two years ago, my life was hit by a series of difficult situations. My grandmother died, I underwent unexpected surgery on my shoulder, my parents divorced, and my father suffered a stroke. It felt as if great challenges were hitting me left and right. A few months of calm would pass, and then bam, life would hit me back in the face.
Without trying any of these experiences, I found myself surprisingly quiet, thoughtful and able to tolerate everyone.
Difficult circumstances drew my husband and me closer. I grew more emotionally than ever before, which led me to make better decisions and protect my boundaries. Also, I started to think seriously about life, which allowed me to communicate more deeply with my writing.
It turns out that my feelings are supported by science. A 2019 study by Sean Murphy and Brock Bastian published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, “Extreme emotional experiences in life have a purpose,” found that when it comes to creating a meaningful life, resilience is more important than good or bad.
Prior to this study, many studies supported the notion that valence of events, meaning how good or bad they were, were very important in determining which events in our lives were most meaningful. One study supported the idea that positive events were very important, while another study suggested that traumatic events were very important because they changed our understanding of the world and forced us to look for meaning.
This study attempted to determine if it was not an important valence of experience, but rather an emotional intensity of it. The authors conducted three studies, most of which asked participants to rate several factors regarding important health events:
How valuable was the experience;
It was fun or how sad it happened;
How emotionally powerful the experience was;
Communicating with people, or how much information has been shared with others;
How inspiring the event was;
How the experience was different for each person;
That participants think that fate is involved, which means that the event took place for a reason; and
How much growth a person has encouraged the event, measured by whether they felt that it made them better.
Researchers found that happy and sad experiences were equally important, and that extreme emotional experiences were more important than strong, neutral ones.
“The most traumatic and exciting events in particular can have an impact, in part, because of their shared tendency to experience such a great deal of emotional turmoil,” write the study authors.
In an effort to better understand this conclusion, I asked myself the above questions about a major event in my life: my parents’ recent divorce. The event was painful, emotionally intense and traumatic – no doubt — but also meaningful because it encouraged deep communication between me and my twin; compelled me to reflect on how much my childhood had affected what I am today; and I encouraged personal growth more than any other moment in my life so far.
My parents’ divorce is very high on the most important moments in my life – close to other big events like my wedding day. While one had a surprisingly good hope and the other was not, I would say that they both had an equal impact on my life.
The authors conclude that when it comes to seeking meaning in our lives, it is better to look at what has happened far beyond.
“We have found that these commonalities can give a complete and definite picture of what determines what events we find meaningful and memorable,” the authors of the study wrote. “The worst events have been found to be more meaningful, in part, because of their emotional strength, and the meditation they encourage.”
Now what does all of this really mean? As human beings, we are always looking for the purpose of our lives. We build our kind of life story with the essentials, both negative and healthy. While you may think that positive events are very important, negative ones are important.
Traumatic events can be difficult to quantify – many of us mourn the loss and wonder why me? But this study shows that no matter how traumatic experiences may be, they are an essential element of a meaningful life.
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