This week I finished up the Berkeley Greater Good Science Center’s online course – The Science of Happiness. This 10-week course was an incredibly fulfilling opportunity to look at the science behind what makes people happy. Taught and supported by the leading researchers tasked with figuring out what makes people happy (or unhappy), it really got to the nuts and bolts of everything from the brain chemistry of happy people to the details of why things like being grateful or forgiving seem to make people happier.
In this final week, I was especially struck by the instructors’ decision to use the topic of narrative. For years – as an English teacher, in my work as a therapist and now as a coach – I’ve really come to see the value of narrative. In the Science of Happiness course, we looked briefly at the work of researcher Paul Zak. Zak looks at the power of hearing other people’s stories and his research touches on why we like stories, how we benefit from the stories we hear and why we actually need them as part of our personal and social development. You can read a bit about it here.
Practically speaking, I think his research gets to the heart of why blogs or the StoryCorps Project can be so moving. It really, really helps to see that there are other people out there who share experiences similar to ours. Hearing someone else’s story can make your own feel more manageable.
But it’s also true that claiming, writing, telling or sharing your own narrative is incredibly powerful. In her September 2013, article in Psychology Today, Sherry Hamby writes that the benefits of telling your story include:
- Helping others
- Finding your voice
- Reaffirming your values, and
- Finding peace and hope
With my clients over the years (and with my students when I was a teacher) I absolutely found these points to be true. And while there certainly is no guarantee that telling your story can make you happier. I have seen that when people tell their story they seem to approach it like reorganizing a box of tools or art supplies that’s been spilled on the floor. Sometimes stories are the process by which we make sense of the things that don’t make sense. Sometimes by picking up each piece, acknowledging the effect it has had on us and putting it back in the box, gently and thoughtfully, we become much more capable of keeping that box with us without the load becoming too heavy to bear.
The good news is that while writers or professional storytellers may do this naturally, you actually don’t have to be a “natural” storyteller to access the benefits of telling your story. In fact, even just recounting a rough day to someone you trust can be a way for you to reframe the events that affect you – making them more manageable and less burdensome.
I've always enjoyed storytelling and I encourage my clients think and journal about their own life story. I even included a simple life story exercise in The Expat Activity Book. One of my favorite exercises in the book, I think it has the power to be a great starting point for ongoing personal development, adaptability and (yes) even happiness. Without pressure, stress or even grammatical accuracy, I invite you to write down your story. How’d you get here? Who’d you meet along the way? When did you fall? How’d you manage to get back up again?
I encourage you here to give it a try – write down your story, see where it leads you.
P.S. If you’re interested in taking advantage of some of the other exercises in the book you can find links to sample exercises here or you can purchase the entire book from Amazon. If you write your story and feel the urge to share it one of my Activity Book Support Session could be the perfect place.