Can you see yourself as Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen of the Hunger Games? Or maybe you would don a suit like Black Panther or Spiderman, if given the chance? Ben Rogers, a behavioral economist, wanted to know what would happen if ordinary people told their life stories in the arc of the hero’s journey, a timeless narrative of many blockbuster films and bestselling novels. In a series of 14 studies, he and his colleagues found that the more people thought of their own life as a hero’s journey, the more meaning they experienced in life.
Rogers, who has been interested in screenwriting since high school, drew from the mid-20th century mythologist Joseph Campbell, who theorized that all mythic narratives follow the same plotline, which he referred to as the hero’s journey. In the hero’s journey, the main character experiences a life disruption, begins a quest, meets friends, encounters obstacles, and transforms themselves before returning home to share what they have learned to challenge others. In addition to Marvel movies or fantasy novels, many ancient stories like Beowulf and Gilgamesh follow the same basic pattern.
Researchers created a new survey representing the hero’s journey and measured participant responses alongside several surveys on meaning in life and well-being. Participants also told their life story in their own words, which researchers analyzed for elements of the hero’s journey.
When Rogers found a relationship between how people told their life story and how meaningful it felt, he was curious if he could boost the effect. So he and his colleagues developed an intervention to help participants reframe their life narratives along the arc of the hero’s journey. In the next phase of experiments, participants took the survey and wrote about their life in their own words both before and after following prompts on how to tell their story.
The intervention worked! Compared with non-participants, people who characterized their lives more like the hero’s journey seemed more resilient in how they saw life’s challenges.
Dan McAdams, a co-author and psychologist who developed a narrative identity model in the 1980s, said for a theoretical study to accomplish what it set out to do is surprising. “You’re always surprised when it works out. A lot of times, you have these great ideas and you’re sure it is going to work, and the data doesn’t cooperate with you,” he said. “It’s pretty cool that in this case that did not happen.”
The hero’s journey predicted meaningfulness better than seven other attributes that have already been found to predict meaning in life. “We’re not just packaging things we already know,” Rogers said. “We’re tapping into something unique.”
While the results are promising, the hero’s journey may or may not be a story that resonates for everyone. If Campbell were alive, he might say that the hero’s journey is universal—recognizable globally and across time. However, McAdams cautions that narratives may not have exactly the same importance across all cultures.
“We’ve been raised in a certain mythos, and we appropriate these stories and match our lived experience to them in one way or another,”
said McAdams, who wrote a book about a narrative he calls the “redemptive self,” which closely relates to the hero’s journey. In the redemptive self, typically middle-aged adults reconstruct their life story as one where they realize their advantages in a dark world and view their own suffering as an avenue for growth or for channeling into something positive.
McAdams has come to realize that the “redemptive self” narrative is an American story. “When I first started doing the [book], I thought it was universal. I gave this talk at a conference in the Netherlands about how highly generative adults tell this story,” he recalled. “In the Q&A, one of the researchers said, ‘it sounds so American.’ On the flight home, I decided that she was probably right.”
But Rogers also sees how the hero’s journey shows up in the stories of many cultures, not just in Western cultures. “Across blockbuster movies and thousands of years, the form is a popular one.” He feels the hero’s journey may be one of several master narratives that are told across multiple cultures even as there might be cultural nuances to understand. For example, in the U.S. the solo hero might appear more often than group quests, which might appear in more community-oriented cultures.
Not many psychologists turn to mythology or literature to understand people’s lives, yet Rogers points out that titans like Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud readily borrowed concepts from mythology. Moreover, he feels that science can empirically test claims from mythology or literature scholars.
One work that brings modern computing to bear on mythology, is a 2016 MIT study that Rogers considers “formative.” After analyzing 1,700 stories with data mining techniques, researchers found six basic emotional arcs of storytelling, somewhat like Kurt Vonnegut’s famous account of story shapes. While the findings don’t map one-to-one onto the way Rogers or McAdams have conceptualized stories, they both concur that there are “master cultural” stories that can be quantified. “Those patterns actually allow scientists to predict things about people,” said Rogers.
“Is there a cultural narrative structure that people are likely to have an emotional resonance to?” If your life story matches a culturally important narrative like the hero’s journey, it could have valuable psychological benefits like finding more meaning in life.
Perhaps some cultures put less emphasis on the hero’s journey than other narratives, such as the popularity of the tragedy in Russian literature. For example, if a traumatic experience is a central part of one’s life, would seeing how it fits the arc of a tragedy make it more meaningful? Would that make more sense in Russia versus the United States? Rogers and McAdams said these cultural narratives are ripe for analysis, too.
McAdams feels that academic psychology often fails to tap into the lived experiences of people the way that a life narrative can. “When I started doing this work, nobody had any interest in stories. Thirty years later, it’s just so thrilling that people take this stuff seriously.”
McAdams would like to see the science of narrative psychology trickle down into social interventions that help people frame moments in their lives in new ways. For example, several of his studies show promising opportunities. High school students could be taught how to frame their failures in redemptive terms. Redemptive stories may also help social groups reconcile after wrongdoing by building empathy for the other’s experience. And of course, Rogers’ approach to rewriting your life story is a starting point for developing therapeutic interventions around a powerful cultural narrative.