastian’s study and spend more time contemplating these experiences, working to make them more social and less personal. Perhaps too, we need to ensure that life doesn’t move so fast, in our head-long pursuit of ‘peak experiences’ that we miss opportunities to reflect and savour our past experiences, good and bad, sharing memories, collectively assigning meaning, constructing, defining and anchoring ourselves within the chapters of our ever-evolving life stories. 

The authors confess that little is really understood about how and why contemplation of positive events fosters meaningfulness and suggest this as a focus for future research. In addition, a consideration of the extent to which both positive and negative experiences are within the individual’s control may be fruitful, as behavioural intentions may also be linked with perceived meaningfulness. 

While this study goes some way to helping us understand why some specific and memorable experiences are perceived as more meaningful than others, the authors caution that we are yet to understand the processes by which we construct coherent storylines from these disparate but seemingly meaningful episodes.  Future research in this field could benefit from prospective, longitudinal designs, allowing researchers to track to the creation of meaning in real time. Murphy and Bastian highlight that causality cannot be established and thus emotional intensity may be a consequence of perceived meaningfulness and not a cause. Experimental manipulation of sociality and contemplation could be useful in determining whether these are indeed causal factors in the creation of meaning. Finally, all participants were self-selected mTurk workers, aged approximately 35; future research with participants at different life stages may reveal important differences. Furthermore, researchers should seek to include participants from a variety of non-individualist cultural backgrounds. This paper cited no demographic detail of the participants and given the critical role of religiosity and spirituality (see Yaden et al. 2017), not to mention psychotherapy/counselling, in the search for meaning, this seems an important consideration. I felt that this paper could also have benefited from the integration of some of the qualitative data, as I was curious to know more about the nature of the experiences that the participants described. 

Since, the events we perceive as more meaningful are likely to be the ones which become most tightly woven into the fabric of our life stories, continued research into ‘man’s search for meaning’ seems thoroughly justified.  

References

Bower, J. E., Kemeny, M. E. & Taylor, S. E. (1998). Cognitive processing, discovery of meaning, CD4 decline, and AIDS related mortality among bereaved HIV-seropositive men. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 66. 6, 979-986. 

Christianson, S. (2014). The handbook of emotion and memory: Research and theory. New York. Psychology Press.

Frankl, V. E. (1984). Man’s search for meaning. (1962). Man’s search for meaning. New York, NY: Washington Square Press. 

Kahneman, D., Fredrickson, B. L., Schreiber, C. A., & Redelmeier, D. A. (1993). When more pain is preferred to less: Adding a better end. Psychological Science, 4, 401–405.

Murphy, S. C., & Bastian, B. (2019). Emotionally extreme life experiences are more meaningful. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1-12.

Reed Hunt, R. & Worthen, J. B. (2006). Distinctiveness and Memory. Oxford University Press.

Yaden, D., Iwry, J., Esfahani Smith, E. & Pawelski, J. O. (2017). Secularism and the Science of Well-Being. In ‘The Oxford Handbook of Secularism’. Edited by Phil Zuckerman and John R. Shook. 1-24.

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