Submitted by Niki Glanz, Ed.D., INPM Member for the Positive Living Newsletter (July 2016). Read the rest of the newsletter here.
Previous Positive Living Newsletter issues greeted us with several meaningful life stories, describing fellow members’ searches for personal meaning or a profession that would provide meaningful services. No surprise, I’m sure, to INPM members who deliberately joined a meaning-oriented organization!
Yet we may benefit by pausing to examine the concept itself: What exactly is a meaningful life story? That’s an easy question for all of us acquainted with “meaning”: It’s someone’s account of past episodes or interactions that demonstrates a sense of purpose or dedication to worthy goals—perhaps even a devotion to “something larger and higher than oneself” (Wong, 2011). So, Gramps rocking in his chair, recounting reactions to past challenges; a celebrity sharing her rise to stardom in a media interview; a book chronicling years spent as a boy soldier—all could be labeled life stories.
Within psychology, life stories have gained such significance that they constitute a genre. In 1997, Bruner explained that scientists had begun to realize that “narrative” was not simply a form of text, but “a cognitive representation of reality imposed by structure on our experience” (cited in Chase, 2005, p. 656). Cole and Knowles elaborated in their 2001 classic, Lives in Context, that a life narrative or life story is a written or spoken account of a life or life segment that extends beyond a recitation of episodes. Rather, it organizes events to yield identity and meaning.
Meanwhile Don Adams was famously providing examples of life narratives, such as his revival of an ancient story type, the “redemptive self story” (2001, 2006). In an earlier work (1993), he had discussed the psychological processes involved in telling one’s story and stressed their importance. Not only can a life story confer healing and growth on its author, it helps to create the subjective world people live in, which at the same time is creating them.
As an educator and qualitative researcher, now retired from academia but continuing to pursue research projects, I discovered firsthand the power of life stories. I had decided to investigate the life-long impact of happy childhood experiences in an attempt to determine whether they mattered. Marty Seligman, a Positive Psychology founder, citing what we now know were poorly designed twin studies, had stated in his seminal 2002 work, Authentic Happiness, that childhood events had “only negligible” lasting effects (p. 68). Using my extensive, multicultural network, I interviewed 70 people on 5 tours of North America to discern whether this held, as well, for happy childhood memories.
I anticipated an interesting itemization of memories’ effects. Surprise! To a person, interviewees shared intricate life stories that incorporated meaning as they described the long-term impact of happy episodes and reminiscences. Their inspiring, entertaining life stories also illustrated a wealth of Positive Psychology concepts from a culturally diverse sample (including nearly 20 interviewees who were non-North American natives or had such experiences). (Beyond race and ethnicity, religion, SES, and locale, the sample also reflected diversity in family structure, birth order, age, employment, and personal characteristics.)
There were other surprises, as well. For example, who would have guessed that desperation and depression are vital for happiness? Answer: Paul Wong, his colleagues, and INPM members. Yes, interviewees validated PP2.0: incorporation of “the dark side” indeed is essential for positivity and well-being (Wong, 2011, 2012).
I’ll be sharing interviewees’ strategies for surmounting dire tragedies and heartrending challenges at our upcoming conference in Toronto. Join me! Sixty of the edited stories I recorded are featured in my forthcoming book, Memories to Momentum, along with a brief introduction, explaining the project’s genesis, and a brief conclusion, portraying the stories’ broad themes. Information concerning MTM’s procurement, price, publisher, etc. will be available at a forthcoming website or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now, my own life story, in brief, at the editor’s request. I’ve been fortunate to have a common personal and professional “meaning.” It can be summarized as a celebration of diversity while seeking strands that unite. I have lived and worked with people of many cultures and ethnicities at various U.S. and South American locations. My family and I gained a lively amalgam of contrasting and refreshing approaches to life that has enriched us in ways small and large. It also has enhanced my professional work.
My work settings, themselves, have contributed greatly to this diversity. How lucky I’ve been to teach at two of the world’s top-ranked, global high schools (Evanston, IL, and LaPaz, Bolivia); serve as an education professor at Georgia Regents University, located in a racially and socially diverse region (Augusta, GA); and much earlier assist Laotian refugees with English for Bellevue (WA) Community College at a satellite location (Snoqualmie Valley, WA). Qualitative research projects conducted for GRU and other educational institutions and nonprofits often centered on cross-cultural themes, as well.
If you sensed in these final paragraphs that I have personally benefited from identifying my life “meaning” and crafting my “life story,” even as I – like all of us – respond to challenges and evolve in new ways, you’re correct. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s Rhonda, a woman in her 80s, featured in my forthcoming book, Memories to Momentum: “I know the sadness, I know the things that can happen, and I have this wonderful, wonderful life!”
I’m betting that you, too, will find an enduring sense of serenity by crafting your own life story. Best to use a research-based approach; may I be so bold as to recommend the one employed by interviewees in my MTM book? Reading and absorbing their stories can be powerful in itself, thanks to the magic of modeling and attachment in learning a new behavior (Masten and Coatsworth, 1998; Showers et al., 1987). I also believe you’ll find stories’ general themes, summarized in the book’s conclusion, a great help. Whatever method you choose, you have my best wishes for a truly meaningful life!
- Chase, S. E. (2005). Narrative inquiry: Multiple lenses, approaches, voices. In N. K. Denzin, & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of qualitative research (3rd ed.; pp. 651-680). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Cole, A. L., & Knowles, J. G. (2001). Lives in context: The art of life history research. Lanham, MD: Altamira Press.
- Masten, A. S., & Coatsworth, J. D. (1998). The development of competence in favorable and unfavorable environments: Lessons from research on successful children. American Psychologist, 53, 205-220.
- McAdams, D. P. (2006). The redemptive self: Stories Americans live by. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- McAdams, D. P. (1993). The stories we live by: Personal myths and the making of the self. New York, NY: Morrow.
- McAdams, D. P., Josselson, R., Lieblich, A. (2001). Turn in the road: Narrative studies of lives in transition. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic happiness. New York, NY: Free Press.
- Showers, B., Joyce, B., & Bennett, B. (1987). Synthesis of research on staff development: A framework for future study and state-of-the-art analysis. Educational Leadership, 45, 77-87.
- Wong, P. T. P. (2011). Positive psychology 2.0: Towards a balanced interactive model of the good life. Canadian Psychology, 52(2), 69-81.
- Wong, P. T. P. (2012). Toward a dual-systems model of what makes life worth living. In P. T. P. Wong (Ed.), The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications (2nd ed., pp. 3-22). New York, NY: Routledge.