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University of Missouri

Being Cheerful Makes Sense

Psychologist Laura King studies what people think meaning is and how they come by it.

Laura King

Psychologist Laura King tracks the connections of mood and meaning. Photo by Nicholas Benner.

Most of us have had a certain thought during some difficult moment: If only I could understand why it happened, I would feel better.

Ah, the search for meaning.

Laura King, professor of psychological sciences at MU, studies what people think meaning is and how they come by it. Many define meaning as pursuing a high purpose or goal or living a life that matters in some grand way. These people likely rely on introspection and grueling analysis to locate the big answers. But King thinks differently: Meaning is everywhere, just for the taking.

King’s early studies explored meaning related to religious faith and contributions to society. But the data pointed in a new direction. “The people who were saying, ‘I’m in a cheerful mood’ were also the ones saying, ‘My life is super-meaningful.’ ” At first, King was confused. Then it dawned on her: “What if one thing that makes life meaningful is just being in a pretty good mood? That’s a lot easier to achieve.”

It’s intuitive.

Our sense of meaning starts with the natural world — the reliability of sunsets, sunrises, seasons. “Truth is, objects fall down. They don’t fall up,” King says. “Basic natural laws imbue our world with sense. We overlay that with meaning that comes from habits and routines. When life conforms to these patterns and rituals, then meaning is present. Meaning is about extracting the lawful associations in our world so we can survive.”

In other words, meaning comes from seeing connections and sensing “rightness.” Analytical thinking can derail it, King says. The logic-based conscious mind analyzes problems and comes up with the answer. “But the intuitive side says, ‘If it feels right, it is right.’ We know that positive emotion facilitates intuitive processing, and being in distress fosters conscious analysis.” The upshot: Being in a good mood increases the odds that life will feel meaningful.

So flop the opening sentiment, and try it a la King: “If I felt better, things would make more sense.”