Home All Tell Me Your Story

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.

what a story 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:

Storytelling on a Park Bench

Storytelling on a Park Bench

  • 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.

couple talkingWho Is Listening, and How?

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.

converstation nycPasupathi 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, & Shatt?, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.



What a story courtesy of lepiaf.geo
gossip_bench courtesy of ercwttmn
Couple Talking courtesy of r_x
Conversation NYC courtesy of eyetoeye

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Kathryn Britton 20 February 2010 - 4:29 pm

I love the implication here that we can choose to weave different stories around the central facts in our lives. When I think of Victor Frankl, for example, I can see other ways he could have told his story… without the inspiring impact on those of us who have never yet met that level of suffering but are braver about our smaller challenges because of the story he told.

I also think about the kinds of stories we like to hear or read — what impact they have on us. My favorite stories have a lot of everydayness in them — everyday people, the interactions among them, the small things that make life rich. Not for me the shoot-em-up style!

Thanks for opening up this topic.

Denise Quinlan 21 February 2010 - 5:31 pm

Hi Denise,
I love your story – it’s gentle yet powerful. It reminds me that every time someone asks ‘how are you?’ and we choose to tell them what is going wrong in our lives, we are weaving the ‘life as a series of problems’ narrative. Coming from a culture where it wasn’t good to be better than others, it was OK to share what was wrong, but not what was glorious or delightful. Thanks for the reminder that it’s worthwhile finding new habits.

Denise 22 February 2010 - 10:25 am

Denise & Kathryn, thank you for your thoughtful comments. I agree it’s worth paying attention to how we tell our stories and considering the implications of repetition (just via storytelling) and the impact on memory. Also to look at habitual habits of listening, and what we respond to in others.

Kristen 22 February 2010 - 3:13 pm

This makes me think of blogs, and that the ones I enjoy reading develop a little like a book, with the author finding happiness despite minor setbacks and learning a little more about their life and the people in it. Of course, with blogs, it’s a challenge not to project any expectation that someone’s life IS a story and should move at a pace consistent with keeping me, the reader, interested, but I do find I’m less interested in the ones written by people who never experience any roadbumps as much as the ones who are angry and only write to blame, rant and complain. It’s the personal growth aspect that I find most interesting, and which most draws me in as a “listener”. Then I also feel compelled to comment and share my experiences and insights for the author to take or leave.

Amy Alarilla 23 February 2010 - 11:26 pm

This provides very interesting insights into how a simple thing as people telling thier stories can already provide you a lot of insights about that person and also hints on how you can help that person along her journey by listening emphatically or simply by just being there for that person.

Denise 24 February 2010 - 12:37 pm

Amy, I agree. We can learn a lot about someone — we can also miss a lot, depending on their habits of storytelling and our own habits of listening and responding. So much depends on where we rest our attention!

Dave Shearon 24 February 2010 - 11:04 pm

“the power and generosity of attentive listening” — Love that! I might add in “appreciative.”

John Rhodes 26 February 2010 - 11:02 pm

Hi again – well — it is soooooooooooooooooooooooo good to just be alive – imagine that = you are alive – just alive – get up in morn and anything can happen === let it !! don’t be stubborn – be flexible – be slow – be patient – go slow and savor every moment you are alive on the planet – wowowowow- just being alive is a starter for me – wow agin and again – hope to see you all again tomorrow – now remember this — committ it to memory = the Irish Fishermen had arrived at the coast in the morning – they would fish today as they have done for years – the ocean was rough BUT nothing they had’nt seen or done many many times before — soooo they went fishing – the last reports heard on shore were that the coast guard had suspended all rescue attempts and any efforts to retreive their bodies – the sea was tooo rough – NOT ONE OF THOSE FISHERMEN, WHEN THEY GOT UP THAT MORNING, THOUGHT THEY WOULDN’T BE GOING HOME THAT NITE — LIFE CAN BE SO TENUOUS AND FRAGILE – NEVER TAKE IT FOR GRANTED AND GIVE LIFE YOUR ALL- GIVE IT YOUR ALL AND NEVERNEVERNEVER NEVER GIVE UP===

Ben O'Neal 25 March 2010 - 9:59 am

Denise, thanks for your comments on the relationship between one’s stories and the way one tells them, and subjective well-being. Most of the time our story is one made up by a 5, 7, 10, 12 or 15-year old. These stories are, of course, based on things that happened. But we only select those things that fit the story we want to tell. And the story we want to tell is determined by our point-of-view at the time (schemata, Weltanschauung, model of the world or whatever-I don’t know the right word to use.). This point-of-view we bring to the events is what gives meaning to our experience. The “world-as-we-experience-it” (Lebenswelt, I think) is an abbreviated and distorted replica of the “world-out-there.” Can’t we learn to tell a different story by bringing in other things that happened, and different interpretations of what happened? Comments will be appreciated.

Denise 31 March 2010 - 10:07 am


Thank you for your comments … you ask important questions worthy of many pages and years of philosophical inquiry. I think there is value in realizing our stories our so multi-faceted … shaped by context, information on hand, constantly-revised memory-making, our listeners, and those who taught and teach us how to synthesize stories in the first place … expanding one’s attention, and maintaining flexibility in thinking, as you suggest, seems very valuable. Very best, D.


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