Our Stories Can Fuel Well-being & Empower Our Lives
Updated: Nov 14, 2022
“The stories we tell about ourselves reveal ourselves, construct ourselves, and sustain ourselves through time.” - Kate McLean et al.
Reality v. story
Renowned psychologist Jerome Bruner distinguished between a couple different ways of thinking.
The paradigmatic focuses on scientific inquiry and involves the broad and systematic classification and categorization of the world around us. Here lives facts and science. The narrative mode in contrast, is specific and interpretative. It organizes the world through subjective life stories, more interested instead with individual motivation and behavior over a timespan.
Rather than objective facts, the narrative approach is concerned with the characters that make up our lives, and most especially the protagonist of a story and the ups and downs of a journey.
Narrative identity is the internal, evolving story of our life: who we are, where our life is headed and our personal history of the past and journey through the present.
According to psychologist and Northwestern University professor Dan McAdams, people begin to construct life stories as teens and young adults to help make sense of their lives. These narratives help set the groundwork for a developing sense of identity.
"Storytelling isn’t just how we construct our identities; stories are our identities." – psychology professor, Dr. John Holmes
Stories as identity, personality
According to McAdams, our personal narratives are a part of our personality.
Along with values and goals, as well as our character traits, our stories and life accounts are part of what he calls the “personological trinity”.
The stories of our lives are core to who we are, and include stable elements over time, despite being continually updated and revised (McLean et al, 2007).
"We are the stories we tell ourselves." – Joan Didion
Stories unify & shape meaning
Narrative identity serves an important psychological function. Stories help unify our changing selves as we evolve, providing meaning and purpose over a lifespan.
Personal changes over time and over varied roles in life can upset the stability of our sense of self. The psychological role of narrative identity is to help us keep the development and evolution of our identity under one roof, making sense and weaving different parts of ourselves into a single, cohesive narrative (e.g., Freeman, 2010).
As our identity develops over time and experiences, our narratives can be broad and flexible, accommodating and unifying those changes and the different parts of us. This autobiographical reasoning helps us understand our journey by connecting our past to our present to our imagined future in a coherent, structured life story.
Our stories also help us to keep track of our own history, help us see connections over our lives - where we change and where we stay the same. In seeing and reflecting over a longer journey, people find personal understanding.
"Stories help us smooth out some of the decisions we have made and create something that is meaningful and sensible out of the chaos of our lives." – Dan P. McAdams
Power of the teller, of the narrator
Our stories are subjective life interpretations, and that’s what gives the storyteller so much power. As the narrator, each of us gets to determine the meaning of events in our life – and not anyone else.
There are many things in life that are out of our control but the narrator always has control over interpreting and reacting to what happens.
Is this a stop, an end – or an interesting meandering to some place new? The meaning you give something in life, the story you tell yourself about what has happened, not only defines the past but also shapes the future.
"For better or worse, stories are a very powerful source of self-persuasion…" – Dr. John Holmes
Stories shape the future, for good or bad
How we interpret our life events influences how we think and what we remember. Our stories influence our motivation, and current and future behavior - in effect, shaping who we are.
Seeing that the story is driving what comes next, experts encourage people to tell stories that make their lives better.
Psychologist and professor Jonathan Adler says that our life stories have the power to pull us forward. He encourages us to “tell the story first and then live (our) way into it.”
Negative stories eat the positive memories
The story is powerful. Once we have a story, it’s hard to let it go.
Whatever we tell ourselves can get burned in, hard-coded into our memory according to Dr. John Holmes, professor of psychology at Waterloo University. Especially the negative stories. Research shows that when we remember stories negatively, positive details disappear. He says that anything that doesn’t fit the narrative gets lost.
A few negative events over a wide timeframe can have our memory writing off years and years in our minds as negative. All the good that absolutely did happen too gets lost and disappears.
"Stories are memory aids, instruction manuals and moral compasses." – Aleks Krotoski
Stories of redemption v. contamination
People use different types of stories to make sense of their lives.
Life narratives can be redemptive sequences where challenges give way to good outcomes; where failure ends up changing us for the better in the long run. It’s the quintessential American rags-to-riches story. Think every Hollywood ending.
Stories of struggle and adversity which ended up well can inspire future hope and optimism. Or, stories can be contamination narratives where the reverse happens: good things, positive events, turn bad.
These different themes of redemption or contamination, repeated over and over in our life stories, have an impact on psychological well-being.
Narrative themes & psychological well-being
Research by McAdams and colleagues shows that the more positive our stories, and the more redemption stories we have - those that go from bad to good, where negative events eventually led to something positive – the better off we are.
Redemption narratives have been associated with greater well-being and life satisfaction, more maturity, higher community engagement and better mental health.
Adler and team (2015) reviewed dozens of studies of life stories and confirmed that both the way we tell our stories as well as their main themes, are associated with better well-being. One of these themes is the sense of being a lead character in our stories - one with agency and power over what happens in our life.
Adler’s research indicates that when people play the central role or protagonist in their narratives, they showed better psychological well-being. Research also found that people who had logical narratives, those that contained elements of foreshadowing, cause and effect sequences and omitted unnecessary detail showed greater well-being than those whose stories did not.
"We have, each of us, a life story, whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives." – Oliver Sacks
Our stories of both success and failure can help us adapt, develop and can even make us wiser.
Jones, Destin, and McAdams (2018) call them competence-building narratives and say that how you explain your past successes and failures can have a positive impact on personal growth and adaptation.
Recalling narratives of success, where goals were achieved successfully, boosts self-confidence and the will to achieve even further. Research shows that stories of failure can also lead to upsides, including a recognition of one’s efforts and the strength that was gained, helping to manage and overcome future challenges. The more redemptive the stories they found, the greater the grit and perseverance in pursuing goals.
Opportunity to re-write
Our stories are opportunities. The past doesn’t own the story, we own the story.
The narrative, the story we tell ourselves can be more powerful than anything that actually happened. Personal histories, while rooted in reality, can be interpreted in ways that serve us, or not.
Strategic memory helps us recall life events in ways that help us move forward and achieve our goals. You can remember it differently if it holds you back. You’re allowed to get creative.
In this way, McAdams says, the past is fair game. And not just the past. Changing the way we consider important events in our lives impacts how we move forward.
“… psychologically we do choose our parents, our family history, and the history of our kings, heroes, and gods.
By making them our own, we maneuver ourselves into the inner position of proprietors, of creators." - Erik Erikson
Redemptive stories & generativity
The concept of generativity was outlined by developmental psychologist Erik Erikson as one of his stages of lifelong psychosocial development. It refers to a person’s want – generally during midlife years – to give back and help make a positive impact on future generations.
Adults high in generativity lean towards roles as mentors and volunteers. They also tend to have more redemptive life stories and positive psychological health.
Life stories that feature hard work and inspire hope can help with perseverance and confidence to play the long-game – not only for ourselves but in helping future generations. In this way, McAdams suggests, stories of redemption can help lay the groundwork for successful parenting.
Positivity bias as the years go on
As people move into the later years, research shows that our life stories generally grow simpler and more positive.
Laura Carstensen is a psychology professor and Director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. She says that this positivity bias as we age, where we focus on the positives over negatives in life, is helped by a longer perspective and an appreciation for where we stand today.
As time gets more precious, priority shifts to the more important things like close relationships or our health, and with it, an emphasis on what we have vs. what is gone and done.
Our brains help too in this regard. As we age, so does our brain. The part that gets triggered in negative situations and the part that makes new negative memories both gratefully, deteriorate a little.
Something to look forward to.
“Everyone is necessarily the hero of (their) own life story.” – John Barth