Humans are natural storytellers.  We are constantly making sense of our lives by weaving them into narratives and sharing those stories with others.  A pair of new studies, published together in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests that the way we tell our stories impacts our mental health for years to come.
A large body of research suggests that there is a connection between the story of our lives – our narrative identity – and our mental health.  Crafting these stories provides us with a sense of unity and purpose and the way we approach that storytelling task has ramifications for our psychological well-being.  The new pair of studies is the first to demonstrate these connections over a substantial period of time, looking at the relationships between different ways of telling one’s story and the trajectory of one’s mental health.
The two studies focused on diverse, community-based samples of adults in their 50s and 60s.  This phase of life is often full of life transitions regarding family, work, and physical health, and is a time when adults look back over their lives and make sense of them.  Participants shared the story of their lives during a semi-structured interview that is the gold standard for studying narrative identity.  They also completed measures of mental and physical health at the start of the study and again, periodically, over the course of the next several years (every year for four years in one study and every six months for two years in the second study).  This design allowed the researchers to examine the relationship between differences in participants’ stories and the trajectory of their mental health over time.
The first study simply followed participants over time.  In the second study, however, a select group of participants was identified to examine the relationship between narrative identity and mental health over the course of a natural experiment.  In Libro vuotothis study, a group of participants were pulled from a much larger dataset, selecting participants who received a major physical illness diagnosis between the time they shared their life stories and the next time they completed health measures, six months later.  A second sample, matched on demographics, but who remained healthy throughout the study, was also pulled.  So, for example, if there was a 56-year-old African American woman with a college education who was diagnosed with breast cancer in the sample, there was also a 56-year-old African American woman with a college education who remained healthy in the sample.  This unique sample served to illuminate the ways in which narrative identity and mental health are associated in the wake of a specific and challenging life experience.
The results across both studies were quite similar: certain ways of telling the story of one’s life were distinctly associated with different trajectories of mental health over the coming years.  Four themes in people’s stories were related to these different paths:
  • Agency: When people made sense of their lives with a sense that they were in the driver’s seat, as opposed to being batted around at the whims of external forces, they experienced positive trajectories of mental health in the following years.
  • Communion: When people described their lives as marked by connections with close others, they experienced positive trends in their mental health in the following years.
  • Redemption: When people’s stories about difficult or challenging experiences included a shift in the emotional tone towards some positivity, insight, or lesson they drew from the experience, they showed positive trajectories of mental health in the following years.
  • Contamination: When people’s stories had patterns wherein positive beginnings gave way to negative endings, they showed negative trajectories of mental health in the following years.
These same relationships between the themes in people’s life stories and their mental health over time were observed in the select sample of people who experienced a major physical illness in the second study.  Indeed, across both studies the results indicated that the relationship between narrative identity and mental health may be most salient in the context of negative or challenging events.
An excerpt from one participant’s story nicely illustrates the overall pattern of results.  In concluding the story of a significant health challenge, this participant said,
I value that experience in that it – along with the experiences of my aunt – has given me a positive and healthy outlook . . . I’ve often said to myself through my life that if I’m ever told that I have cancer that I’m going to say to the doctor, “Okay, so what’s next? What do we do now? Because I’m not trying to die. What are we going to do to eradicate this cancer? What are my options?” That’s the position I’m going to take. It doesn’t matter what type of disease, cancer, whatever . . . I have personal experiences that I can look at that say it’s possible that I can get through that if that should ever happen in my life.
In this passage, the participant demonstrates how her highly agentic and redemptive narrative of her past health challenge has given her a foundation for approaching hypothetical future challenges that may arise. She says that she will feel empowered the next time she gets sick and values the health challenge for its ability to demonstrate how positive outcomes may result from negative experiences.
Even among participants whose narratives did not draw such explicit connections between their stories of the past and their anticipated future selves, the results from this pair of studies suggest that the way we tell the story of our lives is related to our mental health for years to come.
Adler, J.M., Turner, A.F., Brookshier, K.M., Monahan, C., Walder-Biesanz, I., Harmeling, L.H., Albaugh, M., McAdams, D.P., Oltmans, T.F. (2015). Variation in narrative identity is associated with trajectories of mental health over several years. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(3), 476-496.
Jonathan M. Adler is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts. He is also an Associate Editor of the Journal of Personality and serves as the Chief Scientific Officer for Health Story Collaborative. His research focuses on the relationship between identity development in adulthood and psychological well-being.