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 Mc Adams is an expert on a concept he calls “narrative identity.” Mc Adams describes narrative identity as an internalized story you create about yourself — your own personal myth.
There was the man who grew up in dire poverty but told Mc Adams 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.
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.An individual’s life story is not an exhaustive history of everything that has happened.Rather, we make what Mc Adams 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. 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.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.He encourages participants to think about their personal beliefs and values.Finally, he asks them to reflect on their story’s central theme.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.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 Mc Adams calls a “contamination story,” in which people interpret their lives as going from good to bad.