Master the Art of Making Meaning

Chapter 7 of the book Self-Help Stuff That Works

by Adam Khan:

YOUR MIND IS A meaning-making machine. Without even trying, you "know what things mean, at least most of the time. When someone treats you rudely, your mind interprets that. It makes some meaning out of it. And it's completely automatic. That is, you don't stop and think about it. You don't try to make an interpretation. It happens without any effort on your part.

The meanings you make affect the way you feel and determine how you interact with people and circumstances. The interpretations you make about the events in your life have a significant influence on the amount of stress you experience in your day.

For example, let's say someone cuts you off on the freeway. And let's further postulate, just for fun, that your automatic interpretation is "What a jerk." The interpretation would probably make you upset, at least a little bit. But realize that it doesn't feel like you're making the interpretation "What a jerk." The way it feels to you is that your assessment of the person is obvious, and anyone in their right mind would make the same assessment in the same circumstances. But believe it or not, your interpretation was your own doing, and it wasn't the only possible interpretation you could have made.

The important thing about this is that your interpretations change the way you feel, and those feelings change the way you interact with the world.

The good news is: You're not stuck with the interpretations your mind makes automatically. You can come up with new ones. You wouldn't marry the first person you met after puberty, would you? You wouldn't take a job at the first place you saw a "Help Wanted" sign, would you? Well, you don't have to use the first interpretation that pops into your head, either.


In the example above, the possible ways to interpret someone cutting you off are virtually unlimited. How about this one: The person had unexpected car trouble and now is running terribly late to an important appointment. If the driver is a woman, maybe she's in labor and needs to get to a hospital now. If it's a man, maybe he was called at work and told his wife is in labor. Maybe his brakes went out. Maybe he's having heart trouble.

None of those interpretations are better than any others in an absolute way. But which one leaves you able to go on about your day feeling fine? Or, if it's a situation that keeps repeating itself and requires action, which interpretation will make you most effective at dealing with that situation?

Challenge yourself. Don't settle for the first interpretation that comes to mind. Say to yourself, "Okay, it might mean that...what else could it mean? What's another way to interpret this?" You will feel better, treat people better, and handle situations better. Do you know what this could mean to you? You tell me.

Come up with alternative ways of interpreting an event.

Why aren't we more positive naturally? Why does it seems our minds and the minds of those around us gravitate toward the negative? It's not anyone's fault. It is merely the product of our evolution. Read about how it came about and what you can do to improve your general positivity:
Unnatural Acts

Would you like to learn more about the fine art of positive thinking? Would you like to behold the power of positive thinking? How about the power of anti-negative thinking? Check this out:
Positive Thinking: The Next Generation

How can you take the insights from cognitive science and make your life have less negative emotion in it? Here's another article on the same subject but with a different angle:
Argue With Yourself and Win!

next: Brighter Future? Sounds Good!

APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, November 4). Master the Art of Making Meaning, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 19 from

Last Updated: March 30, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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