The One Word That Makes Life More Meaningful, According to Science
It comes down to “you,” says a new study.
“You” is the fourteenth most common word in the English language. One possible reason why we use it so often: It helps us give our lives, particularly the not-so-great moments, more meaning, according to new research in the journal Science.
Despite its ubiquity, “you” has a mysterious flexibility to it. Sometimes, it’s used to address a specific person (You won the game!) and in other cases, it’s expressing some general truth (You win some, you lose some). That’s what’s called a “generic you,” and the new findings indicate it’s one of the ways that you can take episodes from your personal life story and turn them into generalizable life lessons.
“We do suspect that there’s something powerful about making one’s experience more universal,” lead author Ariana Orvell, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, told Thrive Global over email. Seeing a personal experience “as part of a broader phenomenon should allow the individual to feel that they are sharing something that is common to what others may also go through,” she added.
As in: If you miss out on a big job opportunity, you win some, you lose some isn’t just a comforting aphorism. It’s also way of reminding yourself that people have been going through career setbacks for a long, long time.
Other social science research — and a couple thousand years of philosophy and literature — suggest that the desire to draw meaning from experiences is itself universal. Indeed, creating meaning looks to be the way people adapt to their experiences and adjust their approach to life. That’s the subtle brilliance of the generic you: It distances you from whatever trial you went through and allows that isolated incident to be woven into a broader human tapestry.
Orvell and her team explored this theme in the paper published Thursday. In one experiment, participants were split into three groups: a meaning-making condition, where they were asked to draw out life lessons from a negative experience, a “relive” condition, where they were asked to recall a bad time and the emotions they felt, but weren’t instructed to make meaning out of it, and a neutral condition, where they wrote about an experience that was neither good nor bad.
The generic you showed up strong in the meaning department: participants used it in 45 percent of cases in the meaning condition, 10 percent in the relive condition and 2.5 percent in the neutral condition. In another experiment, participants were randomly assigned to write about either a neutral or negative autobiographical experience. Two coders rated the incidence of “generic you’s” in each. Fifty-six percent of negative essays used it at least once, compared to just 6.3 percent of the neutral ones. Another experiment found that using the generic you, rather than first personal pronouns like me or my, lead to greater psychological distance from the event, suggesting that the generic you not only universalizes, it helpfully distances.
Indeed, Orvell told Thrive Global in a follow-up message, the generic you speaks to an even more general truth: When going through (or recalling) tough times, it’s helpful to remember that you’re not the only one who’s taken a hit.
“We suspect that it is precisely this capacity to move beyond one’s own perspective to create a semblance of a shared, universal experience that allows individuals to derive broader meanings from personal events,” Orvell and her team write. That the generic you is used so often “suggests that this linguistic device may constitute a central way that people derive meaning from their emotional experiences in daily life,” they add. You live, in other words, and you learn.