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A new study by a professor at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering suggests that the stories we tell ourselves when we reflect on the challenges in our lives can play a major role in improving our mental health, particularly when we interpret our life as the product of our own actions.
"The big take away message of this study is that you are not only the main character in your story, but also the narrator," said Jonathan M. Adler, assistant professor of psychology at Olin College and author of the study. "Even though you don't get to dictate everything that happens to you, you do get to determine how you make sense of your life, and that process can have enormous impact on your mental health."
The study focused on the way people responded to a variety of challenges. Adler tracked a diverse group of 47 adults from the greater Chicago area as they went through psychotherapy. He collected their stories before they began treatment and again in-between every session, resulting in nearly 600 such accounts. He tracked the changes in the narratives over time and examined these in conjunction with changes in mental health, which was assessed at every session.
The study found that there was an increase in the narrative theme of agency – the feeling that a person has the ability to influence the course of his or her life – over the course of treatment. In contrast, the study found no reliable changes in the overall coherence—the integrated view of the self over time— in the narratives as the treatment progressed. Most surprisingly, the study found that changes in the theme of agency preceded changes in participants' mental health. This suggests that the stories people craft about their challenges can proactively influence their mental health.
Adler's study is the first to show that changing one's personal story actually comes before changes in mental health, as opposed to the two shifts happening simultaneously, or the story being a mere side-effect of improved mental health. It is also the first study of its kind to adopt such a fine-grained analytical approach, using sophisticated longitudinal modeling techniques. As a result, the study makes a significant extension to the scientific study of the relationship between personal narrative and mental health, blending qualitative and quantitative methods. The results of the study are published in the February issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
In the article, Adler presents the overall quantitative findings along with a case study of "Sandy," an 18-year old who entered psychotherapy to combat depression and an eating disorder. In her initial narrative, collected before she began treatment, Sandy describes herself as "messed up" and "dependent on others," earning her a low score on agency. By the fourth narrative, collected just over a month later, she is beginning to see the value of her therapeutic plan for improvement, but doubts her ability to carry it out. By the final narrative, Sandy describes a new perspective on her work in therapy and demonstrates a greatly increased sense of being in control of her future, writing "I feel enlightened and inspired and encouraged and empowered for greatness!" Adler comments, "Her dramatic writing style elegantly demonstrates the degree to which her own sense of personal agency has helped her to find her way to positive mental health."
According to Adler, the study offers a new tool for personal empowerment and mental health improvement, as individuals remake their view of themselves as active agents in their lives by interpreting key events. "The results indicate that individuals begin to tell new stories and then live their way into them," said Adler.