THIRD METRIC

What Your 'Life Story' Really Says About You

11/18/2013 03:19 pm ET | Updated Nov 22, 2013
Thomas Barwick via Getty Images

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live," Joan Didion famously wrote in "The White Album."

In many ways, Didion was right: Stories may not seem like a basic survival need, but our brains naturally tell stories as a way to give structure and meaning to our lives. And according to research in narrative psychology, an emerging field of study that examines how stories shape our lives and personalities, the stories we tell ourselves play a large role in who we are. "Consciousness begins when brain gains the power, the simple power I might add, of telling a story," explained neuroscientist Antonio Damasio.

We all have one particularly important story that we tell ourselves, about ourselves: our "life story," which helps us to organize our experiences and give us a sense of self, even dictating our behavior in some cases. We're constantly updating, amending and adding to this story as we encounter new experiences.

“The stories we tell ourselves about our lives don’t just shape our personalities –- they are our personalities," Dan McAdams, Northwestern University psychology professor and author of "The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By," tells The Huffington Post.

Personality comes in layers, according to McAdams, who has been studying "life stories" for nearly 30 years. The first layer is our basic character, made up of traits driven by our genetics and environment. The second layer contains things like values and goals. The third layer is the story we tell about our lives, a sort of "cognitive script" that helps us understand how we came to be the way we are, and where we think our lives are going, giving us some sense of meaning and purpose.

"These aren’t just separate things that have an influence on who we are," says McAdams. "They are, to a certain extent, who we are and they’re integrated into our personality as a kind of narrative feature of individuality.”

By understanding how we create these stories and how they are structured, we can alter our own stories and rewrite our own scripts in ways that improve our lives. Here are six principles from narrative psychology to help you better understand your “life story.”

Your story is constantly evolving, becoming more positive later in life.

Kids as young as five and six years old can tell stories and understand how narratives work, but it’s not until young adulthood that we start telling stories in a big way, creating meaningful integrative narratives. When we reach our teen years, we start asking the big questions: Who am I? Where am I going? Where do I come from? These questions play a large role in motivating the development of an integrated life story, says McAdams.

This story gets increasingly complicated -- you bring in more characters, themes and drama -- as you move through your 20s and 30s. According to McAdams, we get to a point, generally in our 40s, when the story gets a bit more simplified and integrated.

“There is some research to suggest that the complexity of narratives peaks out in someone’s 40s, maybe early 50s," says McAdams. "Then you get a tendency to simplify a little bit. If you look at people in midlife and later, their stories tend to be a little bit softer and gentler and happier... There’s an improvement over time."

When you're younger, there's more room in the story for drama, conflict and negativity. But as people reach middle age and later life (which often corresponds with increasing levels of happiness and well-being), these parts of the story fade into the background. As a general trend in aging, the story becomes more positively skewed over time.

"When people get older, they seem to have less tolerance for that," says McAdams. "They’ll kind of reconstruct the past and forget or downplay the bad stuff a little bit.”

Your present emotions color your entire narrative.

Psychology tells us that our perception generally isn't very objective: We see what we want to see, and our perceptions are often colored by thoughts and emotions.

And when it comes to life stories, our current emotional states and life circumstances have an enormous impact on how we construe the past and imagine the future -- even based on moment to moment oscillations, says McAdams.

Going through a depressive period or time of pain can change your entire story for the duration of that period. While recovering from a divorce or breakup, for instance, you might view the past more somberly and be motivated to construe how you got to this point.

“It’s kind of like history. Your life story, at least with respect to the past, is not fixed,” says McAdams. “It’s always going through a revision. In the same way that historians revise how they see the past -- they see World War I one way now and maybe in 30 years they’ll see it a different way -- you see your childhood now one way and later a different way in part because of what you’re going through at that time.”

But don't worry too much if you're going through a rough patch: despite these fluxuations, our narratives do tend to even out and return to equilibrium over time.

We conceive of our life story in the structure of a novel.

"Human beings have this ability to engage in episodic memory -- they can recall scenarios from their past that have a beginning, middle and end; little stories,” says McAdams. “The ability to do that also enables you to see the future that way. You can imagine the future as little stories that haven’t happened yet.”

This episodic quality is a natural part of memory and future-thinking, and the brain creates these narratives to give structure to our thoughts about the past and future. We think of our lives chronologically, dividing up our experience as a whole into "chapters" based on major life events -- schooling, geographical location, jobs, major family events and so on. Research in cognitive science has reinforced the idea that it’s natural for people to sort their lives into these sort of broad units, according to McAdams.

Successful people's stories contain themes of redemption.

When McAdams and his students examined the life stories of a group of people in their 30s and 40s who were seen by themselves and others as being highly “generative" -- meaning caring, productive and committed to making a positive difference in the world -- they found again and again that these people brought themes of redemption into their narratives.

“Redemption is seen as when something in the story starts really bad," says McAdams. "They’ll talk about a negative event – a failure, or some kind of disruption or loss – and then they’ll transition into some positive outcome from that."

For example, a generative person might view getting fired or divorced as a catalyst for a better opportunity to arise later down the road. The basic arc of a generative script is always one of going through suffering and then coming out of it better than you were before.

“We all know how to do that and many of us do it, but the highly generative people do it a lot," says McAdams. “They have about twice as many of those themes in their life stories or more as do the rest of us.”

Your stories are dictated by social and cultural norms.

While these highly generative adults do tell redemptive stories fairly universally, McAdams also notes that these stories are especially cogent in American societies. In different societies, there might be different stories that correlate with generativity.

Our life stories aren’t created in a vacuum: We pick up on cultural cues and narratives (like the classically American rags to riches tale) and these deeply inform the stories we tell. Cultural themes and mythologies are used and appropriated, and we find ways to fit them into our own narratives.

“There’s cultural meaning to these kind of redemption narratives,” says McAdams. “You hear that humans have evolved to be storytellers -– that’s true, our brains are set up that way. But they develop in cultures… and our narratives are almost determined by culture.”

You can take control of your own stories.

Although these stories are largely determined by our cultures and personalities, we do have a degree of control over what we tell ourselves about our own lives. Even if we take themes from our society, we are the ones putting them together and we have some conscious sense of doing so.

“At the level of conscious awareness, there are things that we can do to make our stories better,” says McAdams. “Try to accentuate the positive… when you’re in the midst of turmoil and chaos it’s hard to step back and say, ‘Maybe I’m going somewhere with this that’s positive.’”

Of course, looking on the bright side should also be balanced with a realistic perspective on the events of one's life. Studies have found that "realistic optimists" -- those who are both optimistic and have a truthful view of events -- may be happier and more successful than strict optimists or pessimists.

Asking the big questions about who we are and what our purpose in life might be (those questions we used to ask as teenagers and college students) are also important to shaping narrative identity, and taking the time to ask them can help us to take control over our own life stories.

“I think people need to interrogate themselves with respect to their life stories," says McAdams. "What am I trying to do here? What’s the long term gain and how am I going to leave the world a better place when I’m through?”

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