Happiness — 31 August 2009
How to find meaning in life events during setbacks

Humans yearn for a balanced life that supports physical, emotional and relationship harmony and secures comfort and happiness. When economic, social, emotional or relationship difficulties arise they trigger the deepest existential questions about the meaning and purpose of our lives. Finding answers that quell our fears and give us a framework for understanding helps us function better and cope with the stresses we encounter.

Life does not seem fair. Some people suffer more than others. Some are less fortunate from birth or circumstances, are afflicted with trauma, natural disasters, disease, abuse or poverty. Yet, despite all the pain and suffering certain people fair better in face of these and other adversities. They succeed in creating a life view that facilitates their survival and even helps them thrive. How do they do so? we wonder.

Dr. Baumeister, researcher at 
Case Western Reserve University, identified four needs that mold our processing of life’s meaning: Purpose, Efficacy, Value and Self-Worth.

Purpose involves setting sequential goals, appreciating accomplishments and life. Efficacy is the perception of control over outcomes and making a difference in some important way. Value is being morally justified. A positive self-worth for people means, “establishing that they are good, admirable, worthy individuals with desirable traits”.

This researcher’s findings suggest that in tragic as well as challenging ordinary life circumstances, when we can define the purpose of the event, label our area of control, ascribe a higher value to our actions and maintain our own self-esteem, we can carry the burden of life’s woes with greater courage and fortitude.

Research about the need for purpose was addressed by Drs. Janoff-Bulman and Wortman, who interviewed paralyzed individuals questioning “why me?” They found that explanations of purpose alleviated their stress.” Over half of the victims generated stories that linked their fate to a higher sense of purpose (e.g., a newfound appreciation for life)…Others who could not generate a clear benefit of their paralysis found solace in the conclusion that ‘”God had a reason.”

Efficacy (control) was studied by Drs. Gray and Silver who compared divorced spouses’ perceptions of events related to their marital breakup. They found that “the greater the control given to former spouses, the poorer their subsequent level of psychosocial adjustment.”

One’s value preservation occurs when “A person wants to be able to reflect on past behaviors as being right or morally justified.” In Baumeister’s studies of response to anger “transgressors downplayed the bad consequences, often by asserting that the victim’s anger was completely unjustified.” Transgressors also claimed that they “had good intentions and did not anticipate that their actions would bring the other harm.”

Maintaining one’s self-worth regarding one’s conduct and morals causes some reality adjustment. Baumeister’s et al. research about unrequited love found, that the pursued individual viewed the pursuer as an irrational person and himself as the “innocent bystander helpless to bring the unpleasant situation to an end.”

Using the above model for finding meaning during life’s large and small setbacks,

• Abstain from lamenting on the unfairness of life. It only subjects you to a greater state of powerlessness.
• Find a purpose for the stressful situation that is a benefit to you. For example, those who have previously been insufficiently attentive to their financial affairs may have learned to focus on their spending during the economic turndown.
• Resort to your faith for soothing answers.
• Identify areas of control in which you can impact even a small change in your situation. For example, having longer unemployment benefits empowers you to take the time to find the job you deserve.
• Take pride in practicing your high moral values. Such as, being helpful on an ongoing basis to a person in need, even if the recipient doesn’t seem appreciative.
• Maintain your self-worth. Despite being laid off affirm your work competency and trust in your future career success.

Related Articles

About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

(0) Readers Comments

Comments are closed.