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Northwestern University
Dan McAdamsleft

What's Your Story?

Professor of Psychology Dan McAdams is the author of The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By and numerous other books about personality theory.

Human beings are natural storytellers, Professor Dan McAdams says. And the most important story each of us tells is the one about our own life.

McAdams is the creator of the “life-story theory” of human identity: the notion that we infuse meaning and purpose into our lives by developing our own personal myths. From childhood onward, we introduce characters and develop themes. As our stories continue, we engage in a process of “autobiographical reasoning,” drawing inferences about ourselves from the events in our lives.

Often, we don’t discover the full meaning of our stories until later in life.

“If you listen to people narrate their life stories in their 30s and 40s, there is so much going on: conflicting concerns regarding family, work and leisure, goals for the future, vivid memories of the past, conflict and dreams,” McAdams observes.

“The stories are exciting to hear and read, but as people get closer to retirement age, some of that complexity dies down. They focus on a few key commitments and themes, usually around the importance of friends and family. They also develop more sophisticated and, I think, more insightful ways of drawing conclusions about themselves from their stories.”

McAdams has noticed something else: that the most caring and productive adults he has studied tend to see their lives as “redemption narratives”— tales in which the protagonist has overcome some sort of adversity to achieve an enhanced state. These types of stories are particularly popular in American culture. “In Hollywood movies, commencement speeches, and everyday talk, Americans love redemptive stories,” McAdams says. And with good reason: “The research does show that people who are highly generative and psychologically healthy tend to see their own lives that way.”

It’s not always possible to make a positive out of a negative, McAdams notes. “But I think people should be keen to the opportunities in their lives whereby they are able to find meaning in suffering,” he says. “When you see your life as a redemption story, it is easier to sustain hope and commitment in a challenging world. Your story tells you that you have overcome adversity in the past, giving you confidence for the future.”

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