In one group, the assistants acted as if they were experiencing anxiety. In the other group, the assistants acted excited and happy. Asked what the shot had done to them, subjects in the first group said the adrenaline shot made them feel anxious; subjects in the second group said the adrenaline made them feel excited and elated.
The way the assistants acted influenced the way the subjects interpreted their experience. And it was their interpretations that made their experience pleasant or unpleasant. The adrenaline shot was the same in both groups, and caused the same effects: it made their hearts pound, dilated their eyes, sent glucose to the muscles, and shut down the digestive tract.
Both groups experienced the same physical changes, but the way the assistants acted created a different meaning for the physical changes, and those meanings made the difference between anxiety and elation.
Change the meaning of an experience and the experience changes.
The late Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and a survivor of Hitler’s concentration camps, often changed the meaning of events for his patients, and it changed their lives. For example, an elderly and severely depressed man came to see Frankl. His wife had died and she had meant more to him than anything in the world.
“What would have happened,” Frankl asked the man, “if you had died first, and your wife would have survived you?”
The man answered: “Oh, for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!”
“You see,” said Frankl, “such a suffering has been spared her, and it is you who have spared her this suffering; but now, you have to pay for it by surviving and mourning her.”
The man didn’t say anything. He shook Dr. Frankl’s hand and calmly left. Frankl wrote:
Suffering ceases to be suffering in some way at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.
The meanings you make in your life can be the difference between anxiety and elation, between hopelessness and courage, between failure and success, and even, as Frankl discovered in the concentration camps, between living and dying.
You have some control over the way you interpret the events of your life. The meanings of events are not written in stone. You can create more useful meanings for yourself. All it takes is a little thought.
This article was excerpted from the book, Principles For Personal Growth by Adam Khan. Buy it now here.
Adam Khan is the author of Slotralogy, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of What Difference Does It Make?: How the Sexes Differ and What You Can Do About It. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.