Meanings and Feelings

Stanley Schachter set up the following experiment: He first divided his experimental subjects into two groups and gave them all a shot of adrenaline. Then the subjects mingled with Schachter’s assistants, whom the subjects had been led to believe were given a shot too.

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.


  1. A friend of mine, Bob Boyle, sent me this comment:

    You wrote,

    > Change the meaning of an experience and the experience changes.

    I want to suggest that the experience doesn’t change just because you change the meaning, and only the meaning changes. In the previous paragraph you wrote,

    > 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.

    What I am saying is, the physical changes, that is to say the body sensations, and digestive system shut down are the experience, and the meaning is not. That’s not to say that the meaning is irrelevant. The meaning tells us how we will interpret the experience. If the meaning is uncomfortable, or unacceptable then the sensations will validate the discomfort, (the man who was depressed because his wife died). If the meaning is something we can accept then the sensations will be more tolerable (when Frankl reframed the situation). Whatever body sensations that man had around missing his wife were still the same. The reframe, as Frankl says, ceased his suffering!

    One may argue that the sensations and meaning are the experience. Experience by definition is something that happens to someone. The physiological sensations as a result of taking the adrenaline are something that is happening to you. The meaning we give those sensations is something we make up! The two are very different, but intimately intertwined.

    Your thoughts?

  2. I answered him this way:

    Yes, changing the meaning of an event can change the experience, even of pain. For example, someone who is working out may feel burning muscles, which is technically not a pleasant sensation, but he might be happy about it because he knows he is building strength or endurance. But if he didn't normally work out and was not interested in working out and he had to do something that made his muscles burn like that, it would merely be an unpleasant discomfort.

    I don't know if the division of physical sensation versus emotion is valid. I'm not even sure that's a division you're making. But emotions can show up as, at least in part, physical sensations. And a change in meaning can make you feel a different emotion, which could change some of your physical sensations. What are your thoughts on that?

    To which he responded:

    Yes, I agree with the second paragraph! This is what Buddhism calls suffering. Circumstances in life can cause “one dart” of body sensations. Then we have a choice, do we want to be present to that dart, or will we indulge ourselves in the “meaning” of that dart, and ruminate on that causing more “darts”. My understanding, according to Buddhism is the more darts, the more, or more severe the body sensations.

    Your example in the first paragraph demonstrates this. The person who works out and feels “happy” about his painful body sensations is being present to and accepting those sensations, thus he has experienced one “dart”. Your description of the second person sounds neutral, and if that’s the case, he also has one dart, and moves on, but in reality our minds do something with the body sensations, especially negative ones!

    So, painful body sensations that are unpleasant, are either good or bad. In the example of the guy who has accepted them, they are good. He may not like them, but he has accepted them as a part of moving towards his goal. If the second guy has, in his mind made them “bad”, then he will have thrown another “dart”. Thus, causing either more severe or additional body sensations. He may have accompanying thoughts such as, “this sucks, what’s the use, I suck at this, I can’t do this, I’m a loser, I’m not good enough!” These thoughts are additional darts that will either increase his already body sensation, or add new ones, or both! Those negative thoughts spark emotions like sadness, fear, shame, which I turn amplify the body sensations.

    So, I think I am changing my mind. I think the experience is a combination of thoughts, emotions, and body sensations! I just think it’s important to make the distinction between the three, so we know where to focus our attention in order to be present to what is occurring!��

    Bob Boyle
    Committed Coaching