A simple mindset shift stands between you and your contentment.
If you want to feel fulfilled in your daily life, the way you tell your own life story has a great impact. Your life story, or life narrative, is the way you make sense of your own experiences.
Think of your life narrative as a form of internal storytelling. You use it to weave your everyday experiences into cohesive plot. This narrative helps you understand your life as if you were a character in a novel, creating perceptions of yourself based on the way your story unfolds.
It may sound silly, but let me give you an example.
A Tale of Two QBs
Let’s say Greg and Adam are two very similar guys who have had very similar life experiences. Both are healthy, happy, popular young men. Both are athletic and each one is captain and quarterback of his high school’s football team. They each get good grades and plan to go to college next fall to study business.
Now let’s say that Greg and Adam are each involved in a serious car accident. Both Greg and Adam survive the crash, but their football career is over. They have each suffered an injury that will prevent them from recovering to their original health. Neither one will ever play again.
Here is where Greg and Adam divert.
The news of his career-ending injury devastated Greg. After he finished his physical therapy and went back to school, he fell into a depression. He isolated himself from his social circle and started to let his grades slip.
Greg sees himself as incapable of success after suffering such a tragic loss. He doesn’t feel fulfilled in his life. He is so affected by his changed circumstance that he chooses not to go to college for fear of failure.
The news of his career-ending injury also devastated Adam… at first. However, Adam became inspired by his physical therapy sessions. He saw the work being done to help him recover and it motivated him to study physical therapy in addition to business.
Adam finishes his degree and opens a sports injury treatment and prevention clinic. He feels fulfilled every day as he uses his knowledge of football and physical therapy to keep his patients healthy and happy.
Adam sees his situation as fated. If he had not suffered from a tragic loss, he would have never found a way to help others in such a meaningful way.
How could these two individuals with such identical experiences view their situation so differently?
The distinction is in the narrative identity that Greg and Adam have each developed for themselves.
Northwestern University professor Dan P. McAdams has studied the way people make sense of their experiences through storytelling.
Through this research, he developed a psychological concept known as narrative identity. The theory of narrative identity suggests that a person creates a layer of their own identity based on the way they form their life narrative.
Narrative identity comes from a person’s “internalized, evolving story of the self, which provides the individual with a sense of unity and purpose in life.” The way you tell your story affects how you view your own self-worth and determines whether you feel fulfilled in life.
Dr. McAdams categorizes these types of “stories of self” into eight distinct types. We are going to focus on the first two story categories because they have a great impact on how meaningful you believe your life to be.
The first type is a “redemption” story, in which the main character of your story (you!) goes from a negative state to a positive one. The transition from negative to positive happens through sacrifice, recovery, growth, or learning.
In our example The Tale of Two QBs, Adam viewed his experience through the lens of redemption. His narrative started at the point of his injury (negative state) and ended with his recovery through physical therapy (positive state). Understanding his experience in this way lead Adam to feel motivated and inspired.
When you tell redemptive stories in your life narrative, you are much more likely to feel fulfilled. Framing your experience as a redemption story brings a greater sense of meaning to your life.
The opposite of a redemption story is one of “contamination,” in which the main character of your story goes from a positive state to a negative one. The transition from positive to negative can happen through victimization, betrayal, loss, or failure.
In our example The Tale of Two QBs, Greg viewed his experience as a contamination story. His narrative started at the height of his football career (positive state) and ended with the tragic loss caused by his injury (negative state). Making sense of his experience this way lead Greg to feel dejected and hopeless.
When you frame your experience as a contamination story, you are less likely to feel fulfilled or to contribute to society. Your life tends to seem less understandable and more tumultuous when viewed through the lens of contamination.
Change the Way You Tell Your Story
It may seem as though you’re stuck with whichever type of story you create in your life narrative. But that’s absolutely untrue.
You can adjust your stories and make a huge impact on your life.
Author Emily Esfahani Smith explores the influence you have over your life narrative in her book The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. (You can read an excerpt of the book in this TED article.)
Emily found that altering the story you use to make sense of your experience can lead you to feel more fulfilled. Shifting from a contamination story to a redemptive one adds a level of fullness to your existence.
This works for creating new stories real-time as well as revising old ones.
But adjusting your life narrative has another added benefit. Reframing your narrative to create meaning in your life can also lead to an increase in meaningful behaviors.
Reframe Your Narrative
In her book, Emily writes about a study by Adam Grant and Jane Dutton in which a group of fundraisers were prompted to journal about one of two things. One half of the group wrote about the last time someone did something for them that inspired gratitude. The other half of the group wrote about ways they had helped others.
The study found that fundraisers who told a “benefactor” story (writing about ways they had helped others) made thirty percent more calls to solicit donations after the experiment than they had before. Fundraisers who told a story in which they were the beneficiary of good deeds showed no change in their behavior.
Of the benefactor group, Emily writes, “By subtly reframing their narrative, they adopted a positive identity that led them to live more purposefully.”
The moral of the story (pun intended) is that you can change your perception of yourself and change your behavior by the framework you use to understand your experience. You can make a big impact on your life simply by creating a narrative of redemption rather than contamination.
Seek out the positive impact of your experiences and your life will gain a new level of fullness.
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