Home All How You Tell the Story of Your Life

Senia Maymin, MBA, MAPP, PhD, is the coauthor of Profit from the Positive. Maymin is an executive coach to entrepreneurs and CEOs. Maymin runs a coaches network and is the founder and editor in chief of PositivePsychologyNews.com. Her PhD is in organizational behavior from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Full bio.

Senia's solo articles are here, her articles with Margaret Greenberg here, and with Kathryn Britton here.

Jennifer Aniston Jennifer Aniston will be starring in a movie about Positive Psychology. The movie is expected to be called “Counter Clockwise,” and Aniston will play Harvard Professor Ellen Langer studying how to turn back the clock on aging.  In 1979, Ellen Langer undertook a study in which she put elderly men into a setting that made them think that the year was 1959.  According to the Harvard Crimson, “The magazines, newspapers, hand music the men saw and heard were all 20 years old and the men themselves were told to behave and talk as if it were 1959. … Over the course of a week, signs of aging appeared to reverse and the men looked visibly younger. The subjects’ joints became more flexible, their posture straightened, and the lengths of their fingers, which typically shorten with age, actually increased.”

What were the stories that the men were telling themselves?  How did their physiology become so changed by their thoughts?

Ellen Langer Makes the Old Young Again and Makes the Unexercising Fit

Hotel Worker

Hotel Worker

In the February, 2007 issue of Psychological Science, Langer and colleague Alia Crum reported that they took 84 hotel workers and told one group that “the work they do (cleaning hotel rooms) is good exercise and satisfies the Surgeon General’s recommendations for an active lifestyle. Examples of how their work was exercise were provided.”  Langer and Crum told the control group nothing.  Four weeks later, Langer and Crum returned to find some measurements of both groups: the control group hadn’t changed physically, but the test group had decreased all of the following: weight, blood pressure, body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, and body mass index.

Langer and Crum describe this study as supporting the theory that exercise affects health at least partly due to the placebo effect.  Furthermore, we can ask, what are the stories that these hotel workers are telling themselves? Why do the hotel workers suddenly believe that they actively affect their exercise regiment?

Martin Seligman and Explanatory Style 

Martin Seligman has long studied that explanatory style is the intermediate variable in whether a person has an optimistic or pessimistic outlook on life.  In his book Learned Optimism, Seligman outlines that HOW a person tells a story can be an indicator of physical health and mental health.  The “nun study” outlined on the first page of Seligman’s book Authentic Happiness describes how different nuns of a sample of 180 told their life stories: those that described the world in optimistic terms and using positive emotions tended to live longer.  Furthermore, in Learned Optimism, Seligman describes that he and colleague Christopher Peterson had access to a large body of data about men from a young age to an older age (the Grant Study of George Vaillant). Seligman and Peterson looked at the words that the men used at age twenty-five and determined how optimistic or pessimistic the men sounded.  Seligman and Peterson found that the degree of optimism at age twenty-five predicted health at age sixty! 

What are the stories the men in the study must have been telling themselves?

“I overcame the black dog” 

blackdog.jpgThis week, the New York Times reports on how people tell the stories of their lives in “This Is Your Life (and How You Tell It)” (print version here). At Northwestern University, Jonathan Adler, a doctoral candidate and Dan McAdams, a professor, study how people describe their problems in therapy (whether a fear of flying or depression or relationship issues).  Adler describes that some people tell a story of “victorious battle: ‘I ended therapy because I could overcome this on my own.’”  McAdams sees the relevance of stories in all parts of a person’s life: “We find that when it comes to the big choices people make — should I marry this person? should I take this job? should I move across the country? — they draw on these stories implicitly, whether they know they are working from them or not.”

One key to overcoming a problem, explains Adler, may be seeing the issue as an outside enemy, often even giving it a name like “the black dog.”  Another key to leaving an issue behind, states the article, may be whether a person recounts a story in the first person (“I, me”) or in the third person (“her, Senia”). 

“SHE overcame the black dog” 

In an entirely different study, college students were asked to recall one of their most embarrassing moments in high school.  Half the students were asked to recall the story in the first-person and half were told to imagine it in the third-person.  Those who recalled it in the third-person then rated themselves as having become less socially awkward since high school.  Furthermore, both sets of students then had to wait in a room with a researcher posed as a waiting student, but the researcher was really taking notes on the sociability of the research students.  The result?  The third-person imaginers started up a conversation much more frequently than the first-person imaginers. 

This study by Lisa Libby of Ohio University, Richard Eibach of Yale University, and Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University reflects how people see change.  Lisa Libby says of the research, “People who are looking for change in themselves don’t sense that they’ve made as much progress when they look back in first-person, and that could be discouraging. … Using the third-person is a good technique to see the positive changes you’ve made in your life, and that is likely to lead to greater satisfaction with your efforts. That, in turn, should make it easier to continue with your efforts to reach your goals.”

From the New York Times article:

Seeing oneself as acting in a movie or a play is not merely fantasy or indulgence; it is fundamental to how people work out who it is they are, and may become.

An Exercise: Claude Steiner and the Mythology of Your Story 

Claude Steiner, author of Scripts People Live, suggests that there are simple ways to find out what stories people make up for themselves.  Even for a child, you can ask specific questions to learn about identification with a character:

  • What is your favorite fairy tale?
  • Who is your favorite cartoon character?
  • What movie most represents your life?
  • Who is your favorite person?
  • Whom would you be like if you could be like anyone?

Could there be a useful positive psychology exercise to work out from this research?  Could there be an exercise along the lines of the following: “Imagine a difficult time in your childhood.  See the little boy or girl who was you, and forgive that little person.  See all the details and all the injustices.  And then let them all go.  And think about how you have changed from that person.”  This sounds remarkably similar to an exercise I was once asked to do in a health psychology class. 

In summary, if we speak about those events that we want to distance ourselves from in the third-person and in the past and as temporary and narrow (as Doug Turner describes here), and if we speak about ourselves in the mythology that we want to grow towards and using positive role models (as Kathryn Britton describes here), we may start to tell the life story that we want to be telling.

When They Tell the Story of My Life

It is only fitting to close with the farcical lyrics of a song by Susan Werner (YouTube HERE and worth watching):

When they make the movie of my life
I hope they get somebody beautiful to play me
Somebody eloquent and beautiful to play me
When they make the movie of my life

And when they make the movie of my life
I hope they get somebody famous to direct it
Somebody famous and a genius to direct it
When they make the movie of my life

And everyone will see
How hard it’s been for me
How much I’ve overcome
To be someone
Deserving of a motion picture  […]




Thanks to Saviz Sepah for the Aniston-Langer story.

Langer, E. (1990). Mindfulness. Da Capo Press.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. 2nd Edition. New York: Vintage.

Seligman, Martin (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

Steiner, C. (1994). Scripts People Live: Transactional Analysis of Life Scripts. Grove Press.

Vaillant, G. (1998). Adaptation to Life. New York, NY: Harvard University Press.

hotel worker,
black dog.

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elona 25 May 2007 - 3:03 pm

Great articles. Thanks so much for drawing my attention to the topics you discussed. I’m especially excited about the idea of having my special education/at-risk students tell the story of their lives. I’m going to spend some more time reading you post and the links and create lessons around them that I’m sure will help my students be the best they can. Thanks again. I’m looking forward to your next post.

Senia Maymin 26 May 2007 - 10:23 am


Thanks for the note. I am fascinated by this story-based research. THAT IS WONDERFUL that you’re thinking of having your students tell stories!

Come to think of it, quite a few exercises in Positive Psychology are about stories:

* After people take the VIA strengths assessement (http://www.authentichappiness.com), I often ask people to tell me a story about when they’ve used one of their biggest strengths.

* There is an exercise about positive introductions and the story you can tell in introducing yourself.

* Even the three great things (three blessings) exercise is about telling the three great stories of your day and the “why” behind the stories – what caused them to happen? Because in collecting those causes, you’ll realize that there is a more general story you can tell about how you make things happen in life.

* And the ABCDE of disputing your own thoughts is revising a story that you’re telling.

* Finally, Jon Haidt believes the only way to get your subconscious thoughts to do start to change are to tell a story convincing enough that your emotions and moral compass are bought into the story and feel the need to change behaviors!


Caroline Miller 27 May 2007 - 8:22 pm

Senia —
This was so readable and interesting! Thanks! There is enough here for several articles, so I hope you continue to follow this topic and keep us posted. I’m fascinated by how we can change ourselves and our behaviors in such subtle and powerful ways. Bravo!

Happy Memorial Day!

Atlanta Camilleri 30 May 2007 - 5:12 pm

Hi Senia,

Very practical, a bit like narrative. I will use it today when I start work at Probation and Parole as a counsellor / coach. I will ask my client to tell me about his life story and then go from there. I am with Elona that it can help these situations and the clients to build a positive picture of themselves.
I remember how powerful it was many years ago when a counsellor told me I had done a good job to get to this point, I was a survivor, doing the best I could with what I have available. It changed the story for me and was empowering, seeing myself as strong.

Kind Regards

Atlanta (enjoy your summer its starting to get cold in Australia)

Senia 30 May 2007 - 11:55 pm

Atlanta, that’s very interesting about your trying this out with your probabtion and parole job. Will you try asking people to recall their life story in the first or third person? Do you think in your job that the stories might be something that people may want to feel closer to or distance themselves from? Or will it depend on each person?

Kirsten Cronlund 16 June 2007 - 10:40 pm


I’m curious. I was just challenged today to write the ENDING to the story of my life. I am intrigued, and I plan to give it a whirl. Would you suggest I use the first person or the third?

Senia 17 June 2007 - 3:22 am

Hi Kirsten,

Fascinatingly interesting question!

I’d say there are three things to consider:

1) Imagining wider possibilities – if using the third person.

I would say the difference is that if you write in the third person, you may imagine even more than what you might imagine in the first person. I once wrote an exercise on my blog – “write your quote bio.” I get daily quotes in my inbox and there is always a brief bio of the person – it’s always in the third person. So I encouraged a bunch of us to write some of our own “quote bio”s!

2) Not being tied to who you are today – if using the third person.

Another thing is that according to psychology, we often have the recency bias – we tend to see things related to those events that happened most recently.  So if you write in the first person, you may make the person at the end of your life very similar to how you are today.  … And you actually might be quite different in many years!

3) Research-wise, less information is available about using the third person voice in the future.

As Derrick Carpenter writes here, Laura King has done research on the “Best Future Self” exercise that I believe has also been replicated by Sonja Lyubomirsky. In this exercise, a person is instructed to write about life in the future assuming that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. From what I understand, the responses were in the first person. And this exercise proved to be very beneficial – increasing well-being and decreasing hospital visits over a semester for college students.

So, in summary, despite the less research about it, I would go for it.  I would write about the boundless future in the third person. And then I would grow into that third-person description. (Hint: here’s a delightful article about how to get from here to the future: http://www.trizle.com/what-question-to-ask-yourself).

This question was really interesting to think about.
Thanks, Kirsten,



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