I want to share this TED Talks article with you today. It’s a fantastic piece on the stories we tell ourselves – the interpretation of the experiences we’ve had, and the emotional attachments we place on these stories. Our interpretations can either propel us forward or keep us back. What story do you keep playing in your mind? And if it’s not serving you, are you willing to let that go this year?
©2017 Susie Lee
We are all storytellers — all engaged, as the anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson puts it, in an “act of creation” of the “composition of our lives.” Yet unlike most stories we’ve heard, our lives don’t follow a predefined arc. Our identities and experiences are constantly shifting, and storytelling is how we make sense of it. By taking the disparate pieces of our lives and placing them together into a narrative, we create a unified whole that allows us to understand our lives as coherent — and coherence, psychologists say, is a key source of meaning.
Northwestern University psychologist Dan McAdams is an expert on a concept he calls “narrative identity.” McAdams describes narrative identity as an internalized story you create about yourself — your own personal myth. Like myths, our narrative identity contains heroes and villains that help us or hold us back, major events that determine the plot, challenges overcome and suffering we have endured. When we want people to understand us, we share our story or parts of it with them; when we want to know who another person is, we ask them to share part of their story.
An individual’s life story is not an exhaustive history of everything that has happened. Rather, we make what McAdams calls “narrative choices.” Our stories tend to focus on the most extraordinary events, good and bad, because those are the experiences we need to make sense of and that shape us. But our interpretations may differ. For one person, for example, a childhood experience like learning how to swim by being thrown into the water by a parent might explain his sense of himself today as a hardy entrepreneur who learns by taking risks. For another, that experience might explain why he hates boats and does not trust authority figures. A third might leave the experience out of his story altogether, deeming it unimportant.
People who believe their lives are meaningful tend to tell stories defined by growth, communion and agency.
McAdams has been studying narrative identity for over 30 years. In his interviews, he asks research subjects to divide their lives into chapters and to recount key scenes, such as a high point, a low point, a turning point or an early memory. He encourages participants to think about their personal beliefs and values. Finally, he asks them to reflect on their story’s central theme. He has discovered interesting patterns in how people living meaningful lives understand and interpret their experiences. People who are driven to contribute to society and to future generations, he found, are more likely to tell redemptive stories about their lives, or stories that transition from bad to good. There was the man who grew up in dire poverty but told McAdams that his hard circumstances brought him and his family closer together. There was the woman who told him that caring for a close friend as the friend was dying was a harrowing experience, but one that ultimately renewed her commitment to being a nurse, a career she’d abandoned. These people rate their lives as more meaningful than those who tell stories that have either no or fewer redemptive sequences.
The opposite of a redemptive story is what McAdams calls a “contamination story,” in which people interpret their lives as going from good to bad. One woman told him the story of the birth of her child, a high point, but she ended the story with the death of the baby’s father, who was murdered three years later. The joy over the birth of her child was tainted by that tragedy. People who tell contamination stories, McAdams has found, are less “generative,” or less driven to contribute to society and younger generations. They also tend to be more anxious and depressed, and to feel that their lives are less coherent compared to those who tell redemptive stories.
Redemption and contamination stories are just two kinds of tales we spin. McAdams has found that beyond stories of redemption, people who believe their lives are meaningful tend to tell stories defined by growth, communion and agency. These stories allow individuals to craft a positive identity: they are in control of their lives, they are loved, they are progressing through life and whatever obstacles they have encountered have been redeemed by good outcomes.
Even making smaller story edits to our personal narratives can have a big impact on our lives.
One of the great contributions of psychology and psychotherapy research is the idea that we can edit, revise and interpret the stories we tell about our lives even as we are constrained by the facts. A psychotherapist’s job is to work with patients to rewrite their stories in a more positive way. Through editing and reinterpreting his story with his therapist, the patient may come to realize that he is in control of his life and that some meaning can be gleaned from his hardships. A review of the scientific literature finds that this form of therapy is as effective as antidepressants or cognitive behavioral therapy.
Even making smaller story edits can have a big impact on our lives. So found Adam Grant and Jane Dutton in a study published in 2012. The researchers asked university call-center fundraisers to keep a journal for four consecutive days. In one condition, the beneficiary condition, the researchers asked the fundraisers to write about the last time a colleague did something for them that inspired gratitude. In the second condition, the benefactor condition, the participants wrote about a time they contributed to others at work.
The researchers wanted to know which type of story would lead the research subjects to be more generous. To find out, they monitored the fundraisers’ call records. Since the fundraisers were paid a fixed hourly rate to call alumni and solicit donations, the researchers reasoned, then the number of calls they made during their shift was a good indicator of prosocial, helping behavior.
After Grant and Dutton analyzed the stories, they found that fundraisers who told a story of themselves as benefactors ultimately made 30 percent more calls to alumni after the experiment than they had before. Those who told stories about being the beneficiary of generosity showed no changes in their behavior.
Grant and Dutton’s study suggests that the ability of a story to create meaning does not end with the crafting of the tale. The stories the benefactors told about themselves ultimately led to meaningful behaviors — giving their time in the service of a larger cause. Even though the fundraisers knew they were only telling their stories as part of a study, they ultimately “lived by” those stories, as McAdams would put it. By subtly reframing their narrative, they adopted a positive identity that led them to live more purposefully.
Excerpted from the new book The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Mattersby Emily Esfahani Smith. Published in the United States by Crown, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. Copyright © 2017 By Emily Esfahani Smith. Reprinted with permission.
It’s the new year! And with it, brings resolutions – usually revolving around health, happiness, work, or all of the above. Sometimes, our goals are so lofty they’re unattainable and they can become more of a burden than give us freedom. Here are 13 simple foolproof ways to improve your life every single day. Happy New Year!
©Susie Lee 2017
Expectations. We all have them. We expect someone to do something. We expect something from someone. It’s okay to have them but it’s not okay to impose them on other people. This is unfair and sometimes, very cruel. Of course we’d never admit we impose expectations on others but a sure way to know if we do is when we experience frustration and disappointment when they don’t comply.
Expectations stem from our own needs. Period. It has nothing to do with anyone else fulfilling them or not fulfilling them. Our expectations come from our fears (or insecurities) within us. And overtime, we adopted an unhealthy pattern of looking to others to help us cope with our fears. This pattern of thinking is not only self-destructive but will also destroy relationships. Our expectations will suppress their freedom of speech and choice. They’ll comply to our demands out of fear, and not out of love.
If you’re in this place now, it’s time to do some soul searching. Ask yourself some hard questions: Why do I feel like I have to do this? Why do I feel like they have to do this with me? Why is this important to me? What would happen if I didn’t do it? What am I afraid of? It’s unrealistic to expect others to meet your needs. All you can do is share your need and release any obligation of meeting them. It’s okay to request but never demand. But you have to accept the fact that the answer may be a ‘No’.
May we look for answers within first before we expect it from others.
©2016 Susie Lee
As we’re half way through the year, I wonder how many of our New Year’s resolutions have fallen to the wayside? Now would be a good time to re-evaluate whether or not we want to pursue them instead of carrying them over, year after year. If we want to keep them then we need to stop making excuses and start working on them now. This will take time, discipline, and focus everyday. We’ll need to say ‘no’ to certain things that hinder our progress and cause distractions. We must contribute daily to our resolution until it comes to fruition.
Or perhaps our priorities changed over the last 6 months, which has affected our lack of contribution to our resolution. If that’s the case, I encourage us to adopt a new resolve – a daily resolve to love those around us by spending time with them or helping them. We’re all allotted the same amount of minutes in each day; the only difference is how we choose to use them. And what better way to spend our time then to make a difference in someone else’s life. Our resolutions don’t always have to be grandiose it could simply mean making another person’s day brighter.
Let’s make the most of the next 6 months!
©2016 Susie Lee