Feature

Erika HagensenOne of Washington, D.C.’s newest hotspots isn’t a trendy restaurant or bar. Rather, it’s a place where regular people, some visibly nervous, step onstage and tell stories from their lives. Often it’s the most unassuming people who tell the most riveting, hilarious and heart-rending tales, says Amy Saidman, head of SpeakeasyDC, the nonprofit theater group that runs the event.

"It’s a myth that people who get on stage are all extroverts," says Saidman. "We all have stories to tell and are just dying for people to listen."

That’s an astute observation, says Dan McAdams, PhD, a Northwestern University psychology professor who has spent the past decade systematically and quantitatively studying stories.

When people turn episodes from their lives into anecdotes, it’s not just to entertain friends, McAdams says. Stories allow us to make sense out of otherwise puzzling or random events.

"Stories help us smooth out some of the decisions we have made and create something that is meaningful and sensible out of the chaos of our lives," says McAdams.

Our stories can also shape our future, researchers have found. In particular, telling stories of struggle that turn out well may give people the hope they need to live productive lives. And stories that vividly describe turmoil seem to help people grow wiser in the aftermath of major life challenges.

The power of narrative, however, isn’t always positive: Telling stories about your spouse that focus on negative traits, for instance, can cause you to forget about the positive traits you used to cherish, finds research by John Holmes, PhD, a psychology professor at Waterloo University.

"For better or worse, stories are a very powerful source of self-persuasion, and they are highly internally consistent," says Holmes. "Evidence that doesn’t fit the story is going to be left behind."

Stories of hope

Leaving behind extraneous details was precisely the process Erika Hagensen went through when she attended a SpeakeasyDC workshop. Hagensen, a disability rights activist, wanted to craft an anecdote about a flight attendant who initially refused her request to pre-board. She then called attention to Hagensen’s cane, announcing, "Everybody step aside, this little girl’s handicapped!"

Hagensen excised a passage where she likened boarding the flight to running with the bulls in Spain, and instead skipped ahead to the point of the story: "I fastened my seatbelt low and tight across my hips; I locked my pride in the upright position," she said at a SpeakeasyDC showcase. "I am making it through this flight."

She does more than survive the flight — she emerges stronger, more confident and more comfortable requesting accommodation in the future.

Such a narrative arc, in which challenges give way to triumph, are typical of highly generative adults, McAdams has found. Generativity, a concept pioneered by Erik Erikson, is the desire to provide for future generations and make the world a better place. Highly generative adults, says McAdams, often serve as volunteers, mentors and political activists.

"Generative people love to tell you stories about their lives where terrible things happen to them, but often these bad events lead to positive results of one kind or another," McAdams says.

In one study supporting that theory, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Vol. 27, No. 4), McAdams and his colleagues asked 269 midlife adults and 125 college students to tell open-ended stories about meaningful episodes from their lives. Blind raters then tallied the stories’ "redemption sequences," in which bad events have good outcomes, and "contamination sequences," in which the reverse happens.

People who told stories with many redemption sequences also tended to score higher on McAdams’s Generativity Scale, endorsing such statements as, "I have a responsibility to improve the neighborhood in which I live" and "I try to pass along the knowledge I have gained through my experiences." Regardless of the story’s overall tone, participants who told redemption sequences also tended to be happier, the researchers found.

The results, while correlational, suggest that redemptive stories may help lay the foundation for volunteering, parenting and other such activities, McAdams posits. "The kinds of things highly generative people do are hard work, and sometimes you fail — your candidate loses, your kids frustrate you, your community organizing feels like it’s going nowhere," he says. "Having a redemptive story behind you gives you the confidence, or at least the hope, that your work will bear fruit in the long run."

At the same time, people who work hard and persevere through adversity have better raw material for such stories and may therefore be more likely to tell them. Either way, it’s perhaps no surprise that an activist like Hagensen told a story where an infuriating experience had a happy ending, McAdams says.

"You have to really believe in the possibility of positive outcomes to do that kind of work," he says.

Oversimplified lives

It’s possible, however, to jump to happy endings a little too quickly, says Laura King, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri, Columbia. In her research with people who have weathered major life challenges — divorce, coming out as gay or raising a child with Down syndrome — King has found that people whose stories gloss over conflict tend to become happier over the course of two years, but they do not make any gains in ego development — a measure of the complexity and sophistication with which a person views the world.

"The ability to take some time and experience grief or unhappiness improves your ability to appreciate the world in all its richness and complexity," King says.

In one study (Journal of Research and Personality, Vol. 34, No. 4), King asked parents to tell the story of discovering that their child had Down syndrome. Immediately after telling their stories, and again two years later, the parents completed measures of subjective well-being and ego development.

Researchers blind to the participants’ test scores read their stories and recorded the presence of foreshadowing and whether the stories had happy or sad beginnings and endings. The researchers also scored how vividly the stories illustrated conflict, struggle and exploration.

Two years later, the parents who had grown happier were, perhaps unsurprisingly, the ones who had written stories with happy endings. "I knew everything would be all right," one woman wrote. "He is as much or more of a blessing to our family as any child could be."

Another parent wrote, "I know my daughter is quite special …. She’s definitely wired differently. And I think those wires are hooked directly to God. She’s the closest I’ve come to an angel on Earth."

However, only the parents who first vividly described their mixed feelings upon learning of their child’s diagnosis grew wiser over the course of the study. "I cried a lot," wrote a parent. "The pain was so deep. I felt cheated — I could hardly function." These were also the parents who later seemed best able to fully appreciate their children’s gifts and limitations, King says.

The study also found that people who told highly coherent stories — ones with foreshadowing and without extraneous details — tended to be happier two years later. "I knew something was wrong from the beginning," one woman recalled.

Of course, many pregnant women have moments in which they feel something is "wrong," but those whose premonitions come true will remember them most vividly — an example of what social psychologists call confirmation bias, says King.

"It shows this amazing capacity people have to create meaning out of these events," says King. "The women with foreshadowing in their stories tended to be happier in the long run. It’s not very rational, but it makes people feel good, like ‘someone is out there looking out for me.’"

Therapy tales

As with foreshadowing, the coherence of a story — whether it follows a clear cause-and-effect path — may be a hallmark of good storytelling in both the artistic and the psychological sense, according to research by Jonathan Adler, PhD, a psychology professor at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass.

In his research, published in Psychotherapy Research (Vol. 18, No. 6), Adler investigated the stories of 104 adults in outpatient psychotherapy. He found that the patients who told coherent stories tended to report the largest gains in well-being and ego development.

However, the strongest predictor of improvement was when people saw themselves, rather than the therapist, as the central actors in their stories. And, in a yet-unpublished longitudinal study, Adler found that people began feeling better after they began telling stories in which they took control of their lives and their recoveries.

"You tell the story first and then you live your way into it," Adler says. "There is a certain amount of ‘fake it ’til you make it.’"

Interestingly, none of the therapists in Adler’s study explicitly tried to change patients’ storytelling strategies — a technique known as narrative therapy. Rather, they used more mainstream therapeutic techniques, which probably had a side effect of healthier storytelling, says McAdams.

"I would argue that most talking therapy, from cognitive behavioral therapy to psychoanalysis, involves helping people to tell better stories that enrich their lives and help them get past their problems," says McAdams.

Narrative negativity

But do good stories really lead to good lives? Longitudinal studies, such as Adler’s and King’s, suggest they do, says Holmes of Waterloo. Laboratory research really drives the point home. A case in point: York University psychology professor Ian McGregor, PhD, and Holmes found that if you provide students with an ambiguous story about a breakup and then ask them to tell a slanted version that places the blame on just one of the parties, the students begin to believe their own stories (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 76, No. 3). Two weeks later, even after re-reading the ambiguous story script, the students still said the person they previously championed was relatively innocent. Forty weeks after the initial study, the participants had forgotten almost all the details of the vignette, but they still knew whom to blame.

"Stories shape memory so dramatically," says Holmes. "Once you tell a story, it’s hard to get out of that story’s framework, and they tend to get more dramatic over time."

This tendency can either form a foundation for good marriages or rend couples asunder, researchers have found. People who tell stories about partners that emphasize their negative qualities will tend to remember things that fit into that thesis, and forget the positive traits they previously reported, Holmes has found (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 20, No. 6). Negative storytellers tended to get divorced, while people who told stories about their partners’ strengths and faults saw their relationships strengthen over time.

Taken together, psychologists’ narrative research makes one resounding point: We don’t just tell stories, stories tell us. They shape our thoughts and memories, and even change how we live our lives.

"Storytelling isn’t just how we construct our identities, stories are our identities," he says.

And that, adds Saidmain, is the secret of SpeakeasyDC’s success.

"Every story is a gift, a little part of yourself that you share with the audience," she says. "Who doesn’t like gifts?"

Further reading

  • Angus, L.E., & McLeod, J. (Eds.). (2004). The handbook of narrative and psychotherapy: Practice, theory, and research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

  • Josselson, R., Lieblich, A., & McAdams, D.P. (Eds.). (2007). The meaning of others: Narrative studies of relationships. Washington, DC: APA.

  • McAdams, D.P. (2006). The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live by. New York: Oxford University Press.