“The universe is made up of stories, not of atoms.” – Rukeyser, 1968
Since the beginning of time, stories have been used as a way of making sense of the world that otherwise seems too difficult to fathom. This is evident through ancient myths, legends, folklore, and religious origin stories. Stories can inspire, teach, offer new perspectives, form bonds between people, induce empathy, sadness, joy, and comfort. While there are many areas of life in which storytelling can be utilized, today we want to focus on the scientific findings behind storytelling and how it can be used as a superpower on our journey towards a joyful life.
Stories for self-development
In 1986, Theodore Roy Sarbin first introduced the term narrative psychology in his book and suggested that human behavior can be best explained through storytelling. Since then, many areas of narrative psychology and social psychology have been studied and examined to help us better understand the relation of stories and our personalities.
In 2007, McLean et. al. proposed that constructing “situated stories”, by which they mean narrative accounts of personal memories and experiences, is a way of maintaining and developing the self. Composing a life story is seen as a viable strategy to use when trying to achieve a sense of identity. This process starts early in our childhoods, and parents are an integral part of children developing their situated stories. It was found especially important for parents to talk about negative past events to their children – this was linked to the children having higher self-esteem in adolescence. Later research also showed that the events that adolescents deemed as the most meaningful and important in their lives, were emotionally negative. (McLean et. al.: 2007) This is called making meaning to your memories, and it helps you gain valuable insights and increase your well-being, and it’s essential in having a healthy narrative identity. (Singer et. al: 2013)
Research also suggests that you should not be afraid of sharing your negative stories. Pasupathi (2003) found that when re-telling negative past experiences or events, the amount of negative emotion was lower during the re-telling than during the actual event. Reliving your trauma or bad experiences through a storyline may help you decrease the negative feelings surrounding the event and aid you in the coping process. Lyubomirsky et. al. (2006) also found that storying negative events in the form of writing or talking about them, was related to increased well-being. Sharing positive stories, on the other hand, is good for connecting with people around you and exposing them to the “fun parts” of your life without the risk of burdening the listener.
So, the next time you’re feeling like there are some unresolved issues from your past, try writing them down in a form of a story and see if you feel better – the science stands behind you on this one!
Stories can make you a better person
You might want to make sure to be on the receiving end of stories as well. Being exposed to stories that are attention-grabbing, emotional, and that make you immerse into the story world, can promote prosocial behavior changes even after the narrative is over. (Zak: 2015) To give some background information – the human brain releases a chemical called oxytocin when in contact with people who they deem as trustworthy, safe, and familiar. The same chemical also motivates reciprocation and is associated with caring, connection, and empathy.
“[…] If you treat me well, in most cases my brain will synthesize oxytocin and this will motivate me to treat you well in return.” – Paul Zak
Zak’s experiments found that being exposed to stories with a particular structure – a dramatic arc – caused the participants’ brains to release oxytocin and cortisol, a chemical that aids with focus. This change in oxytocin motivated them to donate money to a stranger who was part of the study. In the following experiment, participants infused with oxytocin donated 56% more money to charity compared to participants infused with a placebo. The oxytocin-infused participants also experienced concern for the characters in the stories and felt motivated to donate money in order to help in some way, even if they knew that donating money wouldn’t help these fictional characters in the slightest. Thus, a good story can actually affect your behavior and treatment towards fellow people positively!
While there’s an abundance of studies to be covered about this topic, if there is one thing you take away from this piece, it should be this: There is no story more important than the story that is your life, and in that story, you are the only author. Don’t let other people write your narrative for you. Truly owning your life and your identity will bring you freedom and joy.
What’s your absolute favorite story of all time? Comment below or share it on social media using the hashtag #joysuperpowers. We’d love to hear your stories! If you want to hear more about storytelling and creativity from a very different perspective, stay tuned for next week’s Joy Superpowers episode featuring master storyteller David Intrator.