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Meaning-Focused Coping

written by Kathryn Britton 15 May 2009

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

“I like company. How about a conversation?”

I was at Weaver Street Market, waiting for a friend who was a little bit late for lunch, and caught sight of an older gentleman sitting at an outdoor table with his white-tipped cane under his seat. Around his neck, he wore a sign that said, “I like company. How about a 5-minute conversation?”

CompanionshipIt took a few minutes, but curiosity overcame shyness. I sat down at his table, introduced myself, found out his name was Peter. Then I asked what he liked to talk about. He said, “Oh, just about anything. I have Parkinson’s, and I’m blind. But that doesn’t mean I want to sit around the senior center and talk about constipation and getting old. When I come here, I never know who I’m going to talk to or what about. So far today I’ve talked to a young mother who let me feel the top of her baby’s head, to a graduate student about his research project, to an accountant about how the economic times are affecting his work. And now I’m talking to you … about whatever is on your mind.” Before my lunch date arrived, we talked about resilience, positive emotion, and fortitude.

Stories are more sticky than research studies. But all stories aren’t equally generalizable. I was reminded of this when I read about the law of large numbers in Natalie Angier’s book, The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science. She claims that winning the lottery twice becomes increasingly likely as the size of a population grows. But you wouldn’t bet your future on winning the lottery twice yourself. One goal of PPND is to tell stories that make research results sticky for a broad audience. So what does Peter exemplify?

Positive Emotion Plays a Part in Coping

When we think about coping, we normally imagine using certain behaviors to deal with negative events. We mostly imagine ourselves using resilience techniques to dispel a cloud of negative emotion.

Walking the winter road together
Walking Together in Winter Woods
There’s a lovely paper by Psychologist Susan Folkman at the University of California, San Francisco arguing that people forget the role that positive emotion plays in coping. Positive emotion helps us sustain coping behaviors, take breathers from distress, and restore our coping energy. For example, Aren’s common sense leads her to defuse distressing news with laughter. Research by Bonanno and Keltner found that bereaved individuals who laughed at least once when talking about the lost relationships tended to have better adjustment.

Folkman describes an update to the stress coping model that she and Lazarus presented in 1984. The original model showed a sequence of activities following an event: Appraisal, Coping, Outcome, Emotion. The model had two pathways from a harmful or threatening event. The first led simply to favorable resolution and positive emotion. The second pathway, led to an unfavorable resolution and distress, with a loop back to the appraisal process labeled negative emotion.

In the revised model, the favorable resolution pathway is the same, but the unfavorable resolution pathway has been extended to include the impacts of positive emotion as people deal with unfavorable outcomes. Positive emotion affects the way people reappraise the event, the energy and the resources they have available for coping, and the meaning they derive from unfavorable outcomes.

Meaning-Focused Coping

Meaning-focused coping is in its essence, appraisal-based coping in which the person draws on his or her beliefs (e.g., religious, spiritual, or beliefs about justice), values (e.g., ‘‘mattering’’), and existential goals (e.g., purpose in life or guiding principles) to motivate and sustain coping and well-being during a difficult time. Folkman, 2008

Folkman references the findings of more than 25 research papers as she reviews the following kinds of meaning-focused coping:

  • Benefit finding, the most commonly reported form of meaning-focused coping, involves seeking the benefits that come out of misfortune, whether they be growth in wisdom, patience, and competence, greater appreciation for life, better sense of what really matters, or stronger social relationships.
  • Benefit reminding involves making an intentional effort to recall previously found benefits.
  • Stepping stones

  • Adaptive goal processes involve reappraising goals in the light of changed circumstances, giving up goals that no longer work, and substituting new goals that are valuable to the individual. Who knows what Peter’s goals were when he was young and strong? For now, he has substituted 5-minute conversations and learning about interesting strangers. Positive emotions can help people deal with the stress of giving up old goals that no longer work.
  • Reordering priorities is a value-based process where aspects of life move up or down the priority ladder. Perhaps a job used to be the highest priority in life. Then a family illness made the welfare of family members move up in priority, the job move down. Sometimes priority reordering involves careful thought, but sometimes it just happens. Reordering priorities can be very stressful, but it can also lead to a renewed sense of purpose. Often it contributes to coping by narrowing focus to those factors that matter most, allowing people to let go of things that are no longer consequential.
  • Infusing ordinary events with positive meaning in order to experience positive emotion. A caregiver might think about cleaning up messes as a way of expressing love. I believe Peter finds meaning in simple conversations. Folkman suggests that the desire to feel good takes on critical importance for maintaining mental and physical well-being during difficult times.

People often look back on difficult times as defining events that helped them become more truly themselves. Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation wouldn’t be so without having gone through the crucible of World War II. Folkman’s message is that positive emotions play a strongly adaptive role in times that we think are dominated by negative emotions. Positive emotions lead people to make more positive appraisals of events, maintain energy for coping, and find meaning in stress and suffering.

Tools for Peter’s Outcome

Money worries, job loss, rocky economy, possible pandemics, growing old, concern about aging parents, children who are graduating into an uncertain job market … many of today’s worries are shared widely. How do proponents of positive psychology talk to people experiencing hard times without seeming out of touch? This week, University of Michigan psychologist Christopher Peterson wrote in his blog about translational research, where learning flows not just bench to bedside, but also bedside to bench. He argues that positive psychology, “at least when done well, can teach the rest of psychology how to do translational research.”

I think the answer to my question is that positive psychology proponents can help people translate generalizable results from research into behaviors that affect their own outcomes. Tough times happen, but some people come through them better than others. Once people are aware of the factors that make the difference. including positive emotion and meaning-focused coping, they are in a better position to deal with adversity. Stories of others who have dealt effectively with suffering also help — stories about someone laughing when caring for a dying loved one or reordering priorities to take care of a family member in need or changing goals after losing a job. Peter moving beyond his Parkinson’s and blindness reminds us that people can be very resourceful in adversity.



Folkman, S. & Moskovitz, J. T. (2000). Positive affect and the other side of coping. American Psychologist, 55(6), 647-654.

Folkman, S. (2008). The case for positive emotions in the stress process. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 21(1), 3-14.

Angier, N. (2008). The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science. Mariner Books.

Bonanno, G. A., & Keltner, D. (1997). Facial expressions of emotion and the course of conjugal bereavement. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 106, 126-137.

Brokaw, T. (2005). The Greatest Generation. Random House.

Tennen, H., & Affleck, G. (2002). Benefit-finding and benefit-reminding. In C. R. Snyder, & S. J. Lopez (Eds.),
Handbook of Positive Psychology. pp. 584-597. New York: Oxford University Press.

Companionship courtesy of papalar
Stepping stones courtesy of Maria Keays
Meaningful (two older people walking down a winter road together) courtesy of kwerfeldein

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WJ 1 June 2009 - 3:42 pm


Thanx for the Folkman study – again I guess I’d be interested in understanding which positive emotions are useful. I supect it might be the subtle ones like calmness that might be more achieavble in times of stress – just a hunch

Denise 1 June 2009 - 3:43 pm

Kathryn, your terrific piece reminds me of Dr. Becca Levy’s work on aging, and the effects of optimism, social connection, happiness and other psych and social dimensions on longevity … nice summary here: http://www.globalaging.org/health/us/positive.htm


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