Psychology research verifies that the stories we tell ourselves matter.
A new study from Northwestern University shows that folks who fit the classic mould of “good people” — those who care about others while also having high well-being and mental health — have life stories that share remarkably similar narrative arcs.
In two to three hour interviews, researchers Dan McAdams and Jen Guo asked 157 people between the ages of 55 and 57 to describe their lives as if they were novels, complete with main characters, recurring themes, and turning points.
According to McAdams and Guo, the people who cared the most for future generations all told their life stories as “redemption narratives.”
From the study’s abstract:
The story’s protagonist (a) enjoys an early advantage in life, (b) exhibits sensitivity to the suffering of other people, (c) develops a clear moral framework, (d) repeatedly transforms negative scenes into positive outcomes, and (e) pursues prosocial goals for the future.
In McAdams and Guo’s study, the adults who were the most generative — or socially engaged — acted out a similar story of redemption in their everyday lives.
In “The Art and Science of Personality Development,” McAdams argues that there’s a link between the suffering felt early in life and the redemption that follows:
Failure may ultimately result in victory, deprivation may give way to abundance. Importantly, the narrator describes an explicit causal link between the prior negative event and the resultant enhancement…
For example, a woman is devastated by a romantic breakup, but then finds the partner of her dreams. A student flunks out of college, then finds a great job. A boy endures extreme poverty as a child, but when he grows up, he comes to believe that early suffering made him a better person.
McAdams notes that while not everybody identifies with every turn of the redemption narrative, adults who are more generative conform to the narrative arc than those who are less so.
If the story of redemption sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a narrative arc that you can spot again and again in our mythological and literary traditions.
One of the most notable accounts is the story of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha. The traditional account is that he was born into a sheltered royal life, but when he witnessed the way people were getting old, sick, and dying outside of the palace, he resolved to figure out how to deal with the problem of suffering. This motivated him to study the mechanics of the mind in meditation, yielding the foundational insights of what we today call Buddhism, a system of understanding that’s helped people for generations.
The Jungian psychologist and comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell argued that historical, mythological, and literary narratives show up in our everyday lives. We find ourselves called to go on quests like Joan of Arc did when she united France; are filled with righteous anger like when Jesus threw the merchants out of the temple; or get caught up in star-crossed love affairs like Romeo and Juliet.
What’s fascinating about McAdams and Guo’s study is that it evidences how the narrative arcs that we know so well from our various cultural traditions animate our lives.
It seems that the most pro-social people — the Nelson Mandelas and Aung San Suu Kyis of the world — embody these redemption narratives.
The good news is if you’re not happy with your life story, the research shows that you can edit it, too.
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