Do Stories Help Make You Who You Are?

Stories shape us and those to whom we tell them.

Posted Aug 03, 2020

Krystine I. Batcho
Source: Krystine I. Batcho

What are the earliest stories you remember? Maybe you remember bedtime stories like Goodnight Moon or the Dr. Seuss books like Green Eggs and Ham your parents read to you. Or are your grandfather’s accounts of childhood adventures, overcoming adversity, or surviving war among the most memorable stories of your life?

Since early childhood, we have been immersed in a culture rich in stories. Family members, friends, teachers, coaches, and religious leaders all tell stories, some based on their life experience, and others handed down through generations. Many of the stories we’ve been told are largely factual, though distorted somewhat through the lenses of interpretation and the fragility of memory. Other stories are fictional, intended to entertain, educate, or convey a theme or lesson. Children are not always able to distinguish reality from fantasy, and over time, memory blurs the distinction further. The increasing popularity of docudramas, films “based on actual events,” and a wide spectrum of formats presenting information in digital media has contributed to the greater blending of truth and fiction for people of all ages.

Have powerful stories contributed to the kind of person you’ve become? Have they shaped aspects of your beliefs, values, personality, or emotional disposition?

The pervasiveness of stories raises the important question of their influence on psychological well-being. Can exposure to sad stories exacerbate pre-existing sadness or contribute to the development of depression? Do happy stories promote a cheerful disposition? A rich volume of research has examined the cognitive and emotional responses to individual stories. Less is known, however, about the cumulative impact of stories over our lifetime. 

Qualitative analyses have shown that personally relevant stories can exert a powerful, lasting influence. In their memoirs, members of the resistance during World War II explained how stories told to them during childhood generated nostalgia and played pivotal roles in their later dedication to the resistance, even to the point of enduring hardships and risking death (Batcho, 2018). Stories told by members of her family were Maria Savchyn Pyskir’s first exposure to values and tradition. “When our chores were finished, and we became bored, grandfather would tell us stories of long ago. In his gentle voice, he would sing the songs of his youth, describe the feasts and great holidays of the past, and evoke a history that held us spellbound.” 

Pyskir’s memories of stories her mother had told her remained vivid over her lifetime. “Her voice floats back through the years like water trickling over a stream bed. She knew how to tell a story, select the right word, relate the telling anecdote, proffer the pithy example. . . . Her words would draw me in.” Such personal stories imbued tradition with emotion and made the lessons meaningful and memorable. “My mother didn’t know that when I went to bed at night, I would repeat her stories over and over again, and my heart would ache for her and for my grandmother.”

A recent empirical study has suggested the importance of research on the emotional effect of lifelong exposure to happy or sad stories (Batcho, 2020a). Participants recalled stories they were exposed to from very early in life. Not surprisingly, participants were more likely to recount stories told by family members than those they encountered in books and films or news sources. 

Family stories described happy events, such as births and weddings, as well as sad and tragic events, such as violence and death. Stories remembered from books or films were characteristically happy, while news coverage reported predominantly negative events, such as school shootings or violent attacks. Many of the happy stories from books and films were of the Disney vintage, such as Cinderella or Toy Story, or picture books centered on loving relationships, such as I Love You This Much. Some sad stories were based on books or movies, such as Marley and Me or Old Yeller, but most stemmed from tragic events, such as those on 9/11.

The predominance of family stories illustrated how personally relevant material is especially meaningful and memorable. The mix of both happy and sad personal stories highlights the significance of understanding the influence of emotional stories on psychological well-being. Participants also rated their accumulated experience with happy and sad stories. 

Correlations revealed that greater exposure to happy stories was associated with higher levels of generalized happiness, that is, with happier dispositions. Greater exposure to sad stories was related to greater dispositional sadness. Stories vary in their power to elicit strong emotions. Stronger happiness elicited by stories was associated with a greater likelihood of a happy disposition, and deeper sadness induced by stories was related to a greater likelihood of dispositional sadness.

People react differently to stories. The intensity of emotion elicited by the stories was correlated with the extent to which the participants were prone to being nostalgic. Proneness to nostalgia was also related to the frequency of benefitting from happy stories. Substantial research has shown that nostalgia is generally a healthy psychological resource that serves beneficial functions, such as strengthening social connectedness, continuity of self, enhanced self-esteem, adaptive coping strategies, meaning in life, and comfort in the face of threatened mortality. The relationship between nostalgia and reactions to stories needs to be investigated further.

Some people tend to focus on loss that has not yet occurred. Dubbed anticipatory nostalgia, the sadness of anticipated loss is premature, and the experience is a paradoxical phenomenon of trying to enjoy the present while missing it as if already relegated to the past. Research has suggested that unlike typical nostalgia, anticipatory nostalgia is associated with a greater tendency in general for people and experiences to cause worry and sadness and is more likely to occur in adverse circumstances. People highly prone to anticipatory nostalgia may experience less happiness from happy stories. Also, while proneness to typical nostalgia correlated with learning from happy stories, the tendency toward anticipatory nostalgia was associated with learning from sad stories.

Access to 24-hour news cycles and online venues has expanded the array of content and format of stories. In a digital age, children are growing up with greater opportunities for exposure to stories with negative content presented in graphic media without the comforting presence of adults who could contribute a meaningful perspective. The cumulative impact over time is not yet known, but the recent finding of greater sadness with increasing exposure to sad stories highlights the importance of research to understand the impact of immersion in a story-rich environment. The cumulative consequences of lifelong exposure to negative stories may be especially adverse for people who are prone to sadness, less reactive to happy material, or less able to extract helpful lessons from sad stories.

We are all storytellers and consumers of stories. As they influence our well-being, stories are collectively shaping our social environment for current and future generations. We need to consider the kind of people our stories are helping us to become. 

References

Batcho, K. I.  (2020a).  When nostalgia tilts to sad:  Anticipatory and personal nostalgia.  Current Issues in Nostalgia Research.  Frontiers in Psychology:  Personality and Social Psychology.  https://dog.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01186

Psychology.

Batcho, K. I.  (2020).  Nostalgia:  The paradoxical bittersweet emotion.  In M. H. Jacobsen (Ed.), Nostalgia now:  Cross-disciplinary perspectives on the past in the present (pp. 31-46).  Routledge.

Batcho, K. I.  (2018).  The role of nostalgia in resistance:  A psychological perspective.  Qualitative Research in Psychology,

Batcho, K. I.  (2016, July 1).  Missing the present before it’s gone.  Psychology Today.  https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/longing-nostalgia/201607/missing-the-present-its-gone 

Batcho, K. I., & Shikh, S.  (2016).  Anticipatory nostalgia:  Missing the present before it’s gone.  Personality and Individual Differences, 98, 75-84.

Pyskir, M. S.  (2001).  Thousands of roads:  A memoir of a young woman’s life in the Ukrainian Underground during and after World War II.  Jefferson, NC:  McFarland & Company, Inc.