Stanford’s Aaker: Bad Experiences Can Lead to Great Insight

Stanford GSB’s Jennifer Aaker is Poets&Quants Professor of the Week

“There is no such thing as failure,” Oprah Winfrey told graduates of Harvard University in 2013. “Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”

Oprah never got an MBA from a top business school, but she has acquired more than a Ph.D.’s worth of knowledge about business and everything else. 

Now some leading scholars, including Professor of the Week Jennifer L. Aaker of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, have provided empirical support for Winfrey’s wisdom. Their counterintuitive finding: Negative experiences can lead to a positive outcome in the form of an appreciation of life’s deeper meaning.

“Negative experiences can serve to boost meaning because they stimulate comprehension (understanding how the event fits into a broader narrative of the self, relationships, and the world),” write Aaker, Kathleen D. Vohs of the University of Minnesota, and Stanford GSB PhD student Rhia Catapano. “…Negative experiences can bring pain and suffering, [but] may have the side benefit of aiding meaning in life.”

Their paper, “It’s Not Going to Be That Fun: Negative Experiences Can Add Meaning to Life,” appears in the April 2019 issue of the journal Current Opinion in Psychology.

Venture capitalists and entrepreneurs often pay lip service to the value of failure, but in American business it is often drowned out by cheerleading that pushes any discussion about possible negative outcomes to the sidelines. 

And yet, as Aaker and her co-authors note, bad things happen in business and in life. Some of these events—like the death of a child—are so traumatic they may have little redeeming value. Yet most negative events are teachable moments that can give people deeper insight into the meaning of their lives.

Building on several previous studies, Aaker and her colleagues surveyed hundreds of Americans over several months, asking whether they were happy and leading meaningful lives. The distinction between happiness and meaning is critical: Although both overlap and are considered positive, negative life events are more likely to bring meaning to people than triumph or success.

“Happiness is about feeling good, avoiding feeling bad, and having one’s own wants and needs met,” the authors write. “Happiness was predicted by a focus on the present moment and disinterest in reflective thought, whereas life’s meaningfulness was predicted by mentally linking events across time and desiring conscious reflection.”

That reflection, or comprehension, was driven more by negative events than by positive ones, the researchers found.  Negative events can shake up people’s habitual way of thinking and force them to reframe how they view their lives.

 “When people are able to envelop negative experiences (e.g., divorce, trauma) into a broad understanding of their life’s narrative, they gain a sense that their lives have meaning compared to people whose life stories contained negative experiences that were not recognized as part of the broader pattern,” Aaker and her colleagues conclude.

This study may sound like the purview of literature and psychology departments (the paper even cites Sigmund Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle), but Aaker’s work has often transcended the boundaries of b-school academic silos. 

The General Atlantic Professor at Stanford, Aaker is a behavioral psychologist whose research focuses on the psychology of time, money, and happiness, as well as the power of story and a more traditional focus on global brand building. She got her BA in psychology from UC Berkeley and her PhD in marketing with a minor in psychology from Stanford GSB, where she has taught almost her entire career.

The daughter of two educators—her father was a pioneering professor of marketing at Stanford’s cross-bay rival Berkeley Haas—Aaker, 51, was named Poets & Quants’ MBA Professor of the Year for 2018. This academic year she is teaching classes called “Humor: Serious Business” (with lecturer Naomi Bagdonas) and “Designing AI to Cultivate Human Well-Being,” an interdisciplinary course with computer science professor Fei-Fei Li. But another class, “Rethinking Purpose,” perhaps best captures her current research interests.

Finding meaning, she observes, goes beyond the focus on self and the here and now that optimizes personal happiness. Negative events, of course, “reduce happiness…but have significant positive association with a meaningful life, “she told Poets & Quants. “When you are making decisions around meaning, you tend to think of different things. You think of the past, present, and future and you tend to be more other oriented.” Or, as Socrates, a wise man who like Oprah never got an MBA or Ph.D., might have put it: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”


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