This Is the Key to Happiness, According to Psychotherapists

5 minute read
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

The story you tell yourself about your life.

When your vision of your life story is inadequate, depression can result.

Psychotherapists actually help “rewrite” that story and this process is as, if not more, effective than medication.

Via The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human:

According to the psychologist Michele Crossley, depression frequently stems from an “incoherent story,” an “inadequate narrative account of oneself,” or “a life story gone awry.” Psychotherapy helps unhappy people set their life stories straight; it literally gives them a story they can live with. And it works. According to a recent review article in American Psychologist, controlled scientific studies show that the talking cure works as well as (and perhaps much better than) newer therapies such as antidepressant drugs or cognitive-behavioral therapy. A psychotherapist can therefore be seen as a kind of script doctor who helps patients revise their life stories so that they can play the role of protagonists again— suffering and flawed protagonists, to be sure, but protagonists who are moving toward the light.

What other effects do stories have on your life?

Stories bring meaning

Stories can help you add meaning to your life. Reflect on the different ways your life could have gone, and the possible “life stories” that could have resulted. Believing that the way things did work out was “meant to be” and appreciating the benefits of that journey can both add a deeper feeling of meaning to your life.

This same reasoning is why some people believe in fate. Feeling that things were “meant to be” and that there is meaning in tragedy allows people to cope

Watching tragic movies and plays is enjoyable because it makes us feel gratitude that our lives, by comparison, are not that bad.

Stories give meaning to groups too

Any group must have a story as well. This is what creates team morale. Groups that take a second to think about a world without them, to think of the good they bring not existing, develop a greater commitment and passion for their cause.

Stories clarify our future goals

Want to quickly find out what is really important to you? Imagine your funeral. What stories do you want others to tell about your life? Now go make those stories true.

A bad story can be dangerous

As in the first example where a problematic vision of your life can trigger depression, the wrong stories can have a negative effect on your life.

Stories warp our vision of the world. Fundamentally, our brains may not be able to tell the difference between the real and the story.

This can be good — it can increase empathy and make us kinder to others. Or it can be bad:

In Appel’s study, people who mainly watched drama and comedy on TV — as opposed to heavy viewers of news programs and documentaries — had substantially stronger “just-world” beliefs. Appel concludes that fiction, by constantly exposing us to the theme of poetic justice, may be partly responsible for the sense that the world is, on the whole, a just place.

This is despite the fact, as Appel puts it, “that this is patently not the case.” As people who watch the news know very well, bad things happen to good people all the time, and most crimes go unpunished. In other words, fiction seems to teach us to see the world through rose-colored lenses. And the fact that we see the world that way seems to be an important part of what makes human societies work.

We become like the fictional characters we watch. We must be careful what stories we take in and believe.

Stories can help us change ourselves

Timothy Wilson, author of Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, has talked about how personally story-editing our lives can lead us to not only feel better, but also reinvent ourselves:

The idea is that if we want to change people’s behaviors, we need to try to get inside their heads and understand how they see the world—the stories and narratives they tell themselves about who they are and why they do what they do…As Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” People who do volunteer work, for example, often change their narratives of who they are, coming to view themselves as caring, helpful people. Well-designed studies have shown that teen girls who participate in community service programs do better in school and are less likely to become pregnant.

You must have a story

So you must have a story that you tell yourself about your life and it must be a good one. To assemble one or fix the one you have:

  • Reflect and consider the different ways your life could have gone. Feeling this was “meant to be” can increase meaning.
  • Try applying this to groups you are in as well.
  • Imagine your funeral to clarify goals and the story that lies ahead.
  • Monitor what fiction you take in and how it affects your personal story.
  • Explore story-editing if your vision of life doesn’t seem to fit.
  • Join over 180,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

    This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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