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What does it take to live a meaningful life? In trying to answer this question, most researchers focus on the valence of the life experience: is it positive or negative?
Researchers who focus on positive emotions have
Both perspectives may be at least partly right. In their classic paper ”
In a new paper,
They set out to test this idea for the first time. Across three studies, they collected reports of the most significant events in people's lives across the emotional spectrum and measured the meaningfulness of the experiences. In line with their prediction, they found that the most meaningful events were those that were extremely pleasant or extremely painful.
They also looked at various qualities of the event that might explain the impact of emotional extremity on meaningfulness. They found that extreme events were found more meaningful in large part because of their emotional intensity and the contemplation they inspired (e.g., “I find myself analyzing this experience to try to make sense of it”). In fact, they consistently found that positive and negative events inspired contemplation to about the same degree. While the field has focused mostly on how traumatic events inspire contemplation, this finding is in line with
Their findings also point to the importance of
Their findings have a number of important implications for our understanding of the good life as well as our understanding of human nature more generally. On the surface, it may seem perplexing that so many people intentionally behave in counter-hedonic ways, actively seeking out unpleasant experiences.
For instance, in their paper “
However, the findings of Murphy and Bastian suggest that it's not the sadness, per se, that is enjoyable, but the intensity of the experience that is enjoyable because it leads to a greater sense of meaning. This makes sense from a
Over 50 years ago, Abraham Maslow talked about the importance of “
Similarly, in his 2018 book
These findings also have implications for the mindfulness craze, and provide a much-needed counterpoint to the the current trend of viewing calm and tranquil experiences as most conducive to a life well lived. To be sure, mindfulness, meditation, and cultivating inner calm can be beneficial for
However, the intensity of peak experiences may be more likely to define who we are. At the end of our lives, will we look back and remember most poignantly all of the calm and tranquil meditation sessions we had, or will we remember the moments that plumbed the depths of our emotional life, that made us feel most alive?
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.
Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D., is a humanistic psychologist exploring the depths of human potential. He has taught courses on intelligence, creativity, and well-being at Columbia University, NYU, the University of Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. In addition to writing the column
Credit: Andrew French
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... has always been viewing of the subject or object in isolation. In most fields of study, things are treated as separate from each other. Objects are dissected and analysed by breaking them down to atomic levels. For Example, the mind is treated as separate from the body.
This ‘Divide and Rule’ is visible in the research of emotional valence, where positive experiences are pitted against the negative experiences, with an inherent bias.
Intense experiences of both kinds, good and bad, are helping build meaning in life to the same degree, and are complementing each other, according to research.
If a person has mostly good experiences, or mostly bad ones, his life cycle, in a way, is still incomplete. To truly get the meaning of life, both negative and positive life experiences are required.
These new findings on the synergy of good and bad experiences in our lives go against our usual ways of ‘compartmentalized’ thinking and give us a glimpse of the integrated and dual nature of reality.
They also explains why we seek out unpleasant, or even dangerous experiences, like watching horror movies, going on thrilling rides which can be risky, or just being exhausted.
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