A moving drawing of a series of arrows and plot points coming from a person's head
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Life’s Stories

How you arrange the plot points of your life into a narrative can shape who you are—and is a fundamental part of being human.

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In Paul Murray’s novel Skippy Dies, there’s a point where the main character, Howard, has an existential crisis. “‘It’s just not how I expected my life would be,’” he says.

“‘What did you expect?’” a friend responds.

“Howard ponders this. ‘I suppose—this sounds stupid, but I suppose I thought there’d be more of a narrative arc.’”

But it’s not stupid at all. Though perhaps the facts of someone’s life, presented end to end, wouldn’t much resemble a narrative to the outside observer, the way people choose to tell the stories of their lives, to others and—crucially—to themselves, almost always does have a narrative arc. In telling the story of how you became who you are, and of who you’re on your way to becoming, the story itself becomes a part of who you are.

“Life stories do not simply reflect personality. They are personality, or more accurately, they are important parts of personality, along with other parts, like dispositional traits, goals, and values,” writes Dan McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, along with Erika Manczak, in a chapter for the APA Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology.

In the realm of narrative psychology, a person’s life story is not a Wikipedia biography of the facts and events of a life, but rather the way a person integrates those facts and events internally—picks them apart and weaves them back together to make meaning. This narrative becomes a form of identity, in which the things someone chooses to include in the story, and the way she tells it, can both reflect and shape who she is.  A life story doesn’t just say what happened, it says why it was important, what it means for who the person is, for who they’ll become, and for what happens next.

“Sometimes in cases of extreme autism, people don’t construct a narrative structure for their lives,” says Jonathan Adler, an assistant professor of psychology at Olin College of Engineering, “but the default mode of human cognition is a narrative mode.”

When people tell others about themselves, they kind of have to do it in a narrative way—that’s just how humans communicate. But when people think about their lives to themselves, is it always in a narrative way, with a plot that leads from one point to another? There’s an old adage that everyone has a book inside of them. (Christopher Hitchens once said that inside is “exactly where I think it should, in most cases, remain.”) Is there anyone out there with a life story that’s not a story at all, but some other kind of more disjointed, avant-garde representation of their existence?

“This is an almost impossible question to address from a scientific approach,” says Monisha Pasupathi, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Utah.  Even if we are, as the writer Jonathan Gottschall put it, “storytelling animals,” what does that mean from one person to the next? Not only are there individual differences in how people think of their stories, there’s huge variation in the degree to which they engage in narrative storytelling in the first place.

Chelsea Beck / The Atlantic

“Some people write in their diaries and are very introspective, and some people are not at all,” says Kate McLean, an associate professor of psychology at Western Washington University. Journal-keeping, though a way of documenting the life story, doesn’t always make for a tightly-wound narrative. A writer I interviewed several months ago—Sarah Manguso—has kept a diary for 25 years, and still told me, “Narrative is not a mode that has ever come easily to me.”

Nevertheless, the researchers I spoke with were all convinced that even if it’s not 100 percent universal to see life as a story, it’s at least extremely common.

“I think normal, healthy adults have in common that they can all produce a life story,” Pasupathi says. “They can all put one together … In order to have relationships, we’ve all had to tell little pieces of our story. And so it’s hard to be a human being and have relationships without having some version of a life story floating around.”

But life rarely follows the logical progression that most stories—good stories—do, where the clues come together, guns left on mantles go off at the appropriate moments, the climax comes in the third act. So narrative seems like an incongruous framing method for life’s chaos, until you remember where stories came from in the first place. Ultimately, the only material we’ve ever had to make stories out of is our own imagination, and life itself.

Storytelling, then—fictional or nonfictional, realistic or embellished with dragons—is a way of making sense of the world around us.

“Life is incredibly complex, there are lots of things going on in our environment and in our lives at all times, and in order to hold onto our experience, we need to make meaning out of it,” Adler says. “The way we do that is by structuring our lives into stories.”

It’s hardly a simple undertaking. People contain multitudes, and by multitudes, I mean libraries. Someone might have an overarching narrative for her whole life, and different narratives for different realms of her life—career, romance, family, faith. She might have narratives within each realm that intersect, diverge, or contradict each other, all of them filled with the microstories of specific events. And to truly make a life story, she’ll need to do what researchers call “autobiographical reasoning” about the events—“identifying lessons learned or insights gained in life experiences, marking development or growth through sequences of scenes, and showing how specific life episodes illustrate enduring truths about the self,” McAdams and Manczak write.

“Stories don’t have to be really simple, like fairy-tale-type narratives,” McAdams says. “They can be complicated. It can be like James Joyce out there.”

If you really like James Joyce, it might be a lot like James Joyce. People take the stories that surround them—fictional tales, news articles, apocryphal family anecdotes—then identify with them and borrow from them while fashioning their own self-conceptions. It’s a Möbius strip: Stories are life, life is stories.

* * *

People aren’t writing their life stories from  birth, though. The ability to create a life narrative takes a little while to come online—the development process gives priority to things like walking, talking, and object permanence. Young children can tell stories about isolated events, with guidance, and much of adolescence is dedicated to learning “what goes in a story … and what makes a good story in the first place,” Pasupathi says. “I don’t know how much time you’ve spent around little kids, but they really don’t understand that. I have a child who can really take an hour to tell you about Minecraft.” Through friends, family, and fiction, children learn what others consider to be good storytelling—and that being able to spin a good yarn has social value.

It’s in the late teens and early years of adulthood that story construction really picks up—because by then people have developed some of the cognitive tools they need to create a coherent life story. These include causal coherence—the ability to describe how one event led to another—and thematic coherence—the ability to identify overarching values and motifs that recur throughout the story. In a study analyzing the life stories of 8-, 12-, 16-, and 20-year-olds, these kinds of coherence were found to increase with age. As the life story enters its last chapters, it may become more set in stone. In one study by McLean, older adults had more thematic coherence, and told more stories about stability, while young adults tended to tell more stories about change.

Chelsea Beck / The Atlantic

McAdams conceives of this development as the layering of three aspects of the self. Pretty much from birth, people are “actors.” They have personality traits, they interact with the world, they have roles to play—daughter, sister, the neighbor’s new baby that cries all night and keeps you up. When they get old enough to have goals, they become “agents” too—still playing their roles and interacting with the world, but making decisions with the hopes of producing desired outcomes. And the final layer is “author,” when people begin to bundle ideas about the future with experiences from the past and present to form a narrative self.

This developmental trajectory could also explain why people enjoy different types of fictional stories at different ages. “When you’re a kid, it’s mostly about plot,” McAdams says. “This happens and this happens. You’re not tuned into the idea that a character develops.” Thus, perhaps, the appeal of cartoon characters who never get older.

Recently, McAdams says, his book club read Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. “I read it in high school and hated it,” he says. “All I could remember about it was that this sled hits a tree. And we read it recently in the club, and whoa, is it fabulous. A sled does hit the tree, there’s no doubt that is a big scene, but how it changes these people’s lives and the tragedy of this whole thing, it’s completely lost on 18-year-olds. Things are lost on 8-year-olds that a 40-year-old picks up, and things that an 8-year-old found compelling and interesting will just bore a 40-year-old to tears sometimes.”

And like personal taste in books or movies, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are influenced by more than just, well, ourselves. The way people recount experiences to others seems to shape the way they end up remembering those events. According to Pasupathi’s research, this happens in a couple of ways. One is that people tailor the stories they tell to their audiences and the context. (For example, I tell the story of the time I crashed my mom’s car much differently now, to friends, than the way I told it to my mom at the time. Much less crying.)

The other is that the act of telling is a rehearsal of the story, Pasupathi says. “And rehearsal strengthens connections between some pieces of information in your mind and diminishes connections between others. So the things I tell you become more accessible to me and more memorable to me. Those can be pretty lasting effects.” So when people drop the cheesy pick-up line “What’s your story?” at a bar, like a man who nicks his carotid artery while shaving, they’ve accidentally hit upon something vital.

But just as there are consequences to telling, there are consequences to not telling. If someone is afraid of how people might react to a story, and they keep it to themselves, they’ll likely miss out on the enrichment that comes with a back-and-forth conversation. A listener “may give you other things to think about, or may acknowledge that this thing you thought was really bad is actually not a big deal, so you get this richer and more elaborated memory,” Pasupathi says. If you don’t tell, “your memory for that event may be less flexible and give you less chance for growth.” This is basically the premise of talk therapy.

And all of this doesn’t even account for all the conversations you plan to have, or elaborately imagine having and never have. The path from outside to inside and back out is winding, dark, and full of switchbacks.

* * *

Once certain stories get embedded into the culture, they become master narratives—blueprints for people to follow when structuring their own stories, for better or worse. One such blueprint is your standard “go to school, graduate, get a job, get married, have kids.”

That can be a helpful script in that it gives children a sense of the arc of a life, and shows them examples of tentpole events that could happen. But the downsides of standard narratives have been well-documented—they stigmatize anyone who doesn’t follow them to a T, and provide unrealistic expectations of happiness for those who do. If this approach were a blueprint for an IKEA desk instead of a life, almost everyone trying to follow it would end up with something wobbly and misshapen, with a few leftover bolts you find under the couch, boding ill for the structural integrity of the thing you built.

“I think that’s a particularly pernicious frame for people who become parents,” Pasupathi says. “That’s a narrative where the pinnacle is to get married and have kids and then everything will be sort of flatly happy from then on.”

And these scripts evolve as culture evolves. For example, in centuries past, stories of being possessed by demons might not have been out of place, but it’s unlikely most people would describe their actions in those terms nowadays.

Other common narrative structures seen in many cultures today are redemption sequences and contamination sequences. A redemption story starts off bad and ends better—“That horrible vacation ultimately brought us closer as a family”—while a contamination story does the opposite—“The cruise was amazing until we all got food poisoning.” Having redemption themes in one’s life story is generally associated with greater well-being, while contamination themes tend to coincide with poorer mental health.

Chelsea Beck / The Atlantic

Many people have some smaller stories of each type sprinkled throughout their greater life story, though a person’s disposition, culture, and environment can influence which they gravitate to. People can also see the larger arc of their lives as redemptive or contaminated, and redemption in particular is a popular, and particularly American, narrative. “Evolving from the Puritans to Ralph Waldo Emerson to Oprah Winfrey … Americans have sought to author their lives as redemptive tales of atonement, emancipation, recovery, self-fulfillment, and upward social mobility,” McAdams writes in an overview of life-story research. “The stories speak of heroic individual protagonists—the chosen people—whose manifest destiny is to make a positive difference in a dangerous world, even when the world does not wish to be redeemed.”

The redemption story is American optimism—things will get better!—and American exceptionalism—I can make things better!—and it’s in the water, in the air, and in our heads. This is actually a good thing a lot of the time. Studies have shown that finding a positive meaning in negative events is linked to a more complex sense of self and greater life satisfaction. And even controlling for general optimism, McAdams and his colleagues found that having more redemption sequences in a life story was still associated with higher well-being.

The trouble comes when redemption isn’t possible. The redemptive American tale is one of privilege, and for those who can’t control their circumstances, and have little reason to believe things will get better, it can be an illogical and unattainable choice. There are things that happen to people that cannot be redeemed.

It can be hard to share a story when it amounts to: “This happened, and it was terrible. The end.” In research McLean did, in which she asked people who’d had near-death experiences to tell their stories to others, “the people who told these unresolved stories had really negative responses,” she says. If there wasn’t some kind of uplifting, redemptive end to the story (beyond just the fact that they survived), “The listeners did not like that.

“The redemptive story is really valued in America, because for a lot of people it’s a great way to tell stories, but for people who just can’t do that, who can’t redeem their traumas for whatever reason, they’re sort of in a double bind,” she continues. “They both have this crappy story that’s hanging on, but they also can’t tell it and get acceptance or validation from people.”

In cases like this, for people who have gone through a lot of trauma, it might be better for them not to autobiographically reason about it at all.

“The first time I ever found this association, of reasoning associated with poor mental health, I thought that I had analyzed my data incorrectly,” McLean says. But after other researchers replicated her findings, she got more confident that something was going on. She thinks that people may repress traumatic events in a way that, while not ideal, is still “healthy enough.”

“The typical idea is that you can repress something but it’s going to come back and bite you if you don’t deal with it,” she says. “But that’s still under the assumption that people have the resources to deal with it.”

In one study, McLean and her colleagues interviewed adolescents attending a high school for vulnerable students. One subject, Josie, the 17-year-old daughter of a single mother, suffered from drug and alcohol abuse, bipolar disorder, rape, and a suicide attempt. She told the researchers that her self-defining memory was that her mother had promised not to have more children and then broke that promise.

“I’m the only person that I can rely on in my life because I’ve tried to rely on other people and I either get stabbed in the back or hurt, so I really know that I can only trust myself and rely on myself,” Josie said when recounting this memory.

“That’s pretty intensive reasoning,” McLean says. “So that’s meaningful in understanding who you are, but it doesn’t really give you a positive view of who you are. It may be true in the moment, but it’s not something that propels someone towards growth.”

It’s possible to over-reason about good things in your life as well. “There’s been some experimental research that shows that when people are asked to reflect on positive experiences, it makes them feel worse, because you’re like ‘Oh, why did I marry that person?’” McLean says. “Wisdom and maturity and cognitive complexity are all things that we value, but they don’t necessarily make you happy.”

* * *

Though sometimes autobiographical reasoning can lead to dark thoughts, other times it can help people find meaning. And while you may be able to avoid reasoning about a certain event, it would be pretty hard to leave all the pages of a life story unwritten.

“I think the act of framing our lives as a narrative is neither positive nor negative, it just is,” Adler says. “That said, there are better and worse ways of doing that narrative process for our mental health.”

Chelsea Beck / The Atlantic

In his research, Adler has noticed two themes in people’s stories that tend to correlate with better well-being: agency, or feeling like you are in control of your life, and communion, or feeling like you have good relationships in your life. The connection is “a little fuzzier” with communion, Adler says—there’s a strong relationship between communion and well-being at the same moment; it’s less clear if feeling communion now predicts well-being later.

But agency sure does. It makes sense, because feelings of helplessness and hopelessness are classic symptoms of depression, that feeling in control would be good for mental health. Adler did a longitudinal study of 47 adults undergoing therapy, having them write personal narratives and complete mental-health assessments over the course of 12 therapy sessions. What he found was not only that themes of agency in participants’ stories increased over time and that mental health increased, and that the two were related, but that increased agency actually appeared in stories before people’s mental health improved.

“It’s sort of like people put out a new version of themselves and lived their way into it,” Adler says.

(There’s something about the narrative form, specifically—while expressing thoughts and feelings about negative events seems to help people’s well-being, one study found that writing them in a narrative form helped more than just listing them.)

But, he continues, “I’m not like Mr. Agency, agency at all costs. I don’t believe that. If you have Stage 4 cancer, agency may be good for you, but is it a rational choice? And I do think [redemption] is good in the long term, but in the throes of really struggling with illness, I don’t know that it actually helps people.”

But I wondered: Though agency may be good for you, does seeing yourself as a strong protagonist come at a cost to the other characters in your story? Are there implications for empathy if we see other people as bit players instead of protagonists in their own right?

“That’s actually kind of an interesting empirical idea,” Pasupathi says. “I don’t know that anybody’s looking at that.”

As Adler’s work shows, people need to see themselves as actors to a certain degree. And Pasupathi’s work shows that other people play a big role in shaping life stories. The question, perhaps, is how much people recognize that their agency is not absolute.

According to one study, highly generative people—that is, people who are caring and committed to helping future generations—often tell stories about others who helped them in the past. McAdams suggests that narcissists are probably more likely to do the opposite—“People [who] are really good at talking about themselves and pushing their own narrative, but they’re not willing to listen to yours.”

“If our stories are about us as triumphant agents going through life and overcoming, and they underplay the role of other people and the role of institutional support in helping us do those things, we are likely to be less good at recognizing how other people’s lives are constrained by institutions and other people,” Pasupathi says. “I think that has real implications for how we think about inequity in our society. The more the whole world is designed to work for you, the less you are aware that it is working for you.”

* * *

It’s a dizzying problem: People use stories to make sense of life, but how much do those stories reflect life’s realities? Even allowing for the fact that people are capable of complex Joyce-ian storytelling, biases, personality differences, or emotions can lead different people to see the same event differently. And considering how susceptible humans are to false memories, who’s to say that the plot points in someone’s life story really happened, or happened the way she thought they did, or really caused the effects she saw from them?

Pasupathi’s not convinced that it matters that much whether life stories are perfectly accurate. A lot of false-memory research has to do with eyewitness testimony, where it matters a whole lot whether a person is telling a story precisely as it happened. But for narrative-psychology researchers, “What really matters isn’t so much whether it’s true in the forensic sense, in the legal sense,” she says. “What really matters is whether people are making something meaningful and coherent out of what happened. Any creation of a narrative is a bit of a lie. And some lies have enough truth.”

Organizing the past into a narrative isn’t a way just to understand the self but also to attempt to predict the future. Which is interesting, because the storytelling device that seems most incompatible with the realities of actual life is foreshadowing. Metaphors, sure. As college literature-class discussion sections taught me, you can see anything as a metaphor if you try hard enough. Motifs, definitely. Even if you’re living your life as randomly as possible, enough things will happen that, like monkeys with typewriters, patterns will start to emerge.

But no matter how hard you try, no matter how badly you want to, there is no way to truly know the future, and the world isn’t really organizing itself to give you hints. If you’re prone to overthinking, and playing out every possible scenario in your head in advance, you can see foreshadowing in everything. The look your partner gives you means a fight is on the horizon, that compliment from your boss means you’re on track for a promotion, all the little things you’ve forgotten over the years mean you’re definitely going to get dementia when you’re old.

Chelsea Beck / The Atlantic

“Actual life is full of false clues and signposts that lead nowhere,” E.M. Forster once wrote. These become obvious in the keeping of a diary: “Imagine a biography that includes not just a narrative but also all the events that failed to foreshadow,” Manguso writes in Ongoingness, the book about her 25-year diary. “Most of what the diary includes foreshadows nothing.”

So what to do, then, with all the things that don’t fit tidily? There is evidence that finding some “unity” in your narrative identity is better, psychologically, than not finding it. And it probably is easier to just drop those things as you pull patterns from the chaos, though it may take some readjusting.

But Pasupathi rejects that. “I would want to see people do a good job of not trying to leave stuff out because they can’t make it fit,” she says. “We’re not trying to make pieces of your life go away.”

And so even with the dead ends and wrong turns, people can’t stop themselves. “We try to predict the future all the time,” Pasupathi says. She speculates that the reason there’s foreshadowing in fiction in the first place is because of this human tendency. The uncertainty of the future makes people uncomfortable, and stories are a way to deal with that.

“The future is never a direct replica of the past,” Adler says. “So we need to be able to take pieces of things that have happened to us and reconfigure them into possible futures.” For example, through experience, one learns that “We need to talk” rarely foreshadows anything good. (Life has its own clichés.)

There’s been some brain research supporting this link between the past and the future, showing that the same regions of the brain are activated when people are asked to remember something and when they’re asked to imagine an event that hasn’t happened yet. On the flip side, a patient with severe amnesia also had trouble imagining the future.

Similarly, the way someone imagines his future seems to affect the way he sees his past, at the same time as his past informs what he expects for the future.

“If you’re planning to be a doctor, and you’re a 25-year-old starting medical school, and you have expectations about what the next five to 10 years are going to be like, you’ve probably construed a narrative from your past that helps you understand how you got to this point,” McAdams says. “Then, say, you get into med school and you hate it and you drop out, you probably at the same time are going to change your past. You rewrite the history.”

A life story is written in chalk, not ink, and it can be changed. “You’re both the narrator and the main character of your story,” Adler says. “That can sometimes be a revelation—‘Oh, I’m not just living out this story; I am actually in charge of this story.’”

Whether it’s with the help of therapy, in the midst of an identity crisis, when you’ve been chasing a roadrunner of foreshadowing toward a tunnel that turns out to be painted on a wall, or slowly, methodically, day by day—like with all stories, there’s power in rewriting.

“The past is always up for grabs,” McAdams says.