04 Jan Will happiness be part of the theme of your life in 2017?
If your life were a movie, where would the plot be headed right now?You may not be immortalized in film anytime soon, but your life is still a story. According to psychologists, we all have an internalized narrative that explains how we became the person we are today and where we are headed tomorrow. Like any Hollywood blockbuster, this narrative has settings, scenes, a plot, characters, and themes.
As we ponder resolutions for the coming year, New Year’s can also be a time to reflect on our life story—and to figure out how everything fits together. Incorporating our goals into the larger narrative of our life can give us more energy to pursue them, and to become the person we want to be.
The science of the life story
Storytelling starts in childhood, as kids narrate events to their parents. Their stories—fragmented, short, and sometimes seemingly pointless—are more than just cute. They reflect a struggle to master this innately human form of communication; children’s efforts also reveal just how cognitively demanding it is. Parents help this process along by asking questions about causes, effects, and emotions, implicitly teaching kids what makes a good story.
Adolescents improve by leaps and bounds in their storytelling ability, but they don’t quite perfect the art. In fact, at least one study says our stories become more and more coherent through our 20’s. The ability to integrate our stories around a common theme—more on that below—continues improving even into our 40’s. Stories are the way we make sense of the world, and we’re constantly narrating and revising in our heads, sometimes without even realizing it.
Although our life story is based on actual events, it is also highly personal and subjective. The same life could be narrated many ways; we might hone in on our parents’ divorce and how it colored everything that followed, or downplay the divorce and instead highlight an exemplary college career.
“Creating any kind of a story is a construction. It’s not just finding something that’s out there,” says Northwestern professor Dan McAdams, a pioneer in the field of narrative psychology. “Selves create stories, which in turn create selves.”
Not only do stories tell us who we are, but they can also become resources we draw upon in times of difficulty: Recalling stories of strength or resilience helps us confront new challenges, reminding us of how we solved problems in the past. Telling stories can connect us with others, creating intimacy and strengthening relationships. The best stories provide meaning and purpose by linking seemingly random events and experiences into a progressive journey.
Three common life themes
Studying stories is not easy, since every person’s life is so unique. In their quest to categorize and correlate, researchers have come up with different ways to analyze life stories, and one of those ways is by theme.
A theme is a common motivational thread or pattern that runs through a life story. The three themes detailed below—communion, agency, and redemption—have all been linked to well-being. If you want to cultivate happiness in the coming year, organizing your goals and your life story around one of these themes could help the pieces fall into place…
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