The Story of Your Life IS Your Life

On my Facebook profile, I state my religious beliefs as “The story of your life becomes your life.”

After my happiness post, I realized I didn’t comment on one of the key linchpins in happiness: storytelling.

Daniel Kahneman, in his excellent TED talk above, speaks to two different kinds of selves:

  • The experiencing self, or the self that experiences things moment by moment
  • The remembering self, or the self that tells stories about our lives and has a vision of who we are

Both Kahneman & Gilbert agree that the storytelling impetus is critical—because the story we choose to tell about our lives can very well overwrite our true, “real” experiences and create a new memory.

Here’s another passage from Stumbling on Happiness related to a research study:

Only 33% of the describers were able to accurately identify the original color. Apparently, the describers’ verbal descriptions of their experiences “overwrote” their memories of the experiences themselves, and they ended up remembering not what they had experienced but what they had SAID about what they experienced.

Our remembrance of things past is imperfect, thus comparing our new happiness with our memory of our old happiness is a risky way to determine whether two subjective experiences are really different.

Since reading Kahneman, I’ve become much more conscious of the stories I tell about my life … to everyone. If I tell a story about my past that is very sad or negative, I perpetuate the negativity. While I certainly wouldn’t advocate anyone putting on rose-colored glasses when evaluating the past to make a better decision for the future, I look for positive frameworks for my experiences—especially when it involves circumstances I could not have possibly changed. (E.g., you don’t choose your parents, you don’t control where you’re born and raised, etc.)

Telling Stories About What Has Not Yet Come to Pass
I’ve realized recently, when I’m waking up in the morning, and I’m writing the story in my head about how difficult or bad the upcoming day will be, I’ve already created unhappiness without giving myself a chance to enjoy what’s ahead without judgment or restriction. I’m trying to stop that behavior—it’s difficult. We live in a culture that adores the drama.

When Stories Are Co-Opted By Loved Ones
I had a rude awakening recently when I realized that the story or vision I have in my head about my life (and who I am) is not the same story that others tell.

What happens when a loved one tells your story in a way that you don’t like? Or even worse, what if their stories, which you may or may not agree with, make other people find you repulsive?

What if The Conductor doesn’t like how I tell stories about us on this blog? What if he told stories about me on HIS blog?

Our stories embody who we are. They are a component of our happiness. They are not to be treated lightly.

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Posted in Life Philosophy, Reading.

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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