Post No.: 0440
Our personal life narratives encapsulate our identities and purposes, our dreams and goals, our life experiences and paths, and our meanings and values. All of these things shape our personalities, behaviours and of course lives.
We use narratives to make sense of and to evaluate the events of our lives, such as where we’ve come from, where we are, and where we’re going or want to go – these give our lives purpose and coherency. We can explore these narratives though expressive writing, a self-compassionate letter, a gratitude diary or through the ‘best possible self’ exercise, for example. Richer and more detailed narratives are associated with greater levels of happiness and resilience against stress and inflammation (lower cytokine levels).
These narratives are also about the story of your life – your story is your own identity. It’s about your beliefs, journey, feelings and memories and so forth. Like a novel, your life story includes chapters, locations, characters, key moments, plot twists, vivid experiences, turning points, big themes and so on. There may be themes regarding suffering, compassion, forgiveness, kindness, relationships and heroism – stuff related to happiness and sadness, furry comedy and fuzzy tragedy. This story makes you feel like a ‘somebody’.
Personal life narratives are particularly important for children who are in foster care or have been adopted. Because they get moved around from placement to placement, they can lose their sense of belonging to anywhere, their roots, sense of a stable family or even who their parents were. They might not even have a story about why they went into care – many adults who were in care as children have said that no one ever told them why they went into care in the first place. This ‘life story work’ is designed to help them recognise their past, present and future, and is also used with those who have dementia or brain injuries as part of their reminiscence therapy.
For a different purpose is a ‘life review’. As you go through life and if you feel stuck, you might get to a stage where you want to conduct such a review. This is a conscious process of progressively returning to memories of unresolved past conflicts in search for a re-evaluation and resolution. The longer we live, the greater our history of accomplishments and regrets, fortunes and misfortunes, and even if we try to consciously ignore our past, we won’t be able to escape how it has shaped who we are today. So making sense of our own history in an intentional and open way can provide us present stability and future guidance. The aim isn’t to dwell on past problems but to understand our own past better, to acknowledge and come to terms with both the good and bad that has happened, and to learn from any mistakes, so that one can look forwards with more fulfilling direction and purpose.
Being able to tell more vivid and engaging life narratives predicts greater well-being later in life – possibly because those who want to talk about their life have had happy lives or at least lives they want to remember and recall. The more varying ‘possible selves’ we can tell, the more it buffers us from depression too i.e. expecting one perfect story, that if not met will mean that ‘our entire life has amounted to nothing’, decreases our resilience. Perfectionists, if they achieve their lofty goals, can do extraordinary things because they’re ambitious, dogged and driven. But perfectionism suggests inflexibility, as if only the best will do – but we seldom, if ever, get or achieve that hence happier people are more likely to be those who can accept something different to ‘plan A’ or ‘plan B’, or even ‘plan C’. A healthy life cannot be ‘all or nothing’ without counting on extraordinary luck.
Storytelling and listening also helps us to be more empathic, as we practise getting into the shoes of other people’s characters and transmit and share values. Stories can move us, inspire us and change attitudes, opinions and behaviours. Stories that are personal and emotional engage us even more, and are more memorable than just stating facts. We can learn vicariously too – we imagine walking in someone else’s shoes for a moment, deeply. By understanding someone’s story – where they came from, what they do and whom you might even know in common – relationships with strangers can form. Stories can promote the release of oxytocin, which can increase empathy and trust, kindness and compassion, between teller and listener. They can motivate us to make positive changes in our own lives as well as in others. Regularly putting yourself in other people’s shoes or examining diverse perspectives helps you to become a better leader and decreases the tendency to stereotype other people too.
Being mindful of the present has many health benefits compared to dreading a future that might never come, or ruminating on the past and on things that cannot be changed – but thinking about the future is necessary sometimes, for planning and organisation, and for finding meaning and purpose. We also need to learn from the past.
Anticipation is also exciting and ‘positive prospection’ (the generation and evaluation of positive mental representations of possible futures, or more simply put – having positive expectations of the future) motivates us to achieve future goals and desirable outcomes; as long as we don’t merely fantasise about them and rest on our fantasised laurels. Expecting desirable outcomes, or optimism, can motivate us because why bother trying something if you don’t even believe you’ll succeed?(!) We must still make risk assessments with our goals, but feeling active, excited, energised and motivated – perhaps because of a positive outlook or living a meaningful life, rather than feeling exhausted or drained – is a key positive feeling. Woof!
So the depressing kind of future focus is negative and full of futility and hopelessness, whereas a bit of optimism is healthy, as long as it’s realistic, not merely wishful-thinking, and is backed by a plan of action, an awareness of how to tackle the obstacles in your way, and a set of behaviours or habits that will help you to reach your goals (so balancing being optimistic without being complacent).
Thinking positively about the future is naturally correlated with happiness, while thinking about the future negatively is correlated with depression and anxiety. Being future-minded with a positive outlook, planning for the future, thinking of the consequences of one’s present actions, and delaying gratification, are examples when thinking about the future is beneficial. A good outlook can give us pleasure through the anticipation of it too. A bad outlook could motivate us to change something to prevent such a bad outcome though… although it still might be better to turn it into an optimistic outlook by understanding that there’s still hope to change the future.
Woof! It may be easier for some people compared to others to hold a positive outlook regarding their life narrative – for example, some people are in better expected health or know how much they’re going to inherit so feel more secure than others – but if we can all find a way to take control of our own life narratives then we will all have a chance to shape them into more optimistic outlooks and positive stories. Your story isn’t over until it’s over!