Park’s Meaning Making Model

Park's Meaning Making Model. Psychology Fanatic article header image
Park’s Meaning Making Model. Psychology Fanatic.
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Park’s Meaning Making Model is a cognitive framework developed by Crystal L. Park to explain how individuals create and assign meaning to experiences that conflict with beliefs, goals, and self-image. This model suggests that humans create a framework for understanding the world. When experience conflicts with an established framework, individuals experience distress, and are motivated to reconcile discrepancies. Accordingly, people typically reappraise the meaning of current experience to fit kindly into their preexisting framework of the world and self. However, occasionally people may adjust the global framework to accommodate for the disparities.

Key Definition:

The meaning making model describes the process of assigning meaning to events to lessen conflict between experience and our global understanding and beliefs about the world and self.

Basic Tenets of Park’s Meaning Making Model

There are several basic elements to Park’s meaning making model:

  1. People possess orienting systems or global meanings that create a cognitive framework for interpreting their experiences and motivating and directing action;
  2. When encountering experiences that potentially challenge global meanings, individuals appraise the situation and assign meaning;
  3. The extent to which the appraised meaning is discrepant with their global meaning creates a corresponding level of distress;
  4. The distress motivates a process of meaning making;
  5. Through meaning-making efforts, individuals attempt to reduce the discrepancy between appraised meaning of personal experience and personally held global meaning;
  6. This process, when successful, leads to better adjustment to the stressful event (Park, 2010).

Park's Meaning Making Model. Psychology Fanatic flow chart
Meaning Making Model Flow Chart (Crystal L. Park, 2022)

Global and Situational Meaning

Global Meaning

Life is too complex to build each new experience from scratch. We need a preexisting framework of beliefs to organize and comprehend the mass amount of information thrown at us each moment. Crystal L. Park Ph.D., PhD, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Connecticut, refers to this framework as our subjectively held global meanings. She describes global meaning as “encompassing foundational beliefs, values and goals, and a subjective sense of meaningfulness” (Park, 2022). We have “a structured lens to disentangle the complexity of a chaotic world. Our assumptions individualize our view, creating a stabilizing foundation to guide predictions and availability of resources” (Murphy, 2020).

In other psychological literature, researchers refer to individual global meaning as primal world beliefs (Murphy, 2022). Through this global lens, we understand and organize personal experience. Park suggests that global meaning is a foundational orienting system, consisting of “deeply held beliefs regarding reality, such as fairness, control, and identity.” Park also includes within the realm of global meaning a person’s goals and a subjective sense of life as meaningful (Park, 2022).

Ronnie Janoff-Bulman refers to global meaning as a conceptual system that “developed over time, that provides us with expectations about the world and ourselves. This conceptual system is best represented by a set of assumptions or internal representations that reflect and guide our interactions in the world and generally enable us to function effectively” (2002).

Situational Meaning

Situational meaning entails the appraisal of current experience. Park explains that “people continuously monitor their experiences and assign meaning to (i.e., appraise) them” (2022). Park expands on this, adding, ” people appraise, or assign a particular meaning, to their encounters, determining the extent to which they are threatening and controllable, attributing causes, and discerning their implications. Basically, this is a process of gaining wisdom and expanding our mastery of life. What good is experience if we can’t apply it to better choices in the future?

Most experience fits smoothly into our global meanings. More often than not, new information isn’t significant enough to create examination or comparison with global meanings. However, big events often challenge our global meanings. They do not always smoothly assimilate into our current structure of meaning and ideal images of self.

Reconciling Discrepancies

Park wrote that “after appraising an event, according to the meaning making model, individuals determine the fit or discrepancy between that appraised meaning and their global meaning. Perceptions of discrepancy (e.g., with one’s sense of the controllability or comprehensibility of the world) are thought to create the distress that drives meaning making efforts” (Park, 2010).

Life altering events challenge preexisting frameworks for understanding the world. Often our foundational sense of safety or belonging is shaken. We experience what psychologist Leon Festinger referred to as cognitive dissonance. Consequently, the discrepancy between our global meaning and situational meaning creates distress or what I refer to as emotional discomfort. An important aspect of Park’s meaning making model is that “within the meaning-making model, it is this discrepancy, rather than the objective circumstances of the event itself, that causes traumatic distress” (Fitzke, Marsh, and Prince, 2021).

Park further theorizes that the greater the discrepancy the greater the distress (2010). The distress motivates action to alleviate the stress. Theories of homeostasis suggest that through somatic awareness of distressed body states, we seek avenues to return to a homeostatic balance. Sometimes we do this through defense mechanisms or various coping strategies. This may lead to healthy changes or maladaptive behaviors. According to Park, the distress also motivates meaning making.

She explains that “meaning making aims to restore disrupted global meaning through approach-oriented intrapsychic attempts to develop new and acceptable ways of understanding the situation that are more consistent with one’s global meaning or by changing one’s global meaning beliefs and goals” (2022).

A Few Words By Psychology Fanatic

We are meaning making machines. Our mind’s constantly work to make meaning out of experience. Markedly, most of the time, this process takes place unconsciously. Accordingly, we may feel distress without knowing the exact cause of the discomfort. Our mind goes about trying to organize, assign causes, and solve disruptions to our homeostatic balance. This is a complex process involving perceptions, integration of memories, evaluating, and reappraisals. Somewhere, in the process we react with behaviors.


The first stage is “Perception,” where individuals receive sensory information and interpret it based on their pre-existing beliefs, values, and knowledge. This initial interpretation sets the foundation for the subsequent stages. However, as noted in the model, sometimes this interpretation is challenged. For example, a person that believes that they are a healthy person because they exercise and eat right may contract a disease. The illness then challenges their fundamental beliefs or global meaning.


The second stage is “Integration,” where individuals analyze and integrate their perceptions into a coherent understanding. They attempt to find connections and patterns that help them make sense of the new information and assimilate it into existing structures (global meaning).

Meaning Making and Reappraisal

When current events fail to integrate, individuals seek to reconcile the differences through reappraisal. During reappraisal, Individuals reassess original appraisals, refine and adjust interpretations and meanings to fit global meanings. In some cases, assimilation into old structures is not possible. In these cases, we accommodate by adapting global meaning to fit the new information.

Park’s Meaning Making Model provides a valuable framework for understanding the process of assigning meaning to experiences. Her model is empirically supported and helpful to understanding motivation, and understanding of hidden cognitive processes involved in stressful experiences. Perhaps, there are times when we frame new experiences in a manner to assimilate with subjective preexisting meanings that we would do better to examine our global meanings and accommodate to fit the new information instead.

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Fitzke, Reagan; Marsh, Dylan; Prince, Mark (2021). A longitudinal investigation of the meaning‐making model in midlife adults who have experienced trauma. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 77(12), 2878-2893. DOI: 10.1002/jclp.23272

Janoff-Bulman, Ronnie (2002). Shattered Assumptions (Towards a New Psychology of Trauma). Free Press; Completely Updated ed. edition.

Murphy, T. Franklin (2020). Post Traumatic Growth. Psychology Fanatic. Published 6-23-2020. Accessed 9-4-2023.

Murphy, T. Franklin (2022). Primal World Beliefs. Psychology Fanatic. Published 6-29-2022. Accessed 9-4-2023.

Park, Crystal L. (2010) Making Sense of the Meaning Literature: An Integrative Review of Meaning Making and Its Effects on Adjustment to Stressful Life Events. Psychological Bulletin 136.2 : 257-301. DOI: 10.1037/a0018301

Park, Crystal L. (2022). Meaning Making Following Trauma. Frontiers in Psychology, 13. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.844891

Park, Crystal L. (2008). Testing the Meaning Making Model of Coping With Loss. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 27(9), 970-994. DOI: 10.1521/jscp.2008.27.9.970

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