Life affords many exquisitely meaningful moments: the deep pleasure of connecting with one's romantic partner, experiencing a sunset on a long summer evening, or the excitement of cultivating a new friendship.
However, life is also full of trying times—moments that make us question much of what we've come to expect out of the world: the loss of a loved one, a negative health diagnosis, or losing one's job. How do we overcome these times? How do we press on and make meaning during times in which we feel overwhelmed, overstressed, or overcome with grief?
During stressful times, people rely on a variety of ways to cope. Some people rely on their religious or spiritual beliefs. Others turn to gain comfort from their most cherished relationships. Still others don't respond as positively. Some turn inward, become burdened with grief, and no longer reach out toward others. How can we make sense of these trying times and try to respond more positively?
First, we should understand that life, as a whole, is fairly meaningful. Samantha Heintzelman and Laura King (2014) argue that meaning serves an adaptive function, and we humans are pretty good at finding meaning in various ways. Some people find it through relationships, religion, or recommitting themselves to doing good deeds. But know that most people do bounce back and find meaning again.
Second, whenever possible, we should look at the stressful life event as an opportunity rather than a threat. Whereas the loss of a loved one hardly seems like an opportunity for growth, other sources of stress (e.g., losing a job) might be an opportunity to gain new perspective, recalibrate one's sense of purpose and calling, or find ways to build on one's strengths. Crystal Park (2010) suggests that most of the time (but not always), people find some sense of meaning following stressful events in their lives.
Third, it's important to find support during tough times. Close relationships are a source of meaning in life (Baumiester, 1991). When going through challenges, social support is key. Sharing your feelings, gaining support from friends and family, and having people there to make sure you take care of yourself are important in this process. It's best when we don't have to go through this alone.
Life is both full of beauty and joy, as well as pain and suffering. We'll all encounter tough times in life, and overcoming these hard times is part of the human experience. With any hope, we can take steps to try and make the journey more meaningful.
Baumeister, R. F. (1991). Meanings of life. New York: Guilford Press.
Heintzelman, S. J., & King, L. A. (2014) Life is pretty meaningful. American Psychologist.
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.