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Why Storytelling Is a Pillar of a Meaningful Life

Family storytelling weaves lives of connection, meaning, and purpose.

Key points

  • Listening to others’ stories helps us tell our own stories in new ways.
  • Storytelling is one of the pillars of building a meaningful life because stories are, at heart, about meaning and connection.
  • Family storytelling weaves lives of connection, meaning, and purpose.

Is there more to life than being happy?

This is the question that Emily Esfahani Smith asks in her book, The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness. Building on the tenets of positive psychology, Smith argues that, whereas happiness is fleeting, a momentary state of feeling good, building a life of meaning creates an enduring sense of well-being.

How are we to build a life of meaning? Smith suggests four pillars: belonging, purpose, transcendence, and storytelling. The first three make intuitive sense: a sense of belonging through loving others and being loved, a sense of purpose that one is accomplishing something in their life, a sense of transcendence, of simply being in the moment. These have been written about in philosophy, psychology, and self-help literature for years.

But storytelling? How is telling stories a pillar of a meaningful life?

Smith focuses on stories we tell about ourselves–how we create stories that explain who we are and how we became this way, what the psychologist Dan McAdams calls a narrative identity. Narrative identity weaves our various life experiences into a coherent story that not only links experiences into temporal and causal chains but creates meaning through the expression of values and ideals.

As Smith argues, we can change our stories; we can create stories that affirm positive values and create meaning and purpose. But for many of us who have faced obstacles and challenges in life, changing our story may not be as easy as it sounds. How do we create positive meaning and purpose from experiences of hardship and stress?

Smith’s own story points to a way. In telling her story, she relies on the stories of two other people. First, she tells the story of a young football player who was seriously injured and initially told his story as one of loss and desolation, what McAdams calls a “contamination story”—things were good and now are bad.

But this young man changed his story; through personal reflection and reframing, his story became one of finding new values, of discovering his purpose in life as a youth mentor, what McAdams calls a “redemption” story, good things came from the bad.

Smith tells the second story about her father, who lived a simple life as a carpenter and a Sufi. When he had a massive heart attack and needed surgery, as he was going under anesthesia, instead of counting down from 100, he counted off the names of his children because this reminded him of his purpose and meaning, his reason to live.

But how do we reframe our experiences to be redemptive? That Smith finds a way forward, and a way to frame her own story through the stories of others underscores that our own stories are not solely our own; our stories are interwoven with the stories of others. Through hearing, listening, and sharing others’ stories, we come to tell our own stories in new ways, to reframe our own stories to create more redemptive meanings.

Research from the Family Narratives Lab indicates that family stories, stories of our parents and grandparents, may be especially effective in providing models of how to live a meaningful life. Adolescents and young adults who know more stories and more coherent and detailed stories about their parents growing up and their family history show higher levels of self-esteem, less anxiety, and, yes, higher levels of meaning and purpose in life. Why might this be?

Stories are how we understand human experience and make sense of what can sometimes be senseless events. Stories provide coherent frameworks for expressing values and ideals. And family stories may be especially important because adolescents and young adults identify with their family members.

Even when they might not be getting along, this is the family in which one is embedded and has shared a life. When adolescents hear stories about family members struggling with difficult times and challenges and obstacles, they learn that life is not always about the good times; it is about striving for something better, fighting for beliefs, and overcoming the odds.

Storytelling is one of the pillars of building a meaningful life because stories are, at heart, about meaning and connection. Our personal stories live within a world of stories, stories of distant others, friends, and family. We can create meaningful stories for ourselves because we have meaningful stories about others as models and inspiration.

And in telling our stories, we help others create meaning in their lives. And it starts in the family. Family storytelling, even of the mundane experiences of our lives, weaves lives of connection, meaning, and purpose. Happiness may come and go, but stories live forever.


Smith, E. E. (2017). The power of meaning: Finding fulfillment in a world obsessed with happiness. Crown.

McAdams, D. P. (2015). The redemptive self: Generativity and the stories Americans live by. In Research in human development (pp. 81-100). Psychology Press.

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