Heritage Day is a day of reflection. A time when South African’s look on their shared past. We celebrate the diversity and traditions that underpin our nation.
If remembering our country’s heritage is important – what about an individual’s heritage? Do our own stories matter? Do they impact our future? Or is the telling of an individual’s story a mere lamenting or celebrating of a memory and nothing more?
Psychologists, within a burgeoning field of psychology known as Narrative Psychology, say that in the same way that the many and varied tales of our country’s triumphs and travails shape the prospects we hold for its future, so our personal heritage – the story we tell of our individual past – shapes the person we become in the future.
Making Sense of Life
According to Jonathan Adler, an assistant professor of psychology at Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, “Life is incredibly complex, there are lots of things going on in our environment and in our lives at all times. And in order to hold onto our experience, we need to make meaning out of it. The way we do that is by structuring our lives into stories”. It is therefore not surprising that the default mode of human cognition and communication is a narrative, storytelling, one.
It’s important to remember that any narrative creation, historical or autobiographical, contains biases, opinions and even untruths. The reality is personal differences and emotions lead people to see the same event in different ways. What really matters is whether people are making something meaningful and coherent out of what happened. It’s not so much about the truth in the legal sense.
Dr Dan McAdams, a psychology professor at North Western University in Illinois, has spent the past decade studying stories. He takes the view of structuring life into stories, to better understand the complexities of life, a step further. McAdams surmises that “Life stories do not simply reflect personality. They are personality, or more accurately, they are important parts of personality, along with other parts, like dispositional traits, goals, and values”.
The Impact of Your Story
“For better or worse, stories are a very powerful source of self-persuasion, and they are highly internally consistent,” says Dr John Holmes, a psychology professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Thus, the stories we tell about ourselves have a strong sway over our future.
In studies conducted by McAdams and colleagues, it was found that people whose personal stories featured a redemptive thread, where good prevails over misfortune, were found to score higher on the Generativity Scale. This tool measures the desire to promote the wellbeing of future generations and make the world a better place. They also tended to be happier people.
Essentially, how we tell our personal stories could determine our trajectory in life. The more positive you are in how you tell your story, the more likely you are to be happy overall. Furthermore, it has also been shown that negative self-talk has an all-around health impact. It can even determine how one is able to deal with stress. Researchers reason that the health benefits of having a positive life perception could impact:
- the span of your life.
- how resistant you are to illnesses such as the common cold.
- your psychological wellbeing.
- cardiovascular health.
Bridging Gaps through Reflection
By reflecting on our own heritage and cultural background then sharing it with others with a different heritage, we create the opportunity to find common ground.
No one is an island. Our own life stories are contextualised within a community setting, communities in turn make up the building blocks of the country we live in. Because how we tell our own narrative will determine how we feel about ourselves, it will also impact the way in which we engage with our community and its heritage. Understanding your own communities’ heritage and celebrating it enables better connections moreover creating stronger unity within a community. Whether our community thrives or battles can determine the overall bigger picture of a country.
The stories we tell ourselves, and the power those stories have, is one of the core facets of the study of psychology. If this interests you, consider studying a psychology course at SACAP. You can use it as a springboard for pursuing a career in psychology, or apply the skills you learn in any number of other career paths. For more information, enquire now.