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The Upside of Stress

Researchers at Stanford and Florida State University asked a broad sample of US adults, ages eighteen through seventy-eight, to rate how much they agreed with the statement “Taking all things together, I feel my life is meaningful.” The researchers then looked at what distinguished people who strongly agreed with the statement from those who did not. What are the best predictors of a meaningful life?

Surprisingly, stress ranked high. In fact, every measure of stress that the researchers asked about predicted a greater sense of meaning in life. People who had experienced the highest number of stressful life events in the past were most likely to consider their lives meaningful. People who said they were currently under a lot of stress also rated their lives as more meaningful. Even time spent worrying about the future was associated with meaning, as was time spent reflecting on past struggles and challenges. As the researchers conclude, “People with very meaningful lives worry more and have more stress than people with less meaningful lives.”

Why are stress and meaning so strongly linked? One reason is that stress seems to be an inevitable part of engaging in roles and pursuing goals that feed our sense of purpose. Of course stress could be related to unnecessary or even sinful choices (doing too much, worrying too much, etc.) But the study found that when many people report the biggest sources of stress (or challenges) in their lives, topping the list are work, parenting, personal relationships, caregiving, and health.


Kelly McGonigal, “The Upside of Stress,” (Avery, 2015), page 65

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