How happiness and meaning in life start with a good story.
Illustrations by Elwood Smith
Every so often at a party in Chicago, when I was in my 20s and 30s, I had a particular revelation. The scene was similar: a packed house or apartment, music blaring, beer flowing. I would overhear someone utter “UD.” I might see a Dayton T-shirt or baseball cap. Maybe a UD banner on the wall. It became clear: I’m at a UD party. Again.
I could never figure out how I ended up at these parties. I didn’t know the host. I didn’t necessarily arrive with UD grads. I hadn’t gone to UD. I had a few high school friends who went to UD, but they didn’t live in Chicago. Perhaps people from Ohio end up at the same parties in Chicago? Perhaps graduates of Catholic colleges end up at the same parties anywhere? Perhaps UD grads just throw the best parties? (Probably so, but that wouldn’t explain why I would be there.) Perhaps UD was my destiny?
During those years I went to the wedding of two UD grads, a good friend from high school, John Konkoly ’89, and Lori Sauer, now Konkoly, ’89. They sat me at the same table as a particularly gorgeous woman, a friend of Lori’s named Tricia whom I remember to this day because now she’s my wife. Perhaps UD actually was my destiny.
After living in Chicago, Tricia and I moved to Flagstaff, Ariz., where we started a family and I started my career. We loved it there (sunny, friends). But it was too far from family — Tricia’s in Cincinnati and mine in Cleveland. Then UD gave me a job with an excellent work environment, fantastic students and colleagues, and ideal opportunities for professional growth, all while bringing our kids and us closer to family.
Fun, love and work. It is easy for me to view UD with a sense of gratitude and destiny.
Same facts, different story
I suppose I could tell that story another way. I could interpret my life in a way that scarcely mentions UD. For example, UD alums did not throw the only parties I went to in Chicago. UD introduced Tricia and me, but only indirectly, and UD didn’t exactly figure in our decision to date, much less get married. UD gave me a job, but the hire is a mutual exchange of goods and services.
This version of the story is also factual. But it feels less true, less full, less meaningful. UD plays a meaningful role in my life because I have interpreted my life that way, which is to say, I have constructed a personal narrative or story that says UD is personally meaningful. So it is, in fact, meaningful.
Usually we think that a story is a retelling of something. Factual events happen in life, and then we tell stories about those events. But life stories are primarily about meanings, not facts. A story’s meaning is not about who, what, where and when, but about why and how — about the intentions, dreams, reasons, motivations, ideals and conflicts that shape our feelings and interpretations of events. We identify and define ourselves in terms of these interpretations.
So the stories we tell about our lives are more than just stories. They’re what we know of our lives. Our stories become our lives.
The question is, what do we want our lives to become?
The answer: Good.
Good life = happiness + meaning
When people in studies were asked what constitutes a good life, they rated happiness and meaning highest, above things like status and lots of money.
This notion of a good life has deep roots, going back at least 2,400 years to Aristotle. For him, a good life, or eudaimonia, involved two things: pleasure and arete (translated as “excellence of character” or “maturity in virtue and meaning-making”). I’ll refer to these two simply as happiness and meaning.
Happiness is the feeling that life is good. Meaning deals with how one analyzes the life about which one feels good. For example, if you’re happy but you got that way by being selfish and cheating others, then suddenly “a good life” doesn’t seem so good.
Here’s an interesting fact: Happiness and meaning are not the same thing. In fact, they’re not even related. People with highly developed meanings in life are just as likely to be unhappy as happy. This finding has been replicated for decades. In other words, thinking complexly about life is different than feeling good about it.
Before we consider how all this relates to life stories, let’s look at some of the prerequisites of eudaimonia, the good life, because happiness and meaning are luxuries.
Hitting the cortical lottery
Aristotle said that eudaimonia is not simply a matter of effort. It’s also a matter of luck.
Like it or not, much of our happiness is genetic. Research shows that happiness levels are more similar for identical twins than for fraternal twins.
Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia calls this “the cortical lottery.” Fortunately the odds in this lottery are much better than in the state lottery. Roughly 60 percent of people report being happy routinely. But we have a biological “set point” for happiness. We may have short bursts or depletions of happiness, but eventually we slide back to our endowed set point. (Really, our genes set a range of likely happiness levels that seem to become more channeled as our lives unfold.)
While this may sound discouraging, on the bright side it’s part of what pulls us up when things go wrong. Plus, it’s very important to note that happiness is not all genetic. Set points can change permanently, and approximately
40 percent of happiness levels are tied to our own personal actions.
Whew. There’s hope.
Cost of living adjustments
Aristotle also said that eudaimonia comes about only when a person has ample leisure. Leisure allows for time to think deeply about life. Having leisure also means we’re probably not worrying about basic needs like food and shelter. And that’s where wealth comes in.
Overall, it’s clear that money goes a long way in bringing happiness, but only if you’re poor. In every country around the world, people who worry about food, shelter and safety are less happy than people who do not.
Once basic needs are met, it’s a much different story. People around the world then start to focus on “psychological needs,” such as seeking pleasure, a sense of belonging, a sense of personal competence and esteem, and meaning in life. When focused on these kinds of needs, it takes huge increases in income — upwards of $100,000 in a year — to see a just-noticeable difference in happiness, on average.
Not only that, but sudden increases in happiness generally don’t last. We adapt. The new income level quickly becomes the new baseline. This is called the hedonic treadmill. We keep moving forward and exhausting our energies to gain something pleasurable but end up right where we started. Of course, it’s great that we adapt when things go wrong. But when things go great (“I won the lottery!”), well, we adapt to that, too.
Finally, we should ask: Which comes first, increases in income or increases in happiness? A longitudinal study tracking individuals over many years shows that increases in happiness come before increases in income. Why? Perhaps it’s that happy people can get others to like them and their work more easily, can think more optimistically and creatively, and can invest in the future accordingly.
The story of a researcher
I’m a terrible storyteller. I can write well enough, but when it comes to telling a story in person, it never works unless it’s one that I’ve told a million times. Of course, by then it only works with people I’ve just met.
This drives me crazy because I love good storytellers. Maybe that’s why I study people’s life stories for a living.
I first got the idea to study people’s stories as the editor of a weekly newspaper in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Now, I don’t know how familiar you are with the U.P., but you may have heard of its unparalleled beauty. They call it “God’s Country.” And it is beautiful. It’s also quiet. Dead quiet, painfully quiet, especially for a 22-year-old who only months earlier had moved to Chicago because, and solely because, Chicago is so fun. But an editor job was too good to pass up, so I traded culture for nature and headed north (like three hours north of Green Bay, Wis., which is why I only got one television station and ironically missed the first season of Northern Exposure).
In addition to editor, I was the (not “a”) reporter, photographer and layout guy. My publisher was shrewd. I worked 60-70 hours per week for $13,000 a year, but this was enough not to worry about food and shelter. My rent was only $200 a month for the spacious top floor of a house, and I survived happily on cheap pizza and black bean soup, which I heated up by myself when feeling particularly domestic. And I loved my job. I liked writing editorials and sports — mostly high school sports and Little League Baseball, but also dog-sled racing and the popular “Call in Your Kill” listings in November. But I most loved doing feature stories of people’s lives.
The problem was that, when designing the layout of the page with the feature story, I inevitably realized that I had written too much. Time was short on press day, and so was the editing process: I had to cut paragraphs off the end of the story until it fit the space available. This was maddening. Here I had spent hours interviewing someone, doing background investigation and throwing myself into this person’s life for a week — all to just hack the story to make room for the police report (naturally the most popular column) or an announcement of a bake sale.
I wanted to study people’s life stories in more depth and more systematically.
Science of stories
I view the questions of a good life — of how we create happiness and meaning — as scientific questions. I love philosophy, literature, the arts, religion, history and other disciplines that study life’s big questions. But for me, these questions are begging for observable, quantitative data and statistical models showing how Variable A (say, personal narratives) predicts Variable B (say, happiness or meaning).
Can we actually measure these things as well as the physical sciences measure planets, plants and protons? Of course not, never mind the fact that astronomers are still arguing over what a planet is.
But can we measure happiness, meaning and life stories well enough to predict which people are likely to be happy years from now based on their stories today? Most definitely. Such research is already well established in the social sciences.
Here’s how: Life stories, like any story, use narrative themes to convey what is important and why it’s important. These themes can be identified systematically and quantified.
Three of the great themes in life stories and stories generally (think literature, film) are power, love and growth. People use these themes to give meaning to events in their lives. An event may be important “because I had an influence” or “because I proved I could do it” (power). An event may be important “because we shared
it” or “because it brought us together” (love). An event may be important “because I grew stronger” or “because we learned” (growth).
The more we use a particular theme to convey the importance of an event, the more we identify with that theme in our lives. We can measure a theme quantitatively by getting independent researchers to agree how frequently it is mentioned across the episodes of a person’s life story.
What themes make up a good life story? Much of the answer depends on one’s culture, but if I had to pick one theme, I’d pick growth.
Growth is a major part of eudaimonia, and the concept of growth is deeply embedded in American ideals of progress and a good life. This is partly why self-help books have accounted for almost 50 percent of the best-selling nonfiction titles in the past 40 years. We love coming-of-age movies and stories of character development where the heroes realize the sins of their past and transform themselves into a force of good. Think of any story featuring character development where the protagonist tries to become a “better person.”
Our life stories can showcase growth in the past and in the planned future. In a week I will fly to Paris to participate in UD’s summer study abroad program. In this extraordinary program, UD students study abroad and are taught by UD professors, who propose the programs and locations. (While I was interviewing for my position at UD, Tricia discovered this program on UD’s website. She was clear on the phone that night: You get that job!)
When I did this program in Paris in 2009, my family joined me, and we all loved it. It was especially wonderful watching our kids (ages 6 and 4 at the time) explore a new city, new foods and new people.
On the academic side, I was reminded what it means to have a course come alive: Students were fully engaged in the class — I’ve never seen so often the expression of “OMG, I get it now, wow, life’s bigger than I thought” — as the course topics were linked to and energized by our experience in Paris. For me, Paris is Growth City.
It was for the students, too. Afterward, they wrote about their experiences. Growth themes were off the charts. Students uniformly saw the experience as a period of intense self-discovery and self-expansion. They wrote passionately about what they learned and how their appreciation deepened for other cultures and their American culture. They told stories of growing — experientially and intellectually.
The distinction is important. Recall that happiness and meaning are not the same thing. My colleagues and I have consistently found that personal growth stories lead down at least two broad paths. Stories emphasizing experiential growth (focusing on deepened experiences and relationships) lead toward feeling good about life (happiness). Stories emphasizing intellectual growth lead toward thinking deeply about life (meaning).
But there’s little cross-over. Growth stories and plans along one path are not likely to lead to growth along the other. Only the people whose stories emphasize both kinds of growth, like my students after Paris, tend to show evidence of both happiness and rich meaning in life — that is, to show evidence of eudaimonia.
Growing through grief
All this talk of growth sounds great. But what about when life gets tough? How much wiggle room is there in how we interpret the loss of a loved one or some traumatic event?
As it turns out, people going through the same tragic event, like 9/11 or personal abuse, tell very different stories. For some the event is simply tragic — that’s all, no growth. But for others, the tragic event also leads to something positive, some silver lining. Perhaps an important lesson or viewpoint about life. Perhaps strengthened relationships with family or friends. Perhaps personal strengths that were previously undiscovered. These people, whose stories convey themes of “post-traumatic growth,” are found to adjust better.
It’s important to note that growth is not the same thing as recovery. Almost everyone focuses on recovery during difficult times, but only some also focus on growth, and then with seemingly positive effects. But then did adjustment happen first, and the growth themes in narratives simply follow? Well, in one important study of psychotherapy, growth narratives came prior to improvements in psychological adjustment, and not the other way around.
Like James Brown said, ‘Get up offa that thang’
People who have growth stories seek growth in their lives. This is true for the old and the young, contrary to popular notions that “growth is for the young.” Plus, it’s not just that people tell stories about growth. It’s that these people do things that promote growth.
Certain kinds of activities are known for fostering eudaimonia. One is called “flow.” Flow is the experience of being in a groove, being immersed in something we find interesting, being focused on the present activity and not things like self-image or social status. Flow comes about when people do something that involves a high level of challenge but where their skills are up to that challenge.
Some of the most common examples include active leisure, such as sports and physical exercise, socializing (especially when it involves food), reading and sex. But watching TV does not; it produces inactivity, little excitement and little challenge.
Why then do we watch so much TV? Probably because at the end of a hard day, it’s much easier to click on the TV than to read a book or go for a run.
Flow activities take more initial effort, mentally and physically. But the initial investment pays off in terms of both meaning and happiness in life. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the great flow researcher, finds that the eudaimonic life comes when people routinely structure their lives to produce flow experiences.
Earlier I said essentially that money itself doesn’t buy happiness. But, some researchers find, money can buy happiness if we spend it right. We can spend money on either experiential purchases (activities) or material purchases (things). Here’s the payoff: Spending $100 on a baseball game or a concert is more likely to bring lasting happiness than spending $100 on a pair of shoes. When we purchase activities instead of things, we’re more likely to reminisce about them, to find meaning in them, to grow tired of them more slowly and to share them more with other people. That last one — other people — is key. If research has found one overarching key to happiness and meaning in life, it’s spending time with others.
So it seems that the American Dream of striving toward ever-newer cars and ever-bigger houses is a dream that we’re better to wake up from. In fact, research shows that pursuing this dream as a primary life goal may be an attempt to overcome a lack of more personally meaningful qualities in life. This leads to the question of why we do what we do.
Status, kids and what we emphasize
When it comes to happiness, it’s not so much the kind of activities we do as the reasons for doing them and for thinking they’re important. In study after study, in every age group, every income group and around the world, we see that happier people do things for person-oriented reasons more than for gaining material goods or social status.
Status and money aren’t necessarily problems in themselves. We all have both person-oriented and status-oriented reasons for doing what we do. For example, take the college student who wants to become a lawyer because she loves the legal process and feels she can help others (person oriented). She might also want to become a lawyer for the money and prestige (status oriented). What matters for her happiness is how much she emphasizes them in her life story.
This distinction is especially important when it comes to parenting. We all want our kids to be happy, but do we encourage our kids to pursue activities for the enrichment it brings for themselves and for others? Or for the acceptance and praise (think: grades) they’ll get from their parents, peers and teachers?
Chances are we’re doing both. After all, enrichment is good and noble, and it’s what brings happiness. But life in a complex society makes us jump through a lot of hoops, and status-motivated goals can help with that. Yet, such goals are not likely to bring happiness. Again, it’s a matter of which ones we emphasize in our life stories.
A related question: Are we as parents pushing our kids more for their own development as individuals or more to have them live out our ideals for our own lives? I try hard not to do the latter, but it’s not easy. On any given day I catch myself feeling proud or defensive, dishing out praise or punishment, because my children’s behaviors either reflect or contradict what I myself want to be. The hard part is that some of those ideals I would want for anyone (like being considerate or trying hard) and others I wouldn’t (like being controlling or perfectionism). And it’s not always easy to tell which is which when such situations spontaneously arise by the dozens each day. But it’s got to be worth the effort to try.
As far as I can tell, the only remedy is the age-old advice: “Know thyself.” Which brings us back to where we started: Examining our life stories.
What’s your story?
We have just scanned an enormous amount of research. Is there a simple conclusion for it all? A quick little piece of advice to jot down for future reference?
I don’t think so. Lives are complex. If I wanted to offer any insights that would actually be useful, I’d need to hear your particular story.
And if I already did hear it at one of those parties in Chicago, do you mind repeating it? It was pretty loud there, as I recall.
Jack Bauer (http://academic.udayton.edu/jackbauer) struggles daily to translate research findings into plain English. He holds the Roesch Chair in the Social Sciences and is an associate professor of psychology at UD. He is co-editor of the book Transcending Self-Interest: Psychological Explorations of the Quiet Ego and is currently writing about the topics in this article for a book on the ideal of growth in American life stories. Bauer is also an associate editor of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and, were this article to appear in that journal, he would have dutifully cited his research references in endnotes. He is happy to provide them to any interested readers.
Further reading suggested by Bauer:
Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
The Progress Paradox by Gregg Easterbrook
Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt
The High Price of Materialism by Tim Kasser
The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky
The Redemptive Self and George W. Bush and The Redemptive Dream by Dan P. McAdams
The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz