4 steps to a more meaningful life
In 2015, go and be the story you tell yourself
1. What do you want the story of your life to be?
It's your funeral. After a long life, the end has come. What do you want the people who love you to be saying about you? About what you accomplished? About the difference you made in their lives?
Got a few thoughts? Congratulations, you now have long-term goals. Work backwards and make those things happen.
Via Richard Wiseman's excellent book 59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute:
Asking people to spend just a minute imagining a close friend standing up at their funeral and reflecting on their personal and professional legacy helps them to identify their long-term goals and assess the degree to which they are progressing toward making those goals a reality. [59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute]
Hey — stop reading. Do the exercise. Stop whining. It takes one minute. The rest of the post will be here when you get back, I promise.
2. What if the story you live your life by isn't working?
When your vision of your life story isn't clicking, you can end up depressed.
But you can change the story you tell yourself about your life and correct this.
Psychotherapists actually help people "rewrite" their stories and this process is as, if not more, effective than medication.
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. [The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human]
Timothy Wilson, author of Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, has talked about how the process of "story-editing" can help us improve our lives:
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.
Reflect on the different ways your life could have gone. Believing that the way things did work out was "meant to be" and appreciating the benefits of that journey can add a deeper feeling of meaning to your life.
Four experiments explored whether two uniquely human characteristics — counterfactual thinking (imagining alternatives to the past) and the fundamental drive to create meaning in life — are causally related. Rather than implying a random quality to life, the authors hypothesized and found that counterfactual thinking heightens the meaningfulness of key life experiences. Reflecting on alternative pathways to pivotal turning points even produced greater meaning than directly reflecting on the meaning of the event itself. Fate perceptions ("it was meant to be") and benefit-finding (recognition of positive consequences) were identified as independent causal links between counterfactual thinking and the construction of meaning. Through counterfactual reflection, the upsides to reality are identified, a belief in fate emerges, and ultimately more meaning is derived from important life events.
More on the power of storytelling from Jennifer Aaker here.
3. Stories give guidance when times are hard
Every so often in my personal life with friends, I'll have somebody who will be telling me, it's usually over a meal, about they're in a relationship, and it's in trouble and this trouble has been going on for some time, often years, and it's now heading for a crisis. And it's one of those things where you know sort of, even though they don't verbalize it, they're asking, "What do you think? What do you think I should do?"
And after listening to the narrative for a while, every so often, I'll say, "What movie are you living now?" And it always produces the same response. The person is startled because it sounds initially like a trivial question. They're usually telling the story with considerable agony, and so they kind of freeze like a deer. And then their eyes rotate, usually upwards to the right, which is where a lot of people go when they're searching their memory bank, and then they'll laugh.
That's the important point of this, and they'll laugh and say, "The Exorcist," or something like that. And the laugh is a sign of recognition that the story they've been telling me has a recognizable structure, and once they give me that, they then usually laugh again and say something like, "Oh, my God." I then say, as quietly as I can, "And where does the story go?" And that's the advice I've given them.
4. What if the new story of your life sounds fake?
Maybe your new story doesn't ring true. Don't worry; you can make it true.
Starting now, go and be the story you tell yourself.
Again, Timothy Wilson:
The "do good, be good" method... [c]apitalizes on the tried-and-true psychological principle that our attitudes and beliefs often follow from our behaviors, rather than precede them. 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.
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