Sunday, April 27, 2008

What do life stories tell us about human flourishing?

It seems obvious that life stories should contain just about all the information that anyone would want to know about human flourishing. When you ask someone to tell you about their life you get a much more complete picture of how satisfied they are with what life has offered and what they have accomplished than you could ever get by asking them for a numerical rating of their life satisfaction. Actually, asking someone to give you a numerical rating of their satisfaction with life as a whole could even be a good way to stop someone from telling you about those things.

So why don’t researchers ask people about their life stories – the high points, the low points, the turning points etc – rather than the questions asked about happiness, life satisfaction etc in surveys? The reason why little use has been made of life stories in the past, at least in scientific research as opposed to literary works, must have to do with the difficulty of adding different life stories together (or averaging them in some way) to obtain an overall picture of some dimension of human flourishing.

The secret of success in making quantitative analytical use of life stories is to focus on identifying whether or not the stories display particular characteristics of interest to the researcher. For example, in their study of narratives relating to high points, low points and turning points Jack Bauer, Dan McAdams and April Sakaeda coded the paragraphs that participants wrote about each episode according to the presence or absence of integrative and intrinsic memories. Integrative memories were present if there was evidence in the account that the participant had learned from the experience or come to a deeper understanding of self or others as a result of it. Intrinsic memories were present if participants focussed on matters of intrinsic interest, e.g. meaningful relationships, rather than extrinsic interests, e.g. money and status. (See: ‘Interpreting the good life ...’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2005).

Participants in this study were also asked to complete more conventional survey questionnaires to provide measures of happiness, maturity (measuring such things as the degree to which individuals can hold impulses in check and respect others’ standards) and personality traits (neuroticism, extraversion, openness, conscientiousness and agreeableness). The results of study enabled the authors to reach the following conclusions:
People who emphasised what they learned from their experiences tended to be more mature than others.
People who emphasised the effects of experiences on personal growth and relationships tended to be happier than others.
For the most part these results could not be explained by simply knowing the broad personality traits of individuals in the study.

It seems to me that narrative research may be able to play a role in studying the inter-relationships between the rules of the game of society (including both formal institutions and informal rules associated with cultures) and the extent to which people respond positively or negatively to challenging experiences.

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