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Life stories

Author: Dr Simon Moss


The capacity to narrate satisfying life stories about personal experiences differs across individuals. Some of the attributes of these life stories also predict wellbeing.

For example, some individuals often convey stories in which they overcame adversity and experienced a sense of redemption from their suffering. Other individuals often communicate stories in which their life deteriorated, called a contamination sequence, in which positive events were compromised by misfortunes. Individuals who narrate stories about overcoming adversity are usually more satisfied with life and less inclined to experience depression (e.g., McAdams, Reynolds, Lewis, Patten, & Bowman, 2001). In particular, when individuals convey stories about how an experience of profound pain evoked key insights about themselvse, they are more likely to experience satisfaction and fulfilment in life (e.g., Bauer, & McAdams, Pals, 2008).

Second, some life stories convey either a sense of closure or anticipate a pleasurable experience in the future. In contrast, other stories seem incomplete, but anticipate an impending problem--a characteristic that tends to correlate with dissatisfaction in life (King, Scollon, Ramsey, & Williams, 2000).

Third, some life stories emphasize endeavors and activities that align with core values and intrinsic interests (e.g., Bauer & McAdams, 2000 & Bauer & McAdams, 2004 & Bauer, McAdams, & Sakaeda, 2005). These stories also often coincide with life satisfaction.

Coherence of stories

Features of coherence

Coherence is also a key feature that differs across stories and corresponds to psychological health (Dimaggio & Semerari, 2004). Coherence is sometimes conceptualized as clarity in the temporal and causal sequence of behaviors, enacted to pursue goals (Mandler, 1984). In contrast, McAdams (2006) characterizes coherence as a story that resonates with the experiences of listeners. In other words, coherence should be defined from the perspective of listeners, not narrators.

Habermas and Bluck (2000) distinguish four features that characterize coherent life stories. The first feature is temporal coherence, which refers to whether the sequence of events is specific and plausible. For example, references to a marriage before allusions to meeting their partner might reflect temporal incoherence. This ability is partly acquired throughout preschool years (Friedman, 1992) but continues to develop throughout childhood. At age 13, most students can order events by the seasons of a year (Friedman, W. J.& Lyon, 2005).

The second feature is causal coherence, in which the story explains how events unfold--that is, the processes, causes, motives, and meaning that underpin the shift from one event to another event. Only in late adolescence to children tend to develop this capacity. The third feature is thematic coherence, in the story revolves around a single, unifying, and overarching theme. Individuals during mid-adolescence develop the ability to generate these themes. The final feature is autobiographical coherence, in which the story conforms to a normative life course, as defined by cultural expectations. This form of coherence is specific to life stories and does not apply to other accounts.

Examples of coherence

Adler, Wagner, and McAdams (2007) presented some examples of cohesive accounts about their experiences in counselling. First coherent accounts tend to integrate experiences into an insight about themselves. One woman, for instance, asserted that:

"Just as living in another culture (which I also have done) destabilizes all your assumptions of what is natural and true, so labeling myself as "ADHD or "perfectionist" opened up possibilities of other ways of being.

This excerpt shows how the individual related her experiences of therapy to her life abroad. That is, she integrated several experiences during her counselling session to a change in her self concept. In contrast, another person conveyed that:

"Everything is really going fine. I have been taking medication everyday since therapy"

During this excerpt, the person does not relate this major development in their life to any changes in their sense of self.

Similarly, Pals (2006) presents an example in which a woman concedes that she had "reached an emotional bottom that year" but had "began making a stable life again", recognizing this period of her life was replete with "pain, experimentation, and growth". In this excerpt, the woman does not distance herself from the pain, but acknowledges and embraces the suffering, distilling meaning and developing her identity.

Measurement of coherence

Baerger and McAdams(1999) developed a coding system to measure the extent to which life stories, often extracted during therapeutic sessions, are coherent. Four dimensions were developed to represent coherence. Specifically, integration represents the extent to which the autobiographical events of individuals relate to a unifying theme, sense of meaning, or perspective about themselves. Second, affect represents the degree to which emotion is depicted clearly and convincingly.

Third, structure refers to whether or not the temporal sequence of events is compelling. For example, to be coherent, each episode should include a reference to an event that initiated some reaction, the personal thoughts or feelings that followed this event--such as goals or plans, the behaviors these thoughts or feelings evoked, and a consequence.

Finally, orientation refers to whether or not the context or setting in which the events unfold is specific and vivid. For example, this dimension refers to whether individuals present background to the story, and relate the context to a broader account of themselves. They might describe their age, role, or objectives at the time as well as events that affected their decisions and behavior.

For example, Adler, Wagner, and McAdams (2007), instructed participants to write about five scenes about an experience in psychotherapy: the presenting problem, the decision to seek therapy, the two most significant sessions, and the termination. Two independent raters assessed accounts of all five scenes as a single narrative, rating the level of integration, affect, structure, and orientation on a five point scale.

The four ratings were highly correlated with each other, but unrelated to the length of these accounts. Inter-rater reliability approximated or exceeded .8 for all four ratings (Adler, Wagner, & McAdams, 2007).

Exploratory narrative processing

According to many researchers, the capacity or willingness of individuals to construct, refine, and follow a coherent narrative of their identity or life instills individuals with a sense of meaning as well as enhances wellbeing and facilitates maturity (e.g., Singer, 2004;; Singer & Blagov, 2004). In particular, distressing and difficult memories or experiences, like divorce, often do not align as readily to the story or narrative that individuals construct (cf., Cohler, 1991). Individuals must somehow reconcile these experiences into a coherent account.

Pals (2006) emphasizes that some individuals dedicate effort and energy into exploring, analyzing, and contemplating difficult experiences, striving to integrate these episodes into their life story. This capacity or willingness is called exploratory narrative processing and is correlated with various measures of well-being. Furthermore, this exploration is associated with maturity, defined as the awareness and cognitive complexity that individuals demonstrate about their own life and emotions, sometimes operationalized by levels of ego development (cf., Loevinger, 1976).

Consequences of exploratory narrative processing

To illustrate, many studies indicate that such exploration enhances maturity, as defined by ego development. When students often question themselves, especially in the aftermath of a crisis in their religious identity, their level of maturity tends to increase (McAdams, Booth, & Selvik, 1981;; for other examples, see Bauer & McAdams, 2004;; King, Scollon, Ramsay, & Williams, 2000).

Pals (2006) also showed that exploratory narrative processing facilitates maturity. In this study, 83 women, at age 52, were instructed to write a meaningful narrative about a distressing event in their lives, such as marital difficulties or work problems. Three judges then coded these excerpts. First, they coded the extent to which the narrative was rich and complex--that is, the degree to which participants elaborated on the significance and impact of this experience as well as grappled with its difficulty and complexity. Second, they coded the degree to which the person attempts to gain novel insights from this episode rather than trivialize or minimize the event. These two ratings represented exploratory narrative processing.

At age 61, the maturity of these women were assessed by a trained interviewer. The women were interviewed on many facets of their life, including relationships, aging, and health. To gauge maturity, the extent to which they demonstrated mature emotional responses, insight into themselves, and integrity with their values was assessed.

Exploratory narrative processing was positively associated with subsequent maturity. Hence, when individuals explore their identity, they cope with problems more adaptively and align to their values.

Antecedents to exploratory narrative processing: Overview

As Pals (2006) highlighted, coping openness increases the likelihood of exploratory narrative processing. Coping openness represents the willingness of individuals to embrace, instead of shun, the negative, uncertain, ambivalent, and complex thoughts or emotions that difficult experiences elicit (cf., Haan, 1977;; Labouvie-Vief & Medler, 2002).

Coping openness entails concepts like openness to feelings and tolerance of ambiguity. Indeed, when individuals report an openness to feelings, they perceive life events as opportunities to learn information about themselves, comparable to exploratory narrative processing (Berzonsky & Sullivan, 1992). Similarly, when individuals report a tolerance of ambiguity, they are more willing to update their narrative about themselves (Labouvie-Vief & Medler, 2002).

Pals (2006) also demonstrated that coping openness fosters exploratory narrative processing. In this study, the coping openness of 83 women was assessed when they were 21 and 52. Coping openness was operationalized as tolerance of ambiguity but negligible repression. At age 52, they were asked to write a meaningful narrative about a distressing event in their lives, such as divorce, mental illness, deaths, health problems, and retrenchments. Three judges then coded these excerpts. First, they coded the extent to which the narrative was rich and complex as well as the degree to which the person seemed receptive to change. These two ratings represented exploratory narrative processing.

As Pals (2006) showed, coping openness, as represented by tolerance of ambiguity rather than repression, was positively associated with exploratory narrative processing. Specifically, coping openness at 21 was related to exploratory narrative processing at age 52.

Antecedents to exploratory narrative processing: Adversity

As some research indicates, individuals are more inclined to demonstrate exploratory narrative processing, ultimately facilitating maturity, in the aftermath of negative rather than positive events. For example, as McLean and Thorne (2003) demonstrated, if individuals consider events that entail conflict, rather than no conflict, they are more inclined to seek meaning, a manifestation of exploration.

Antecedents to self integration: Responsiveness of listeners

After people experience an adverse event, such as cancer in the family, they may integrate this episode with their perception of themselves. They may consider how this event changed their goals, beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors, for example, called change self integration. Alternatively, they may reflect upon how their response to this event epitomized their existing characteristics, called stability self integration.

This self integration, and perhaps change self integration in particular, is beneficial. That is, when individuals consider how some adversity changed their perspective and behavior, they become more resilient. That is, they adjust to challenging episodes more effectively as well as behave more responsibly (e.g., Blagov & Singer, 2004). Such integration may enable individuals to evolve more complex, nuanced, and refined strategies to accommodate personal difficulties.

Weeks and Pasupathi (2011) examined two key determinants of change self integration: the extent to which people offer elaborate accounts of negative events and the responses of listeners. Pairs of friends participated in the first study. One person conceded a negative event in their lives to the friend--an episode they had not disclosed to this individual before.

Next, a series of questions were answered. Some of the questions gauged the extent to which the account was elaborate, detailed, coherent, and clear, as judged by independent people as well as the friends themselves. In addition, the person who disclosed the account indicated the degree to which they felt the other person was attentive, responsive, and expressive. Finally, these people answered questions that assessed change self integration, representing the degree to which this event evoked insights about themselves, as well as stable self integration, representing the extent to which their responses to this event were consistent with their personality.

Both elaborate accounts, as well as responsive listeners, were positively associated with change but not stable self integration. The second study was similar, except whether or not the listeners were responsive was manipulated rather than measured. In particular, some but not all listeners were distracted by a memory task, curbing their capacity to be responsive. Responsive listeners were more likely to increase change self integration in the other person. In this study, however, elaborate accounts were not significantly associated with change self integration.

The key conclusion, therefore, was that responsive listeners may enable individuals to reflect upon how an event could change their goals, perspectives, and behaviors. Whether or not supportive comments, hypothetical questions, or even divergent opinions are most effective warrants further research. Furthermore, the contexts in which elaboration facilitates self integration, rather than distracts attention from the self, also needs to be clarified.

Positive resolution to stories

In some stories, individuals construct a complete story about an episode that seems difficult but, nevertheless, ends positively, manifesting as a sense of resolution. Such positive resolution does entail coherence but also includes another facet--a sequence of events that improves with time. Individuals who construct these stories are usually more satisfied with life, curbing depression (e.g., McAdams, Reynolds, Lewis, Patten, & Bowman, 2001). To some extent, these stories imply the individuals have embraced negative facets of their life rather than attempted to avoid these undesirable events, an orientation that can facilitate meaning and wellbeing (McLean & Pratt, 2006).

Antecedents and consequences positive resolution

Ego resilience has been shown to be a determinant of positive resolution in life stories (Pals, 2006). In this context, ego resilience reflects the capacity of individuals to adapt their life to accommodate challenging circumstances, restoring positive emotions after negative events (Klohnen, 1996). Ego resilience does, for example, enhance the capacity of individuals to derive meaning from unpleasant situations (Tugade & Fredrickson, 2004).

Hence, ego resilience should culminate in positive resolution. This positive resolution should also promote ego resilience. Such resolution instills a sense of direction and confidence, enabling individuals to cope with challenges (Pals, 2006).

Pals (2006) explored these hypotheses. In this study, 83 women completed a measure of ego-resiliency at age 21 and 52. In addition, at age 52, these women were instructed to write a meaningful narrative about a distressing event in their lives. Three judges coded the extent to which the essays demonstrated positive resolution. Specifically, they coded four dimensions: coherence of the ending, desirability of the end, undesirability of the ending, and emotional resolution. A coherent ending tended to include comments that summarized and reconciled the themes of this narrative. Emotional resolution indicated a sense of closure rather than a feeling the issue and emotions were unresolved.

Positive resolution at age 52 was related to increases in ego resilience from age 21 to age 52, and this resilience was associated with life satisfaction at age 61. Hence, positive resolution was a precursor to resilience.

Consequences of positive resolution to threats

Jennings and McLean (2012) compared the benefits of various personal stories or affirmation statements in response to the threats or criticisms. In particular, in this study, half the participants received contrived feedback that indicates they are prejudiced. They were told that, while watching pictures that depict people of other races, their levels of arousal escalated, indicating prejudice. Other participants did not receive this negative feedback.

Next, participants were granted an opportunity to complete some exercise, intended to improve their mood. They could write about a time in which they were tolerant to other cultures, write about a very positive experience, granted an opportunity to answer questions about themselves that provide an opportunity to demonstrate their tolerance, granted an opportunity to answer questions about themselves that provide an opportunity to emphasize their worthiness in general, or complete a distracting task. Finally, they completed measures that assess their mood, self-esteem, and belief they are tolerant.

Some interesting findings emerged. Exercises that obliged participants to consider their level of tolerance--such as writing about a time in which they were tolerant or answering questions about their tolerance--actually provoked more negative rather than positive emotions that did the other conditions. Presumably, these exercises reminded participants of the negative feedback they received. In contrast, affirming another facet of the self was more effective in improving mood.

In addition, although only a marginal effect, writing about a time in which they were tolerant was more effective if participants first highlighted uncertainty towards someone and then accepted this person. That is, stories that began with negative features but ended with positive resolution improved mood. These stories offer two benefits: they clarify the identity of individuals and highlight positive facets.

Other attributes that vary across stories

Generality of lessons and insights

Individuals formulate their life stories, either deliberately or naturally, to reconcile contradictions in their life and to derive meaning. Usually, these life stories develop after individuals experience an important event or time in their life--when their understanding of themselves changed.

In response to these pivotal events, some individuals derive a lesson--a conclusion that applies to a circumscribed facet of their life, such as work. They might, for example, write or posit that "After I was scolded at work, I realized that medical work is not suitable for me". In contrast, after these pivotal events, other individuals derive an insight--a conclusion that applies to almost every facet of their life. An example might be "After I was scolded at work, I began to realize that I need to accept my imperfections" (McLean & Pratt, 2006).

Insights, in contrast to lessons, tend to associated with indices of wellbeing, such as optimism. When individuals derive insights, they become more aware of principles that apply throughout their life. Many facets of their life seem consistent with one another. They do not, therefore, experience doubts about the activities in which they engage, promoting motivation and absorption in life.

The benefits of insight were substantiated by McLean and Pratt (2006). That is, individuals were asked to write life stories about a pivotal moment in their life. Individuals who referred to overarching insights rather than specific lessons also reported elevated levels of optimism.


Causal explanations about past life events is called autobiographical reasoning. Some people demonstrated differentiated processing, in which they consider how specific events in the past fostered their growth in many distinct facets of their life. That is, they can integrate distinct forms of their growth into a unified story. For example, they may indicate how a single episode clarified their identity, enhanced their relationships, and offered wisdom about life. This differentiated processing tend to be correlated with wellbeing (Pals Lilgendahl & McAdams, 2011).

Openness to experience, as defined by the five factor model of personality, tends to facilitate differentiated processing, because this trait encourages individuals to consider a single event from many perspectives. This differentiated processing, especially in the context of negative life events, clarifies and integrates the life stories of individuals, ultimately translating life events into meaning and wellbeing. Only negative, instead of positive, life events challenge the prevailing life stories of individuals and thus stimulates growth and insight (Pals Lilgendahl & McAdams, 2011).

To demonstrate these arguments, in one study, researchers conducted interviews with each participant to uncover their life story. Participants were prompted to discuss significant events in their life, including both the highlights and problems, as well as to converse about key people who affected these events. The answers were then subjected to a comprehensive analysis. In particular, the researchers examined every passage in which participants described how some event affected their life or perspective in some way, called a causal connection.

Then, each causal connection was coded. First, whether or not the event was positive or negative was determined. Second, whether or not the impact of this event was positive or negative was ascertained. Finally, whether the event clarified identity, improved relationships, and uncovered wisdom was determined. Events that fostered all three of these outcomes reflected high levels of differential processing. Events that fostered only one of these outcomes reflected limited levels of differential processing.

Differentiated processing of negative events, but not positive events, was positively associated with measures of subjective and psychological wellbeing. Furthermore, when the impact of these events, including negative episodes, was positive, wellbeing was more likely to be elevated.

Related concepts

Underdog narratives

As Paharia, Keinan, Avery, and Schor (2011) showed, many companies and people construct a story about their humble and deprived origins but eventually persist vigorously to become successful. The Apple brand and Barack Obama, for example, epitomize these biographies. Narratives that depict a company or person as an underdog have been shown to elicit positive evaluations. Nevertheless, several factors affect the benefits of these underdog narratives.

The concept of underdog narratives was explored by Paharia, Keinan, Avery, and Schor (2011). They showed the underdog biography comprises two key facets: deprivation or disadvantage and passion or determination. These researchers argued that many people identify with the underdog. Presumably, as many studies show, individuals like to perceive themselves as special and competent. To justify their average success, despite their significant attributes, many people like to feel they were disadvantaged in some way. Nevertheless, to improve their mood, they like to believe they will thrive anyway, because of their passion and determination. Consequently, many people identify with the underdog. Their evaluations of this underdog are thus positive.

Paharia, Keinan, Avery, and Schor (2011) undertook a series of studies to assess these arguments. They read one of four biographies about a company. One of the biographies depicted the company as an underdog, beginning with few resources of connections, but then thriving because of dedicated work. A second biography depicted the company as a victim, with few resources and connections but no belief they could ever thrive. A third biography portrayed the company as a privileged achiever, with many resources and connections from the outset but also determination to flourish. The final biography portrayed the company as privileged but without determination.

Next, attitudes towards the company were assessed, with questions like "Based on the description of this company, would you like to try this brand?" Furthermore, participants were asked to indicate the extent to which they feel they identify with the brand. Finally, the degree to which the brands were perceived as disadvantaged as well as passionate and determined was assessed.

As expected, compared to the other biographies, the underdog biography evoked more positive attitudes towards the brand. Furthermore, the extent to which individuals identified with this brand mediated this relationship. In addition, the underdog brand, in contrast to the other companies, was perceived as both disadvantaged and determined. Only when companies showed both of these attributes did participants feel a sense of identity with the brand.

Subsequent studies demonstrated that several factors moderate this effect. For example, the benefits of this underdog narrative was especially pronounced in American, compared to Singaporean, participants. Presumably, this capacity to begin with no resources and then demonstrate determination resonates with the pioneering history of the nation. Hence, an underdog narrative is especially likely to resonate with Americans (Paharia, Keinan, Avery, & Schor, 2011).

In addition, when participants reflected upon movies that epitomize the underdog, such as Rocky, they became even more likely to prefer companies that convey an underdog brand. These movies, presumably, activated the underdog self concept. People are thus more likely to identify with an underdog brand. Finally, if participants needed to choose a brand for someone else, the benefits of this underdog narrative diminished, presumably because their self concept was not activated to the same extent.

Narrative therapy

In narrative therapy, clients, in concert with their therapists, construct a rich narrative that integrates the disparate experiences of their lives (White & Epston, 1990 & White, 2007). That is, the narratives or perspectives of some individuals about themselves primarily comprise upsetting stories and events. More uplifting and meaningful facets of their life are obscured.

Narrative therapy is intended to redress this imbalance. That is, as individuals attempt to reconstruct their identity, they first recognize their problems or limitations are malleable rather than entrenched or immutable facets of their identity. They do not equate these problems with themselves. Instead, they externalize these concerns (Morgan, 2000;; White & Epston, 1990), recognizing these challenges partly emanate from events and dynamics in the environment and culture. The problem is thus perceived as a distinct entity, instead of an entrenched part of the client. Once these problems are externalized, individuals can integrate these problems with meaningful and positive facets of their identity. These problems do not persist, evolve, and escalate in isolation, ultimately curbing negative emotions.

Several approaches are applied to externalize or distance the problems of individuals from their identity, circumventing narratives that are saturated with problems (White & Epston, 1990). First, clients are encouraged to consider the effect of problems on various facets of their life, including relationships. The clients assume the role of an investigator. The therapist facilitates this role with questions. The questions might revolve around how the problem managed to evolve and magnify itself.

If individuals had internalized their problem, blaming themselves for difficulties in their life, this phase is particularly vital. For example, when individuals report sexual abuse to friends or managers, they are sometimes asked "Why didn't you just say no". Over time, individuals begin to feel the problem emanated from themselves. The broader social context and power relations are disregarded. These individuals do not ascribe the problem to idiosyncratic causes in their immediate surroundings& hence, they feel overwhelmed by these challenges.

Second, clients are encouraged to label their problems, to ensure these matters are perceived as objects of scrutiny. These individuals can thus explore the antecedents, role, and consequences of this problem& they can choose how they will relate to this problem. They might consider the cultural discourses that amplify this issue. Finally, exceptions to this problem are emphasized, called unique outcomes.

For example, as Leahy and Harrigan (2006) illustrated, many female athletes experience a conflict between their athletic, muscular body and the norms of their culture. These individuals might be asked to consider the norms, acknowledge the source of these standards, and consider how these beliefs are helpful and unhelpful to their lives.

Third, clients are invited to integrate their values, hopes, intentions, and commitments into their narratives& these contemplations enables individuals to reconceptualize their story or narrative and detach themselves from more specific problems. Individuals feel they can reclaim their lives, highlighting alternative directions that overcome the influence of problems. The therapist might encourage the client to consider key conversations or influential figures in their life, as well as skills and insights they derived from these moments.

Sometimes, an outsider--a friend of the client or another client of the therapist with similar problems--is asked to witness the consultation (White, 2005). The outsider, after listening to one session, then discusses which parts of this conversation resonated with their own difficulties. The outsider is also encouraged to consider how this conversation shaped their own perspective of their life. The client is then asked similar questions. The individuals learn the problem is not entrenched within themselves, but is an entity, shared by other people.

Many studies have confirmed some of the principles and assumptions that underpin narrative therapy. For example, when individuals distance themselves from a problem, they are not as likely to ruminate excessively, facilitating progress (e.g., Kross & Ayduk, 2008;; see construal level theory). Nevertheless, narrative therapy as a whole has seldom been subjected to empirical scrutiny.

Some sporadic exceptions have been reported in the literature. In one study, reported by Weber, Davis, and McPhie (2006), seven women, who reported depression and eating disorders, undertook 10 weeks of group sessions, within the framework of narrative therapy. Depression and risk of eating disorders did diminish after these sessions. The individuals were able to externalize the eating disorder and thus adapt their daily practices (for more evidence, see Leahy & Harrigan, 2006).


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