Life Stories

Based on Niki Glanz’s Lead Article, “Meaningful Life Stories,” in the July, 2016, Positive Living Newsletter, published by International Network of Personal Meaning, pp. 1-2.

59 life stories! They’re captured in each person’s own words, the very heart of Memories to Momentum: Stories of Looking Back, Living Forward. But what exactly is a life story? At its most basic level, it’s a person’s recitation of past events. For example, a celebrity sharing her rise to stardom in a media interview could be labeled a life story.

Within psychology, life stories have gained such significance that they constitute a genre. That includes M2M stories, so let’s examine the historical backdrop to enhance our understanding.

In 1997, Jerome Bruner, speaking on behalf of psychologists, announced the realization that “narrative” was not simply a form of text, but “a cognitive representation of reality imposed by structure on our experience1.” Cole and Knowles, in their 2001 classic, Lives in Context, elaborated: a life narrative or life story is a written or spoken account that extends beyond a recitation of episodes. Rather, it organizes events to yield a person’s identity and meaning2.

The meaning of “meaning” has proven tricky, however. To some psychologists, it meant serving something bigger than oneself, thereby contributing to a person’s sense of “wellbeing3.” Another psychology camp viewed “meaning” as “doing what is right and what is good,” so that others also benefitted4. Amazingly, this definition of “meaning” takes psychology back to Aristotle’s notion of practical wisdom in which one’s self-interest is balanced with the interests of others and those of the entire setting where one lives5.

According to Dan McAdams, these “moral meanings run through life narratives,” either explicitly or implicitly6. His work stressed the importance of life stories for several reasons. For one, they often confer healing and growth on their authors. At the same time, they help create the subjective world we live in, which also creates us7.

For McAdams, the classic American life story resembles ancient myths, religious parables, and fairy tales. Adversities and suffering are overcome through will power and strength of character. The result: personal success, enlightenment, and a better world8!

These “redemptive life stories,” like all life stories, are grounded in a person’s reality, including how people reconstruct events when they first experience them and later as they remember them. By combining subjective interpretations of reality with a heroic storyline, redemptive stories promote responsible, caring lives. In fact, McAdams found the more redemptive a person’s story, in general, the better his/her psychological well being9.

Are M2M’s stories redemptive stories? I believe at least two-thirds are, including many told by people who experienced their childhoods outside the U.S. What makes the stories particularly poignant is that, yes, from the interviewee’s perspective they are true. As for offering moral lessons, I’ll let you be the judge.

1 Bruner, 1997, cited in Chase SE. (2005) Narrative Inquiry: Multiple Approaches, Voices. In NK Denzin & YS Lincoln (Eds.), The sage handbook of qualitative research, 3rd edition. Sage, p. 656.

2 Cole, AL & Knowles, JG. Lives in context: The art of life history research, Alta Mira, p.18.

3 Seligman, MEP. (2011) Flourish. Free Press, p. 17.

4 Duckworth, A. (2016) Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. Scribner, pp. 143, 147; Wong, PTP. (2011) Towards a balanced interactive model of the good life. Canadian Psychology, 52, p. 78.

5 Sternberg, 2001, cited in Wong, 2011, Ibid.

6 McAdams, DP (2009) The Moral Personality. In D Narvaez & DK Lapsley (Eds.), Personality, identity and character: Explorations in moral psychology. Cambridge University Press, p. 20.

7 McAdams, DP. (1993) The stories we live by: Personal myths and the making of the self. William Morrow.

8 McAdams DP. (2006) The redemptive self: Stories Americans live by. Oxford University Press; McAdams DP, Josselson R, Lieblich A. (2001) Turn in the road: Narrative studies of lives in transition. American Psychological Association.

9 Blackwell, EC. (2005) Redemption. Northwestern, Winter Issue, pp. 32-25; McAdams, 2006, Ibid.