Denise Clegg, MAPP 08, is Program Officer for the Positive Neuroscience project at the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center. She also serves as a facilitator for the Penn Resilience Program and is a daily editor for Positive Psychology News Daily.
Denise writes on the 20th of each month, and her articles are here.
The stories we tell weave moments, days, and years into a meaningful sense of life. Researchers have found that the way we tell those stories about our own lives is directly related to long-term well-being and resilience.
But that connection may have as much to do with the listener as the teller. Studies show that listener feedback and quality of attunement fundamentally impact the teller’s memory, capacity for positive emotional regulation, and ongoing construction of meaning.
What’s Your Story?
How do you describe major life changes and difficult events? Researchers have found narrative themes that consistently correlate with happiness, psychological and physical well-being, and resilience. Preliminary studies have shown:
- People whose stories emphasized intrinsic (vs. non-intrinsic) memories and growth had higher levels of well-being. Intrinsic themes included focus on meaningful relationships, personal growth, and contributing to society and future generations. Non intrinsic themes highlight concerns about money, status, and physical appearance.
- Similarly, in stories of major life changes, people who emphasized themes of communion (vs. agency) had higher levels of well-being and were happier with the transition outcome. Communion is reflected in a teller’s focus and concern for things like friendship, love, affiliation, and the importance of others. Agency is reflected in a storyteller’s focus on things like personal power, status, and achievement.
- People who describe difficult life events by focusing on the process of coping and end with a positive resolution had higher well-being and became more resilient over time. But it is not happy talk. Importantly, only those people who also fully acknowledged the negative impact of the event had those positive outcomes.
Does this mean that changing your story to match these themes will make you healthier and happier? Life with its ever-changing story is too complex to be transformed by using specific words without their meaning. Your story is crafted by attention, memory, context, and audience. We don’t make this stuff up alone.
Our stories are shaped by others from an early age. Parents and caretakers first teach us how to tell stories about events. In doing so, they teach us how to focus attention, how to remember, and how to share our lives with others. That process continues through life. We quickly learn how to shape stories for different people in different contexts. And how they listen shapes us.
When you tell someone about your day, you remember with them. Repetition and rehearsal helps encode experience into long-term memory. Attentive listeners ask questions, offer emotional support, and focus attention on different aspects of experience. All of these behaviors influence what gets transcribed into long-term memory.
Pasupathi and colleagues have shown that attentive listeners facilitate long-term memory whereas distracted listeners have about the same effect as no listener at all, even though recently learned information was repeated in conversation. Pasupathi and colleagues also show that social remembering can be an important tool for positive emotional regulation if the listener is responsive and supportive.
What Kind of Listener Are You?
There are any number of books and courses on how to be a better listener. To begin, just consider the power and generosity of attentive listening. Positive psychology offers a number of tools, including active constructive responding, appreciative inquiry, and resilience skills, to name just a few.
Bauer, J. J., McAdams, D. P., & Pals, J. L. (2008). Narrative identity and eudaimonic well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9(1), 81-104.
Pasupathi, M. (2003). Emotion regulation during social remembering: Differences between emotions elicited during an event and emotions elicited when talking about it. Memory, 11(2), 151-163.
Pasupathi, M., Stallworth, L. M., & Murdoch, K. (1998). How what we tell becomes what we know: Listener effects on speakers’ long-term memory for events. Discourse Processes, 26(1), 1-25
About Listening Skills:
Bascobert-Kelm, J. (2005). Appreciative Living: The Principles of Appreciative Inquiry in Personal Life. Wake Forest, NC: Venet.
Bascobert-Kelm, J. (2014). The Joy of Appreciative Living: Your 28-Day Plan to Greater Happiness Using the Principles of Appreciative Inquiry. Venet Publishing.
Reivich, K, & Shattẻ, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.