Meaning and Purpose

Do 'Stories' Enhance Resilience?

by John Fawcett
Books

Stories are fascinating and the story of stories is even more so. Stories have been a core component of human culture since human culture became recognisable. Story telling and story making are embedded in every day existence and, obviously, serve many functions.

But, do stories enhance resilience? 

It depends, it seems, on the nature of the story and whether the story is 'open' or 'closed'. But not, surprisingly, whether the story is true or not.

One way to examine this, perhaps, might be by considering how ‘meaning’ is a component of resilience and the knowledge that stories convey meaning. We do know that ‘meaning’ and faith/belief are strongly connected, and we know that faith and belief are positively related to health, coping and resilience.

Do stories contain meanings that enhance resilience? Or is there more than that?

What constitutes a ‘story’? 

A story can be described as a narrative, a description, an examination of a whole series of events, or a single event, either real or fictional, fantasy or fact.

Does a story have to be 'real' or 'true' to be effective in building resilience? Apparently not. We know that belief or faith is a key aspect of health and resilience. A belief (a story) does not have to be 'true' to provide support. But it does need to be believed in.

A 'story', our personal story, is a combination of memory (fallible), received wisdom, experience, social influences, and choice. Our ‘story’ links to the foundation of identity, meaning and purpose. The stories we are told, our received stories form our initial self-awareness, and later we learn how to create or tell our own ‘stories’. We know that identity, meaning and purpose are key elements of resilience, so stories might be part of the process of building resilience.

Of course stories can also be used either deliberately or unconsciously to categorise individuals or groups. The simplest form of this is the ‘us or them’ story. The narrative account of ‘the other’ is the basis for stories that go back to earliest morality tales and fairy stories. These types of stories help us to identify threats and recognise goodness. At least, as such are defined in the prevailing culture.

There are stories that lead to destruction and suffering. History is replete with evidence of how a 'story' can sway whole populations towards group and individual behaviour that results in disaster. The strange thing about these types of story is that many of the individuals who tell and live the story can, by almost any measure, thrive. 

It seems that the nature of the story being told is not, in and of itself, the determining factor as to thriving. An 'evil' story can create circumstance for thriving isn the same way that 'good' stories can.

Not all stories are the same. 

Bohlmeijer (2011) proposed a “Theory of Narrative Foreclosure”. After extensive studies of older people, the findings supported the notion that some people develop ‘foreclosure’, defined as a belief that there is nothing left to be gained by reviewing the past and nothing to look forward to in the future. This type of thinking correlates with decreasing health, and increasing depression and anxiety. 

Narrative foreclosure may not be exclusive to the aged. It is possible to create a ‘story’ that has no hope, no future, no options and no way out. Dystopian fiction, increasingly popular today, has elements of narrative foreclosure. In some ways present-day western political ‘stories’ imply a limited future. Our modern environmental 'stories' sometimes foreclose the story of the human species (and many others as well). Closed doorways, reduced opportunities, fear and anxiety.

Stories can be 'open' or 'closed'

Even the process of ‘telling’ a story can itself be counter-productive. 

Hutchinson and Dorsett (2012) noted that the process of having refugees recount their ‘story’ as part of the treatment process actually increased trauma reactions amongst refugees and may have even cemented the trauma into their cognitive processes in ways which negatively impacted resilience.

On the other hand, Hildon noted “the process of constructing and reinterpreting past events in the light of more recent ones was essential to developing resilience” (Hildon et al, 2008). 

In other research East and colleagues concluded that “Storytelling aids the development of personal resilience and provides opportunities to celebrate the hardiness of research participants who contribute to knowledge by recounting their stories of difficulty and adversity” (East et al, 2010).

The way of the ‘open’ narrative as opposed to the ‘foreclosed’ narrative may well be the ability to reduce negative assertions while learning new ways of coping. (Mager, et al, 2015). There is something in the process of both creating and telling our story that connects life to experience and opens opportunities for the future.

When a story ‘ends’ with a sense of there being more chapters yet to experience resilience appears to be stronger. Stories with no more chapters close out all opportunity for change, growth and celebration. 

Randell (2013) describes it thus;

“story facilitates a greater sense of irony by affording us an affectionate detachment from our life, intensifying our interior complexity, and thickening our sense of self. As such, it renders us more resilient”.

Mager and her colleagues ( Mager, et al, 2015) suggest there are six important elements to both the story and the telling of the story that impact resilience;

  1. temporal, or the effect of time on one’s story,
  2. poetical, one’s unique perspective,
  3. spiritual, which are the transcendent moments,
  4. wisdom and how it is perceived,
  5. society, and its effect on one’s story, and
  6. context or, where one’s story takes place, provide the necessary framework.

This is not the place to expand on these points but I encourage you to seek out the discussion for further insight.

There is much more to discover on this topics and it is important to note that I have just told you a story. 

Let me close with a few of my own take-aways;

  • Do I accept the stories that I am told or that I tell myself?
  • Are my stories ‘foreclosed’ or open?
  • Does my life have more ‘chapters’ as yet unrevealed?
  • How can I re-write or re-interpret the stories around me so they are open and not closed?
  • Where can I tell my story? Because sharing a story seems to be very powerful.

What is your story?

References

Bohlmeijer, E. T., Westerhof, G. J., Randall, W., Tromp, T., & Kenyon, G. (2011).

Narrative foreclosure in later life: Preliminary considerations for a new sensitizing concept. Journal of Aging Studies, 25(4), 364-370. doi:10.1016/j.jaging.2011.01.003

Borysenko, J. (2009). It's not the end of the world: Developing resilience in times of change. New York, NY: Hay House Inc.

East, L., Jackson, D., O'Brien, L., & Peters, K. (2010). Storytelling: An approach that can help to develop resilience. Nurse Researcher, 17(3), 17-25. Retrieved from http://www.nursing-standard.co.uk

Hildon, Z., Smith, G., Netuveli, G., & Blane, D. (2008). Understanding adversity and resilience at older ages. Sociology of Health & Illness, 30(5), 726-740. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9566.2008.01087.

Hutchinson, M., Dorsett, P. (2012) What does the literature say about resilience in refugee people? Implications for practice., Journal of Social Inclusion, 3(2), 2012

Jamieson, J. P., Nock, M. K., & Mendes, W. B. (2012). Mind over Matter: Reappraising Arousal Improves Cardiovascular and Cognitive Responses to Stress. Journal of Experimental Psychology. General, 141(3), 417–422. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0025719

Mager, Barbara J. R. and Stevens, Lou Ann M., "The Effects of Storytelling on Happiness and Resilience in Older Adults" (2015). Master of Arts in Holistic Health Studies Research Papers. 3. http://sophia.stkate.edu/ma_hhs/3

McLean, K. C., & Mansfield, C. D. (2011). To reason or not to reason: Is autobiographical reasoning always beneficial? New Directions for Child & Adolescent Development, 2011(131), 85-97. doi:10.1002/cd.291

Randall, W. (2013). The importance of being ironic: Narrative openness and personal resilience in later life. Gerontologist, 53(1), 9-16. doi:10.1093/geront/gns048

 

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