Save money. Take up yoga. Stop binge-watching Netflix. At the beginning of every year we start by making a list of resolutions. By the time December 31 rolls around, we’ve grown so frustrated with all of our flaws and failures that we’re ready to discard our old self for a new and improved one. Jettisoning the past, we think, is the best way — the only way — to move forward.
But that advice — as we come to find out almost every January — is flawed.
If we truly want to reinvent ourselves, we need to think bigger. Instead of focusing solely on the person we hope to become, we need to cast our gaze backward and think about the person we’ve been. We need to conceive of our past experiences not as something to be overwritten by a new and improved self, but as the raw materials out of which we can create a new self. Only by looking back can we better look ahead and move forward into a more fulfilling life.
I’ve spent the last four years researching what the building blocks of a meaningful life are for my new book The Power of Meaning: Crafting a life that matters. Turning to the new and growing body of social science research on meaning, I found that meaningful lives share three features in common — purpose, significance, and comprehension. In other words, when people say their lives are meaningful, it’s because they have valued goals that drive them, they feel their lives matter, have worth and they understand and have made sense of their life experiences, weaving them into a coherent whole.
To zero in comprehension, pe ople leading meaningful lives think about how they became the person they are and the pivotal events that shaped them. Rather than seeing their experiences as random or disconnected, they try to make sense of their lives — to see their struggles and achievements as part of a larger narrative, a story. In one study about the difference between a meaningful life and a happy life, researchers found that happy people were focused on the present, anchored on whether they felt happy now. But people whose lives felt meaningful often reflected on the past, present and future — on the entire trajectory of their lives.
The ability to think of our life in terms of a story is critical for meaning. We might not all know what our purpose in life is, but we are all storytellers. The challenge to writing our story is that our lives don’t follow a neat arc. Our identities and experiences are constantly shifting. Like a jazz musician improvising, we may follow one path and then abandon it for another.
Storytelling is how we make sense of these swerves and improvisations. It requires us to reflect on the past in a deep and sustained way. When Dan McAdams of Northwestern University, a psychologist who studies narrative identity, asks research subjects to tell the story of their lives, he instructs them to divide the story into chapters and to recount key scenes. McAdams and his colleagues also tell them to think about their personal beliefs, values and philosophy of life — to distill a central theme of their stories.
Finding the narrative thread in their lives changes people in profound ways. Take the case of Emeka Nnaka, one of the people I interviewed for my book. In 2009, when Nnaka was 21, he injured his spinal cord in a football game and became paralyzed. In the months after his injury, Nnaka spent a lot of time making sense of who he had been before the injury and who he wanted to become in its aftermath. Eventually, he came to see that there were aspects of his identity that he did not like. He realized that he had been self-absorbed, something of a drifter. “I was a guy who partied a lot and didn’t think a lot about others,” he told me. “I thought, ‘You only live once, so do whatever you want to do right now.’ I was living a purposeless life.”
As Nnaka’s old identity was unraveling, he started weaving a new one. In the spring of 2010, nearly a year after his injury, he began to volunteer at his church as a youth leader. Mentoring children, he now tells me, is his purpose.
Most of us will never experience a terrible injury like Nnaka, but all of us have faced suffering and adversity, or have had experiences that divided our lives into a before and after — from having children to losing or finding faith. Nnaka’s transformation shows us that storytelling not only allows us to forge meaning, but also influences our behaviors. Research backs this up. When you tell a story about a time you were generous to others, for example, you’re more likely to behave in generous ways moving forward. And McAdams has found that people who — like Nnaka — tell “redemptive stories” are more “generative,” or more likely to contribute to society and younger generations.
There are also tangible benefits to the storyteller. Other research shows that when people craft a narrative around a definitive life experience, their health and well-being improves in concrete ways. In a series of studies, James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, and his colleagues invited people to spend fifteen minutes each day, for three or so days in a row, writing down their deepest thoughts and emotions about the most upsetting experience from their lives. Although their stories were dark — people wrote about losing loved ones, about being raped, and about attempting suicide — the researchers found that those who did this “expressive writing” ultimately displayed fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression than those who were asked to simply recount the event or vent their raw emotions about it. The expressive writing group also went to the doctor’s office less often, reported better grades, registered lower blood pressure and heart rates and even enjoyed better-functioning immune systems after the experiment.
The reason was storytelling. Those in the expressive writing group actively worked to craft a narrative that would make sense of what had happened to them.
They used more of what Pennebaker calls “insight words” — words and phrases such as “realize,” “I know,” “because,” “work through,” and “understand.” They also were able to find a positive meaning in their traumatic experiences. In fact, the people who benefited the most after the experiment were those who demonstrated the greatest progress in sense-making over time. Although their initial responses were emotionally raw and their stories disjointed, their narratives became smoother and more insightful with each day.
Through writing, they came to see the crisis not simply as a disruption, but as an essential chapter in the broader narrative of their lives, and that helped them move into the future with more strength and peace.
The stories we tell about ourselves change who we become. So if you want to be a better you in 2017, set a different kind of resolution for this year.
Instead of focusing only on fixing your bad habits, try putting aside 15 minutes each day to write about the person you’ve been. Reflect on how your experiences have shaped you. Find a positive meaning in them. After a few months, try weaving all of those ruminations into a broader narrative of your life. Tell a story that moves you forward.
Emily Esfahani Smith is the author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, published by Crown. She is also an editor at The Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
MOTTO hosts provocative voices and influencers from various spheres. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of our editors.