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Redemption, Happiness, and the Olympics

The most compelling stories heard about Olympians are stories of redemption

One of the most compelling stories heard about Olympic athletes are stories of redemption—of overcoming adversity to reach new heights, of suffering being redeemed. Oscar Pistorius had both his legs amputated when he was just 11 months, yet grew up to sprint in the 2012 London Olympics. USC track star Bryshon Nellum was shot in the legs at a party 4 years ago, endured multiple operations and agonizing years of recovery, yet made it to London to compete in the 4X400-meter relay in 2012 and carry the U.S. flag at the Closing Ceremonies. And countless Olympians, with all-around gymnastics gold medalist Gabby Douglas and two-time 100-meter gold medalist Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce from Jaimaica as just two examples, overcame poverty and years of childhood snatched from their parents to attain heights of greatness not achieved by most human beings on Earth.

Of course, you don’t have to be the world’s fastest woman or man to have your own compelling life story to tell. Indeed, researchers have been studying ordinary people like you and me to determine which of our life stories are “best” to tell. That is, what story will offer us the chance for the greatest happiness or maturity or wisdom?

Some psychological studies have asked participants to construct life accounts of difficult life transitions, such as getting laid off and shifting into a new career, losing faith in their religion, or experiencing discrimination. Interestingly, regardless of their personality, people who are happier – and more resilient, more mature, and more committed to improving the world for future generations – tell stories that emphasize how much they have learned from the event, grown from it, or even been transformed by it, both individually and in their relationships. Personality psychologist Dan McAdams calls this theme of finding positive meaning in negative events “a story of redemption.” In such a story, we progress from a bad or difficult life situation to a good or even triumphant one. We redeem ourselves, or rescue some part of ourselves, or make ourselves even better than we were before. Furthermore, our deliverance from suffering is often accompanied by a rekindled gratitude for our early blessings (e.g., a mentor who encouraged us) and a renewed commitment to pay back our good fortune by giving back to society and future generations (e.g., by volunteering with at-risk youth).

McAdams has interviewed hundreds of adults about the most meaningful high and low points of their lives and has heard numerous redemption sequences recounted by his participants. Does your life have a story of redemption? According to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “there are no second acts in American lives,” yet many of us – ordinary folks and Olympians alike – would beg to differ.