Read the full article at The Washington Post.
We all live in stories — we go to the movies, read novels, and share stories with loved ones and colleagues. But the story I’m specifically referring to here is the story you tell yourself about yourself — about how you became you. Your story is your personal myth. Creating a narrative from the events of your life brings clarity. It helps you understand yourself more deeply — and it can even help you find your purpose, as it did for Emeka.
But we don’t always realize that we’re the authors of our own stories and can change the way we’re telling them. Many of us think that our lives are just a list of events. But the truth is, we all make what the psychologist Dan McAdams of Northwestern University calls “narrative choices” — and we can all edit, interpret, and retell our stories, even as we’re constrained by the facts.
McAdams has studied people leading meaningful lives, and he’s found that they tend to tell particular types of stories — stories defined by redemption, growth, and love. His research focuses especially on redemptive stories, or stories that move from bad to good. The opposite of a redemptive story, McAdams says, is a contamination story, where good things are ruined by bad things.
In a classic psychology study published in 1992, researchers had 52 couples tell the story of how they met. Those stories predicted, with 94 percent accuracy, whether the couples had divorced three years later. The couples who told more positive stories were far more likely to be together in stable marriages three years later than the ones who told more negative stories, who were more likely to be divorced.
The question is why. It may be that couples tell more negative stories because their relationships are inherently flawed, and those flaws are reflected in the story; but it may also be that the story itself became a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you tell a negative story about some aspect of your life, like your relationship, then you’ll likely feel even worse about that relationship and start focusing on other troubled aspects of it, which could lead to more angst.
The story, in other words, sets you on a spiral, and that spiral can take you down — or up. Research by psychologists Adam Grant of the Wharton School and Jane Dutton of the University of Michigan found that if you tell a story about a time you were helpful to someone, you will actually act more generously later on. That’s because the stories we tell get inside us — they reinforce the good (or bad) aspects of our identity — and we then live by those stories.