Friday, July 20, 2007

Self-narrative and Psychology

Someone recently forwarded me a NYT article from May 22 about studies in psychology by Northwestern prof. Dan McAdams about self-narration, and the way that how we narrate ourselves correlates strongly with mental health:

the researchers found strong correlations between the content of people’s current
lives and the stories they tell. Those with mood problems have many good memories, but these scenes are usually tainted by some dark detail. The pride of college graduation is spoiled when a friend makes a cutting remark. The wedding party was wonderful until the best man collapsed from drink. A note of disappointment seems to close each narrative phrase.

By contrast, so-called generative adults — those who score highly on tests measuring civic-mindedness, and who are likely to be energetic and involved — tend to see many of the events in their life in the reverse order, as linked by themes of redemption. They flunked sixth grade but met a wonderful counselor and made
honor roll in seventh. They were laid low by divorce, only to meet a wonderful new partner. Often, too, they say they felt singled out from very early in life —
protected, even as others nearby suffered.
There's a lot to think about here, and a fair amount of danger (The pathologization of certain kinds of narrative and self narrative strikes me as a potential powederkeg), but the initial observation--that reading cycles of joy spoiled vs. cycles of pain redeemed into the sequence of experienced events strikes me as a potent one. So while the pessimist who believes life always gets you may simply be grouping a natural fluctuation of events as flowing from positive to negative, the optimist may take a similar set of life events, group them such that they flow from negative to positive, and ends up looking more confidently on the future.

I am, for better or worse, generally optimistic, and as the article here suggests, have often felt quite lucky, but in retrospect, I also see that the narrative patterns identified here are very similar to the ways I narrate my life: High points are the ends of stories I tell, not the beginnings.

While McAdams's book (which I have not read, having only just now discovered the work's existence) seems to talk interesting about race and national narratives, I don't see any hints about gender, though I wonder if there's some simple phallogocentrism in the teleology of this work...since I do some writing on gender and life writing, this could do some interesting things in the way that I think about how life narratives might be read as normative or as resistant (or both).

1 comment:

Professor Zero said...

When I ran away from psychotherapy because it said my optimism was delusional and I needed to get more realistic by getting more pessimistic, a friend lent me, believe it or not, a self-help book which made the same point.

It was fun to read at the time because it praised and did not criticize optimism. However, like many stories of redemption, it was a bit Pollyannaish. Because it said, essentially, that attitude and form of narration were everything, it could really applied best, I thought, to people who had enough money and did not have to deal with daily oppression, discrimination, cultural messages about limiting yourself, etc. It thus seemed like a "guys' book." So: phallagocentrism, very possibly.