Dacher explains the science underlying personal narratives.
It’s very fitting in a class on the science of happiness that we end with a discussion on narrative, which will really be our last substantive theme in this class. Narratives are really symbolic structures that we use to make sense of the events of our lives, to give them purpose and to give them beauty and aesthetic design. When you think about this concept of narrative, it really applies to a lot of different things that we do on a daily basis. We read fiction and we read poetry, and we keep diaries, and listen to music as forms of representation that help us understand, sort of give a higher purpose to what’s happening in our lives. That’s one of the motivating forces for a lot of the different practices that you’ve engaged in this class from the gratitude journal to the self-compassion letter, to the three good things exercise, really all of those practices are ways of engaging the narrative mind to kind of find meaning, purpose, and enhance your happiness.
So we like to think about narrative in two different ways. One is what you might call the micro-narrative of life, which is how do we make sense of the stresses and the tribulations and the frustrations of life that as you’ve learned put a dent in your happiness, can increase stress, and all the problems associated with chronic stress? Thankfully, we can cite the work of James Pennebaker, Jamie Pennebaker, at the University of Texas, as really exemplary work revealing the happiness and health benefits of writing narratives, of narrating your stresses and difficulties in life.
Jamie really started with an interesting question, which is it seems that we have this compulsion to kind of talk about life’s difficulties even to confess, to disclose our traumas to other people. Maybe there is some powerful action that takes place in that narrating act. So Jamie has done this really inspiring work. What he does is that he finds people who are going through really the great traumas and struggles of life and these are people who lost spouses in the context of bereavement, they’re going through divorces, they’re college students facing really traumatic sort of stressful exams, these are people who have survived genocides and holocausts, people who lost relatives in the 9/11 terrorists attacks. He finds people going through really stressful traumas and he does a very simple thing: in one condition, in what he calls his expressive writing paradigm, he has people write about the most intense feelings of that stressful time or trauma. They narrate the experience. In the other condition, usually a control condition, he has them think about the events, think about the temporal unfolding of that experience.
What Pennebaker finds time and time, and time again, is that narrating difficulties, frustration, stresses in the simple writing expressive paradigm leads to increased happiness, reduced stress, reduced visits to health centers, reduced depression, even sort of better profiles of your immune system as you’re handling disease. Narrating stress is a good thing for happiness.
We could think about narratives really in a second way, this is really the groundbreaking work of Dan McAdams, which is yourself, your identity, and who you think you are is really a story that you tell from the first moments that we speak language until our last moments here on Earth.
The self is really a narrative. So from this perspective, what McAdams argues is that the self becomes this really complex novel-like story that we tell about our lives here on Earth and has propositions and images and beliefs and feelings and memories that we fold into this really complicated narrative.
Like a novel, it has chapters, it has settings, it has characters, it has plot twists, turns, it has big themes, vivid experiences, turning points, and the like. And what’s interesting is McAdams notes that at the heart of this narrative that we tell, are kind of classic themes that we’ve talked about in this class together. The themes of harm, suffering, and compassion. Themes about harming others and seeking forgiveness. Themes of understanding, empathizing with other people, great acts of kindness, sort of expressing ourselves, sort of finding who we are, kind of the classic life themes, the existential themes make their way into these narratives we tell about who we are. And what the data show, both McAdams’ work and elsewhere, is that these stories that we tell, that we hope have been part of this class for you, are really important to our well-being.
McAdams, himself, finds people who tell more vivid, engaging narratives later in life as they age are happier. They’re feeling greater purpose and meaning in life. Hazel Marcus who is an early pioneer in this work finds the more narrated selves that we have, these possible selves she calls them, the more we’re buffered against experiences of depression, sort of having a rich sense of narrated self is good for our mental health.
Laura King has really brought this into practical exercises with her ideal self exercises. She has students write about, narrate, who their best self would be, say 5 years from now, and that narrative exercise actually increases health and well-being and happiness.