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The Power of Stories

written by Kathryn Britton 7 March 2007

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

Positive psychology is the science of what goes right with people. It qualifies as a science because positive psychologists form hypotheses and then test them with controlled experiments and longitudinal studies.

What goes right with people is not the same as the absence of what can go wrong. In fact, some people learn to flourish in the face of things going very wrong. What we now know about human flourishing gives us an obligation to transfer research results from the lab to the street. How do we do this effectively?

In an article titled The Theory Heard ‘Round the World, Albert Bandura, expert on self-efficacy, says, “The problem we have in psychology is that we don’t profit from our successes. We construct theories and clarify how they produce their effects, but we lack implementation models for translating theory into effective practice.” He goes on to say we lack effective social diffusion models to achieve widespread adoption of what we learn.

Bandura’s belief that people learn from role models whose behavior they wish to emulate has evolved into serial dramas, long-running radio or television dramas that exemplify desired behaviors that contribute to local social goals. Bandura advises Education-Entertainment expert Miguel Sabido and the non-profit Populations Communications International (PCI) as they go to countries all over the world by invitation to work with local people on TV programs addressing whatever goals the inviting country identifies, such as reducing the spread of AIDs, promoting literacy, or reducing population growth. Millions of people around the world watch serial dramas with characters like themselves facing challenges and situations familiar to them.

Bandura and Sabido have found it helpful to have three types of characters: “Positive role models whose behavior results in good things, negative role models whose behavior has adverse effects, and transitional models who start out negatively but turn into positive role models by the end.” In many parts of the world, these programs are more popular than regular TV programs, and they have led to widespread changes in behavior. In Mexico, one of Sabido’s early dramas, Ven Conmigo centered around the lives of adults enrolled in a literacy class. The year following this show’s airing, new enrollments in adult literacy programs were nine times greater than the year before. “After one episode mentioned the national distribution center that provided free literacy booklets, 25,000 people showed up the next day to get their copies.” People learn from stories.

Aristotle’s expert mean is the point of virtue located between excess and deficit. Finding this point depends on an expert evaluation of context; it is not in a fixed location. We need to keep looking for the expert mean between too much and too little empirical research in the way we talk about positive psychology. We need theories that can be tested, but stories speak louder than theories to most people. When I describe Csikszentmihalyi’s work on enabling flow to work groups, people are interested (and impressed that I can pronounce his name). What they find compelling are stories about groups that have achieved higher energy and productivity by effectively balancing challenge and skills, reserving blocks of time for people to concentrate, and giving people a sense of control over their time. When I talk about learned optimism and reframing, people are mildly interested in the idea of taking what looks negative initially and searching for opportunity or benefit in it, but the idea comes alive with a story of people turning a dreary chore into an opportunity to innovate, particularly in settings where people feel a need for more chances to exercise creativity.

We can get a huge head start disseminating positive psychology by effectively aligning with the stories that people carry around in their heads from storytellers, books, movies, and personal experience. Which of these stories give us a sense that we can make a difference? Which give us examples of courage, kindness, temperance, and wisdom? Which elicit wonder and awe? Which give us the strength to face sorrow and obstacles? Which help us forgive ourselves and others?

We need to form effective partnerships with the keepers of stories – people who teach literature and history at all educational levels, including parents reading to their children. Do the stories that children learn in elementary and secondary school give them role models of wisdom, love, courage, and other virtues? I read Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi in the 8th grade, and I still think of his labor learning to be a river pilot when I need to persist with something difficult. What stories that people learn in college literature courses are good ones to carry around in their heads for the rest of their lives? When I think about faith, I remember Alyosha in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. When I read the day’s news, I need the hope and courage in Mary Oliver’s Wage Peace. When I need judgment laced with humor, I remember Benjamin Franklin’s speech to the Constitutional Convention on its final day. When I seek contentment in temperance, I reread Horace’s ode 3.16.

True riches mean not revenues:
Care clings to wealth: the thirst for more
Grows as out fortunes grow. I stretch my store
By narrowing my wants; far wealthier thus
Than if the treasures of Alatteus
And Phrygia’s plains were mine. We are not poor
While nought we seek. Happiest to whom high Heaven
Enough — no more — with sparing hand has given.

Translation by Irish poet and philanthropist Stephen Edward de Vere (1812-1904)

What else belongs in a positive canon that can help people live well?Let’s start with stories that exemplify one or more character strengths. According to the criteria set by Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman, a character strength is fulfilling and morally valued in itself, does not diminish others, is pervasive and trait-like, is distinct from other strengths, is embodied by paragons and prodigies, and is supported by rituals within the larger society. The list they formed includes strengths that are mentioned in philosophical and religious texts through history and across geographies. For a brief description, see the table at the end of this article. These character strengths are described in detail in their book, Character Strengths and Virtues, sometimes called the Manual of the Sanities.

I have to speak out for one frequently misunderstood entry in the positive canon, Eleanor Porter’s book, Pollyanna. Pollyanna’s father taught her the Glad Game, the skill of taking things that make one miserable and finding new ways to think about them that open up the possibility of happiness. When her father dies, Pollyanna goes to live with a stern aunt. She practices the Glad Game with her own grief and loneliness and proceeds to teach it to almost everyone in the village. Pollyanna practiced positive psychology 93 years ago and has a lot to teach us about humor, hope, and gratitude.

I invite you all to share the stars in your personal collection of stories. What are the books, plays, poems, biographies, and experiences that help you live a good life? I look forward to writing a future article about the entries in the positive canon that I’ve learned from you.

Wisdom: Cognitive strengths involving acquisition and use of knowledge

Creativity: Thinking of novel and productive ways to do things
Curiosity: Exploring, discovering, taking an interest in all ongoing experience
Open-mindedness (Judgment): Examining things from all sides, thinking things through
Love of learning: Mastering skills or topics, adding systematically to bodies of knowledge
Perspective: Providing wise counsel to others

Emotional strengths that exercise the will to accomplish goals in the face of obstacles

Bravery: Acting on convictions without shrinking from threat or difficulty
Persistence: Finishing what gets started, continuing in the face of obstacles
Integrity: Acting according to personal values, taking responsibility for one’s self and actions
Vitality: Approaching life with energy and excitement

Humanity: Interpersonal strengths

Love: Valuing and fostering close reciprocal relationships with others
Kindness: Helping others, doing good deeds and favors
Social Intelligence: Understanding motives and feelings of self and others, fitting in socially

Justice: Civic strengths that underlie healthy community life

Citizenship: Working well as a member of a group, doing one’s share, being loyal
Fairness: Giving everyone a fair chance, treating people the same according to a sense of justice
Leadership: Organizing group activities and seeing that they happen

Temperance: Strengths that protect against excess

Forgiveness and mercy: Forgiving those who have done wrong, giving second chances
Humility and modesty: Letting accomplishments speak for themselves, not seeking limelight
Prudence: Being careful, refraining from saying or doing what would later be regretted
Self-regulation: Being disciplined, controlling appetites and emotions

Transcendence: Strengths of connection to the larger universe that provide meaning

Appreciation of beauty and excellence: Awe for excellence in art, nature, all domains of life
Gratitude: Being thankful for the good things that happen
Hope: Expecting the best and believing one can work to achieve it
Humor: Seeing the light side, bringing smiles and laughter
Spirituality: Having beliefs about the meaning of life that shape conduct and provide comfort

Reproduced with permission: Excerpts from Table 27.1 in Park, N. & Peterson, C. (2004). Classification and measurement of character strengths: Implications for practice. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.). Positive Psychology in Practice. pp. 433-445. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Storytelling @ Thursdays courtesy of kodomut

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Jeff Dustin 7 March 2007 - 1:53 pm


You’ve gotten me fired up about the storytelling approach! I’m percolating some ideas right now and I’ll throw them into a future post. You ought to work with Sherri Fisher and her positive education model. Students need powerful motivating and informing stories.

Senia 9 March 2007 - 12:14 am

Kathryn, what a great story about the adult literacy class enrollment super increasing. Very interesting about Bandura’s work with Edu-tainment – I’d never heard of this before. Thanks!

Jeff Dustin 9 March 2007 - 2:53 am

Edutainment is the wave of the future. It really solves a lot of motivation issues in classrooms in my small experience. From classic games like Pictionary to modern stuff like video games, peace simulators and so on, gaming is far from trivial. I remember growing up and watching Sesame Street, Electric Company and 3-2-1 Contact and the venerable Mr.Roger’s Neighborhood and learning basic literacy and numeracy skills. Progressive educators talk about authentic learning experiences. Edutainment offers exciting opportunities for this kind of instruction and inquiry based approaches. The biggest obstacle to incorporating this kind of learning and teaching is that for a novice teacher it can sometimes be hard to find good learning games that aren’t Blow ‘Em Ups like Grand Theft Auto and aren’t at the other extreme of being patronizing cheesy games that don’t promote flow well. If just a fraction of the time and energy put into making commercial games were focused upon making learning various disciplines fun (flowful) what a huge impact this would have upon students!

Another fairly hefty obstacle in Edutainment is the perception that games are not for school. In fact I have spoken with teachers who believe games are only for the elementary level kids, while OUR students need to BUCKLE DOWN and DISCIPLINE THEMSELVES. They just need to WORK HARDER and MEET STANDARDS or else they will be brow beaten, punished, detained, detentioned, expelled, suspended, verbally counseled and reprimanded and otherwise made to feel like something at the bottom of a dirty puddle.
Some teachers would bring back whupping, the slapping of students with paddles to hurt them into higher productivity.

So one interesting challenge for today’s educators is the permeation of this positive approach to learning, which will hopefully take root in the public school system quickly.

Jeff Dustin 9 March 2007 - 3:00 am

Here’s another kernel of wisdom 😀 for Kathryn.

I think the very best songs tell a timeless story. Each signature strength probably has a theme song and one that specifically deals with persistence that sticks in my head is Johnny Cash’s Legend of John Henry’s Hammer. If you’ve never heard it, its a rockabilly song about a black railroad worker who meets a tragic end hammering in a contest against a newfangled steam drill brought in by the mine bosses to make the black railworkers’ jobs obselete. The best bit of the song, for me was that John Henry knew he was going to die hammering (I guess the railworkers’ lives were pretty dangerous, swinging steel on steel and whatnot) but he pulled out some grit from deep down, won against the steam drill and sacrificed himself for to prove a point. I don’t really know why but this noble story just uplifts me and inspires me.

Kathryn Britton 9 March 2007 - 9:51 am


I’m going to keep my mind open for songs that characterize the signature strengths. I seem to have an endless soundtrack in my head, and perhaps I’m growing up enough to replace some of the Tom Lehrer songs that I learned

For some reason, your John Henry song example made me thing of the Johnny Cash song, One Piece at a time. The one that ends

Well, It’s a ’49, ’50, ’51, ’52, ’53, ’54, ’55, ’56
’57, ’58’ 59′ automobile
It’s a ’60, ’61, ’62, ’63, ’64, ’65, ’66, ’67
’68, ’69, ’70 automobile.

Now, there’s a song that shows … persistence? creativity? humor?

Keep your thoughts coming.


Kathryn Britton 9 March 2007 - 10:08 am


On the score of edutainment and games, I remember buying computer games for my kids when they were small. Many of them sounded good on paper, but had the same appeal as some of the “educational toys” we bought. That is, very little.

I think one of the problems with a lot of designed educational games is that they are closed in — like riding a pony around and around in the paddock instead of out along trails where you don’t know what you’ll find.

We all laugh that a large cardboard box was the best toy our children received — a cave, a house, a hiding place, a …. How do we open up the space for resourcefulness and imagination, instead of regimentation?

When I was younger, I used to read encyclopedia articles about interesting things – like mythology — and then follow the trail of the cross references at the end of the articles to see where they took me. Wikipedia apparently has orders of magnitude more topics than the encyclopedia I grew up on. What a grand game it could provide in the hands of a great teacher!


Kathryn Britton 9 March 2007 - 10:12 am

A question for Jeff:

Did you follow the link to Robert Noyd’s article, Applying Aristotle’s Golden Mean to the Classroom: Balancing Underteaching and Overteaching? It seems very relevant to the discussion of edutainment — and seeking the golden mean between joylessness and punishment and over-concern with making learning fun.

Speaking of which, what books do you teach that inspire your students?


Jeff Dustin 9 March 2007 - 3:18 pm

Hi Kathryn,

I’ve often thought that strengths don’t occur in isolation and wouldn’t it be handy to have names for compound strengths or you could say characteristic strengths profiles. One Piece at A Time I’d heard but had forgotten and I must say it shows everything you mentioned. To me the most salient strength was probably Johnny’s sense of humor…even in his sadder songs he still has a sort of ironic humor.

By the way, you might wish you never asked for me to keep talkin’!:wink:

Jeff Dustin 9 March 2007 - 3:47 pm

Great comment about balancing the mean between too fun centered teaching and too much drudgery/factory style teaching, Kathryn. I found that the Nichomachaen Ethics link you provided was grist for further thought. I’ve always loved reading about Aristotle’s take on life and ethics. It has such practical use in daily life. I think he’s far ahead of the typical psychologist in providing wise counsel for the layperson. Psychologists seem far superior to other types at defining and classifying and above all describing! They can describe phenomena with pinpoint precision but ask one how to use the principle and you often get Grandma’s advice laced with scientific jargon. That’s why your story post really captured my attention and lit a fire under me. We really desperately need stories and paragons and so on to disseminate the key principles of flourishing.

As for books, unfortunately since I am a newbie teacher and haven’t spent years & years in the classroom I am not the one to ask about what are worthwhile reads. Also my subject areas are Spanish and I am now a grad student learning the intricacies of Special Education. If I were a Language Arts teacher, I think I’d have more resources that way.

Personally, I enjoy reading pulpy stuff, the “junk” books in Spanish once in a great…like Stephen King’s Needful Things en espanol si me entiendes. Also the Dark Tower Series had me until the ending…why can’t Stevie write good endings anymore? (Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption had a terrific one!)

Jeff Dustin 9 March 2007 - 3:54 pm

When talking about regimentation, what I call the Cheese Factor, in games, I think it is helpful to remember why games are produced. Benjamins. If there was significant investment in gaming and game development for serious ends, serious gaming, then logically the games would become more sophisticated with open ended scenarios, customization of character in 1st and 3rd person computer games, higher level strategic thinking, ill defined problem solving….Bloom & Williams would love this kind of game design. Show me the money and we can find the talent and the ambition and get these games rolling out in the next few decades.

Here’s my rant of the day: If the public cared as much about edutainment and education as they do about losing weight, we wouldn’t be talking about this right now. How do you get people to care?

Sherri Fisher 10 March 2007 - 3:34 pm

Hi, Jeff–

Now that’s an interesting question!

Education reform is, of course, lots more complicated than losing weight. Just think of how many stakeholders and how many tax dollars are affected any time a change is made in schools. Losing weight is not nearly as political, either. Are we trying to balance the needs of say, the English language learning dieter with those of the gifted, learning challenged, gay, straight, lesbian, transgendered, marginalized, minority dieters who live in poverty and high crime neighborhoods, have working parents and who qualify for reduced cost lunches?

Seriously, the media and for-profit businesses such as Weight Watchers and pharma companies have lots of money to throw at the overeating problem. It pays. Public schools, on the other hand, depend on the kindness of tax overrides and generosity of foundations. Of course, there are numerous school improvements that could occur without massive public spending. But level funding won’t do it, nor will teaching and learning approaches that are focused on fixing what is wrong instead of finding out who, what, when, where, and how things are working and doing more of it.

Independent schools are already interested in adopting PP principles that can benefit their faculty and students. They can do this without tax increases, and their parent population often seeks to underwrite this sort innovation. Research-based education and high-stakes testing have homogenized the curriculum and made public school reform cumbersome in the name of uniformity and democracy.

Edutainment, once the field trip, is now the technology-enriched approach to acquiring and holding the attention of students who have had technology treats for as long as they can remember. It is a fact of life for teachers and advertisers, both of whom are competing for the attention of the next generation, whether hawking diet fads, sneakers, electronics, or Shakespeare. Does edutainment work? That depends on what outcomes we are hoping for. The short-term hedonic pleasure dome of school, or engagement and meaning that come from broadening and building a true education?

Nice to see you are a regular now at PPND, Jeff!

🙂 Sherri

Aren Cohen 12 March 2007 - 12:01 am

Kathryn, Thank you for this article. I also think that along with Bandura there is an opportunity to go deeper with storytelling back to Jung and Joseph Campbell and personal mythologies. It is amazing what we learn from stories that exist out there in the world already, and what we learn from our own unique experiences as well. Holding Chris Peterson is up as a prime example, the best positive psychologists are grand storytellers as well as empirical scientists! Thanks again, Aren

Kathryn Britton 13 March 2007 - 9:02 pm


Thanks for your comment. What are the stories that you live by?


Jeff Dustin 14 March 2007 - 1:49 pm

This story is for Kathryn.

My grandmother was a life-long smoker and had a stroke which killed off half of her brain, paralyzing her on half of her body. She was a young 70 years old and prior to that had been a fiesty and very independent woman.

Now if the story ended there, it wouldn’t be a very good one. The good news is that this woman with only half a brain continued to struggle. She used assistive technology like sticky pads to write with one hand. Her short term memory was shot so she used 3M stickies to remind herself of things she needed to do. With a four-pronged cane she struggled to walk, because as you know, with only one functioning leg, its pretty hard to keep your balance, let alone stroll. She used to love planting flowers, was always outdoors so you can imagine the impact of this crippling condition.

Anyway, in her home, a converted trailer she would drag her broken body back and forth along the long hallway to her bedroom, sometimes 5 or 6 times a day. She kept with her one hand a log of pencil slashes on a drawing pad every time she made a successful attempt and they weren’t always successful. Sometimes she would fall down and my grandfather was there luckily to help her. She would get easily irritated and slap at his hand and often could pull herself up from the linoleum using her one arm and leg and leaning on the cheap ass wallpaper.

Gram refused to quit.

I’d like to say this story has a happy ending and in a way it is satisfying. She died at 80 pounds, lying in a pool of her own filth. Stomach cancer, the country doctor had said it was. The last time I spoke with her it was to tell her I had to leave to Colorado for a job. I said to my grandfather that they should come and visit us out West and the last words she said to me were defiant. She said,”I’ll hold up my end of the deal (meaning, I’ll go as soon as I get better).”

I see a lot of strength in her and in my grandfather. She was a defiant and proud woman and a stubborn one. I honor my grandfather because he cared for her for seven years before she died. Seven years of washing her, feeding her Gerber style food, taking her to the bathroom 6 times a night, cooking. Would I have had the same strength? The best lesson I can draw from this story is that you just have to keep on struggling because that’s what defines your character.

MB 3 January 2008 - 11:53 am

Regarding educational games, I wonder if the best strategy might be to work with a gamemaker who has an existing and successful game and reverse-engineer it to incorporate the desired objectives. Creating a successful and popular game is an art which tens of thousands of programmers, creatives, and business people spend billions of dollars trying to accomplish, with only a fraction becoming truly successful. Utilising the existing products would be efficient, tap an existing interest in kids, and may appeal to gamemakers from a financial perspective as well as a public relations angle.

Jeff Dustin 3 January 2008 - 4:38 pm


I’m glad you mentioned this edutainment strategy. There is an existing product line out there, I forget the name of it, but it teaches children (and adults) biofeedback by using existing Playstation games. Basically, the creators of the game use biofeedback monitors as if they were the X button on a Playstation paddle. You learn to relax your pulse, galvanic skin response…stuff that a lie detector measures to control the avatar in the game. I will try to find that info, because it is really interesting stuff.


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