Tell me a Story

Reading The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt. He's subtitled it Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom: Why the Meaningful Life is Closer than you Think. Every chapter is fascinating but what grabbed me was psychologist Dan MacAdams' theory that our personalities have three levels.

The lowest comes from your left brain's chatter and narrative, how it explains your life to yourself at a fairly shallow level. The left brain is an energetic story teller and weaves a tale that satisfies itself. Work on split-brain patients, who have had the corpus callusum cut and therefore have no communication between the right and left hemispheres, proves that. The surgery is done for intractable epilepsy to try to restrict seizures to one hemisphere. When information is given to the right brain only, the person will react but be unable to explain why. However the left brain determinedly invents stories to rationalize the action.

Haidt points out that our left brain version of our life is not necessarily true, more like historical fiction. Which makes sense when you hear to people's versions of the same event. In some cases, when you hear siblings' childhood stories, it is difficult to believe they grew up in the same home.

The second level “characteristic adaptations” includes choices, goals, beliefs that we incorporate from the mix of our circumstances and our innate temperament. Nature marries nurture.

Where it gets interesting is when we hit adversity. It throws us off balance and this shock gives a window for changem- if we take it. It explains why, for example, cancer survivors often say their illness was life changing and in some way a blessing. I remember a friend, bald from chemo, fighting a brain tumor, insisting this was the best thing that had happened to him. I didn't understand then, but I do now because my pain has forced me to regroup, change, live deeply and I would not return what I have learned.

To be human is to tell stories and the greatest one we ever tell is our own. And to have a good story, and I don't mean a narcissistic, prima donna fabrication, but story in the oldest, heroic mould, you need adversity. Adversity tempers us like forging steel. So we are lifted from the mundane to the journey. And these moments are when one's soul recognizes we have touched the fringe of an eternal greatness.

However, Haidt also points out that some stories have a “contamination sequence” when we allow one negative to color the whole event, rewriting the scenario pessimistically. Ugh!

We need coherence between the levels. Often we get stuck in a rut where they don't match. Is that why we so often wonder what is the meaning of our lives? Why the life that circumstances and society wished on us just doesn't fit? Why we have mid-life crises? Often trauma acts like an earthquake, shaking us up and forcing us to find purpose and a coherent thread.

More on Dan McAdams' personality theory

Dan McAdams' article on his personality theory



About UntraveledRoads

Fascinated by life, looking for answers to chronic pain and finding unexpected gifts. Interested in people, ideas, healing and humour. I am very happily married with three children and a kitten. As English born immigrants to Canada, we have family spread overseas, a daughter in South Africa and one in England. We also run a charity in South Africa to educate black, rural South African Women. Our first girl from a rural township has just graduated as an accountant from Johannesburg University and got a good job in a bank.
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