Why Is this Happening to Me? Making Meaning of Life Difficulties

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3 min read

We’re going to spend a lot of time talking about finding meaning in life.

But the concept of “meaning in life” is not an easy one to get our arms around. The meaning we make of our lives and the events that befall us is highly subjective and largely a product of our unique personal histories, cultures, and personalities.

Amidst this diversity, however, common threads can be seen in the way that people make meaning of their lives.

One science-based model for understanding this process draws a distinction between global and situational meaning.

Here, global meaning refers to enduring values, beliefs about the world, perceptions of others, and expectations for oneself that, more or less, remain constant across a multitude of circumstances and situations.

     . . . it is exactly at this point where the rubber meets the road, where life experiences challenge us and provoke new understandings of the world, that we want to talk about. 

-Dr. Jason Holland, Lifespark 

In contrast, situational meaning is more specific and localized. It involves the way we interpret events and experiences as they unfold as well as when we re-interpret them upon later reflection. 

We might, for example, interpret an event as threatening or challenging, or perhaps attribute responsibility for it to ourselves or someone else.  

When our interpretation of an event is mostly consistent with the global meaning we’ve made of the world, memories of it are seamlessly integrated into the vast storehouse of personal knowledge in our brains. And the entire process unfolds automatically without a hitch.

However, when a life event or experience challenges our most basic assumptions in life, psychological distress is likely to follow.

It could be a sudden death that challenges our beliefs about the security and predictability of the world, or a job loss that makes us start to doubt our abilities and lose self-confidence.

In any case, when there is a conflict between situational and global meaning of this kind, we are faced with two fundamental choices. We can accommodate the event, by somehow altering our global beliefs to better fit the circumstances. So, maybe the world wasn’t as safe and predictable as I thought? Or perhaps I’m more vulnerable than I once believed?

Alternately, we could assimilate the event into existing understandings of the world, by developing an interpretation of it that is more consistent with our existing beliefs and worldviews. It could be re-interpreted as a growth experience or other connections could be made that help to integrate the discrepant event into an overarching life story that makes sense and allows for a hopeful future.

Read Related Article: One Easy Trick to Begin Seeing the World in a Different Way

Here at Lifespark, it is exactly at this point where the rubber meets the road, where life experiences challenge us and provoke new understandings of the world, that we want to talk about.

In the coming weeks and months ahead we’re going to explore meaning in both a global sense, discussing topics such as clarifying values and working with negative thoughts, as well as meaning at a more situational level, grappling with topics like coping with caregiving and learning to say goodbye to those we love.

For this week, we delve deeper into the concept of meaning in life.

In tomorrow’s piece, we draw a distinction between happiness and meaning in life and discuss their implications for your health and well-being.

On Wednesday, you can take our quiz and find out the extent to which you have made meaning of a stressful event in your life.

Then, we end the week with an exploration of the importance of stories in our pursuit of meaning (Thursday) and an explication of the 7 pillars of a meaningful life (Friday).

So, come back everyday this week for more on meaning and share your experience pursuing meaning in the Comments box below.

Watch Video: Finding Meaning in Suffering

Further Reading:













Park, C. L. (2010). Making sense of the meaning literature: An integrative review of meaning making and its effects on adjustment to stressful life events. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 257-301.


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