making meaning of trauma

making meaning of trauma

Traumas are extremely negative life events, such as war, terrorism, violence, homelessness or other displacement, serious illness, death and so forth (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Traumatic events can help a person make meaning out of life (Park, 2010) and could stimulate a life purpose (Ryff, Keyes, & Hughes, 2003).

Life purpose includes turning actions into a meaningful and beneficial life for oneself and for others (Damon, Menon & Bronk, 2003). In particular, a strong negative event may lead someone to act more prosocially—to improve the lives of others (Vollhardt, 2009). Life purpose, in turn, is associated with resilience and well-being (Diener, Fujita, Tay, & Biswas-Diener, 2012).

It is possible to become more resilient following trauma (Nugent, Sumner, & Amstadter, 2014). One study found a positive relationship between resilience and life satisfaction (Altundağ & Bulut, 2014). Emerging on the other side of the traumatic event can relate to feelings of resiliency and happiness (Altundağ & Bulut, 2014). Additionally, researchers have found that meaning-making was associated with higher psychological well-being (Tavernier & Willoughby, 2012).

Thus, someone who has been through a traumatic life event may cope by turning the event into something positive and meaningful. For example, a parent whose child passed away may decide to start a foundation in the child’s honor (Brooks, 2014). This parent becomes resilient and looks to make meaning out of the death of their child. Making sense out of this tragic event may facilitate a more meaningful purpose.

Trauma is a turning point, a reaction to a strong negative life event. If someone can make meaning out of it, then they may be happier in the long run because it clarifies what they are meant to do with their lives. That is,, perhaps this happiness will be through finding a life purpose (Hill, Sumner, & Burrow, 2014).


By Hannah Camiel, Clark University, USA



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Hill, P. L., Sumner, R., Burrow, A. L. (2014). Understanding the pathways to purpose: Examining personality and well-being correlates across adulthood. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 9(3), 227-234.

Nugent, N. R., Sumner, J. A., & Amstadter, A. B. (2014). Resilience after trauma: From surviving to thriving. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 5, 1-4.

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(2), 257-201.

Ryff, C. D., Keyes, C. L., & Hughes, D. L. (2003). Status inequalities, perceived discrimination, and eudaimonic well-being: do the challenges of minority life hone purpose and growth? Journal of health and Social Behavior, 44(3), 275-291.

Tavernier, R., & Willoughby, T. (2012). Adolescent turning points: The association between meaning-making and psychological well-being. Developmental Psychology, 48(4), 1058-1068.

Vollhardt, J. R. (2009). Altruism born of suffering and prosocial behavior following adverse life events: A review and conceptualization. Social Justice Research, 22(1), 53-97.