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Our Stories, Ourselves

Monitor, a publication of the American Psychological Association (Washington, DC) , January 2011


The tales we tell hold powerful sway over our memories, behaviors and even identities, according to research from the burgeoning field of narrative psychology. One of Washington, D.C.ís newest hotspots isnít a trendy restaurant or bar. Rather, itís a place where regular people, some visibly nervous, step onstage and tell stories from their lives. Often itís the most unassuming people who tell the most riveting, hilarious and heart-rending tales, says Amy Saidman, head of SpeakeasyDC, the nonprofit theater group that runs the event.

"Itís a myth that people who get on stage are all extroverts," says Saidman. "We all have stories to tell and are just dying for people to listen."

Thatís an astute observation, says Dan McAdams, PhD, a Northwestern University psychology professor who has spent the past decade systematically and quantitatively studying stories.

When people turn episodes from their lives into anecdotes, itís not just to entertain friends, McAdams says. Stories allow us to make sense out of otherwise puzzling or random events.

"Stories help us smooth out some of the decisions we have made and create something that is meaningful and sensible out of the chaos of our lives," says McAdams.

Our stories can also shape our future, researchers have found. In particular, telling stories of struggle that turn out well may give people the hope they need to live productive lives. And stories that vividly describe turmoil seem to help people grow wiser in the aftermath of major life challenges.

Subjects Covered: medicine, personal storytelling, storytelling festivals

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