The story of your life

The New York Times has an interesting piece on an often neglected area of psychology that looks at the significance of the stories we use to explain our lives to ourselves and others.

A small but active area of research called ‘narrative psychology‘ has been examining how we make and use stories about our experiences for some years now.

The NYT article picks up on some research findings from Dr Dan McAdams’ research group that show some common themes in life stories and suggest they may be linked to particular psychological characteristics:

In analyzing the texts, the researchers found strong correlations between the content of people’s current lives and the stories they tell. Those with mood problems have many good memories, but these scenes are usually tainted by some dark detail. The pride of college graduation is spoiled when a friend makes a cutting remark. The wedding party was wonderful until the best man collapsed from drink. A note of disappointment seems to close each narrative phrase.

By contrast, so-called generative adults — those who score highly on tests measuring civic-mindedness, and who are likely to be energetic and involved — tend to see many of the events in their life in the reverse order, as linked by themes of redemption. They flunked sixth grade but met a wonderful counselor and made honor roll in seventh. They were laid low by divorce, only to meet a wonderful new partner. Often, too, they say they felt singled out from very early in life — protected, even as others nearby suffered.

The article also suggests that the narratives are heavily influenced by our social knowledge, so we apply cultural templates for stories of success, failure and redemption to best make sense of our experience.

Link to NYT article ‘This Is Your Life (and How You Tell It)’.

2 thoughts on “The story of your life”

  1. This is quite fascinating! I think you might enjoy reading (and perhaps sharing) an article from the Washington Post this past Sunday (5/20) about the mental math people use in their personal financial lives. I tried to find an online link at their web site, but so far have been unsuccessful. But it’s worth seeking out.

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