Editing Your Life's Stories Can Create Happier Endings
It was a rainy night in October when my nephew Lewis passed the Frankenstein statue standing in front of a toy store. The 2 1/2-year-old boy didn't see the monster at first, and when he turned around, he was only inches from Frankenstein's green face, bloodshot eyes and stitched-up skin.
The 4-foot-tall monster terrified my nephew so much that he ran deep into the toy store. And on the way back out, he simply couldn't face the statue. He jumped into his mother's arms and had to bury his head in her shoulder.
For hours after the incident, Lewis was stuck. He kept replaying the image of Frankenstein's face in his mind. "Mom, remember Frankenstein?" he asked over and over again. He and his mom talked about how scary the statue was, how Lewis had to jump into her arms. It was "like a record loop," my sister said.
But then, suddenly, Lewis' story completely changed. My sister was recounting the tale to the family: how they left the store, how they had to walk by Frankenstein. And then — "I peed on him!!" Lewis blurted out triumphantly, with a glint in his eyes.
In that instant, Lewis had overpowered Frankenstein — if only in his mind.
"Well, your nephew is a brilliant story editor,'" says psychologist Tim Wilson of the University of Virginia.
Wilson has been studying how small changes in a person's own stories and memories can help with emotional health. He calls the process "story editing." And he says small tweaks in the interpretation of life events can reap huge benefits.
This process is essentially what happens during months, or years, of therapy. But Wilson has discovered ways you can change your story in only about 45 minutes.
Wilson first stumbled on the technique back in the early 1980s, when he found that a revised story helped college students who were struggling academically. "I'm bad at school" was the old story many of them were telling themselves. That story leads to a self-defeating cycle that keeps them struggling, Wilson says.
The new story Wilson gave them was: "Everyone fails at first." He introduced the students to this idea by having them read accounts from other students who had struggled with grades at first and then improved. It was a 40-minute intervention that had effects three years later.
"The ones who got our little story-editing nudge improved their grades, whereas the others didn't," Wilson says. "And to our surprise ... those who got our story-editing intervention were more likely to stay in college. The people in the control group were more likely to drop out."
Similar interventions have also helped students feel like they fit in socially at college and have helped parents to stop abusing their kids.
The idea is that if you believe you are something else — perhaps smarter, more socially at ease — you can allow for profound changes to occur.
You can even try story-editing yourself at home with these writing exercises. Simply pick a troubling event. And write about it for 15 minutes each day for four days. That's it.
These exercises have been shown to help relieve mental anguish, improve health and increase attendance at work.
No one is sure why the approach works. But Wilson's theory is that trying to understand why a painful event happened is mentally consuming. People get stuck in thinking, "Why did he leave me?" or "Why was she so disappointed in me?" Or for Lewis, "Where did that scary Frankenstein face come from?"
As you write about the troubling, confusing event again and again, eventually you begin to make sense of it. You can put those consuming thoughts to rest.
So as you look forward to changing yourself this year, consider looking back on whatever your Frankensteins may be. And if you squint your eyes a little and turn your head just a bit, you may see that your leg was lifted. That maybe you did pee on him after all.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.
For many Americans, today is a reset day. We look at our waistlines, our drinking habits, maybe how much we're getting done on that secret dream project, and we commit to do better in the New Year, to finally step into the selves we've always wanted to be.
This next story is about a technique that could help. It involves telling yourself slightly altered personal stories. Turns out, editing your own life story can result in huge changes in your behavior, from health and self-control to performance at work and school.
NPR's Lulu Miller reports.
LULU MILLER, BYLINE: Before I heard about this technique from a research psychologist, I heard about it from my nephew.
MILLER: He's four and a half. His name is Lewis. And what happened is this. When he was two and a half, he happened to encounter a thing that terrified him, a four-foot tall statue of Frankenstein.
ALEXA: Do you remember that time we saw the Frankenstein in the toy store?
MILLER: That's his mom, my sister, Alexa.
LEWIS: I think I do.
MILLER: The statue was standing just outside of a toy store. And Lewis was so startled by it that - take it away, Alexa.
ALEXA: He ran deep into the store and he had this expression on his face that I have very rarely seen in his almost five years of being alive. It was like shock.
MILLER: Of course, now he had a problem. To leave the store he was going to have to walk by the Frankenstein again. So he steeled himself, he held his mother's hand, and they walked closer and closer. And then he just...
ALEXA: Jumped into my arms...
ALEXA: ...and he kind of put his head into my shoulder. Then we left the store.
MILLER: And she said that after that...
ALEXA: He was really rattled. Really, really rattled.
MILLER: They had to make a four-hour car ride.
ALEXA: And the entire car ride, he just said, over and over - hey, Mom, do you remember the Frankenstein? And I'd say yeah. And then he'd be quiet for a little bit and then it would just start over. Hey, Mom, do you remember the Frankenstein? Do you remember that? Do you remember that? He was so stuck on it.
MILLER: Again and again, he told the story of running past Frankenstein in fear. Sometimes he'd make his mom tell it back to him.
ALEXA: Frankenstein, the Frankenstein, the Frankenstein.
MILLER: And then, after likely hundreds of retellings, suddenly something funny happened.
ALEXA: He jumps in and said, and I pooped on the Frankenstein.
ALEXA: And then I peed on the Frankenstein.
MILLER: She said his face was pure delight.
ALEXA: You know, it became not a story about how scared he was but it became a story about how he overpowered it.
MILLER: And that was the Frankenstein story that lasted.
LEWIS: And I pooped on it.
TIM WILSON: Well, my main thought is your nephew is a brilliant story editor. What a nice turn of narrative.
MILLER: This is Tim Wilson, the aforementioned peer reviewed psychologist.
WILSON: I am a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.
MILLER: And I took this story to him because, well, teaching people to pee on Frankenstein is basically what he does for a living.
WILSON: Yeah, sure.
MILLER: He calls it technique Story Editing.
WILSON: Story Editing.
MILLER: But the principle is the same. The idea is that bad stories can actually bring you down; stories like I'll never succeed or nobody likes me or I'm a coward.
WILSON: That's unfortunately self-reinforcing, that once you say that to yourself it's very hard to get out of it.
MILLER: But if you tweak a story like that just a little bit...
LEWIS: I pooped on it.
MILLER: ...it can help you get out of a place of fear or unhappiness or defeat.
WILSON: A little tweak to our story can go a long way to changing what we do and how happy we are. And there are, you know, for those of us who aren't as clever as your nephew and are struggling with events, there are writing exercises that I think do just that. They allow us to find a different meaning in something that's bothering us in ways that we can put it behind us.
MILLER: And that, says Wilson, is the first step toward recovery: making sense of a negative outcome. And back in the 1980s, Wilson discovered how profoundly a simple writing exercise - seriously, ones that take less than 40 minutes - can help. In that study he watched as a new story helped college students...
WILSON: Improve their grades.
MILLER: And though his research interests have since changed, ever since then he's been keeping track of whenever a Story Editing intervention was successful. And recently he complied all these examples into a book called "Redirect," which reads as a sort of "Ripley's Believe It or Not" of Story Editing. Story Editing interventions that can help parents stop abusing their kids. Story Editing that can reduce violence, depression, drug abuse.
WILSON: And let me give you another example, if I may.
MILLER: Social belonging. In this study, two Stanford professors did an intervention with college freshmen - men and women, white and minority. The researchers knew that freshmen often have trouble connecting socially on campus, especially minority students. And the researchers also knew that the kids tended to blame themselves for their problems.
WILSON: I just said to these students, hey, you know what, a lot of people experience social difficulties at first. A lot of people have trouble making a lot of friends at first, and it's a natural part of the college process.
MILLER: What they did is have the students read accounts written by older students who'd had a hard time fitting in at first, but then ended up happy.
WILSON: And I actually ask them to make a speech for high school students.
MILLER: Describing what they just learned.
WILSON: So that incoming students know to expect that it might be a little rough at first.
MILLER: And that was basically it. One intervention less than an hour-long, in which the students were simply asked to consider a different story; that having no friends at first is normal.
WILSON: It was fascinating. It led to a remarkable turnaround. They did better academically. Three years later, if they had gotten this intervention, they were actually healthier than the control group that didn't. I think it's another one of these little Story Editing nudges that seems trivial but its self-reinforcing. And it just cascades in a positive way down the road.
MILLER: Now, if you want to try this at home, simply Google the name James Pennebaker. He's a psychologist at UT Austin who's another one of the pioneers of this work. And up on his website, he's got a bunch of exercises you can do to try this yourself.
WILSON: Typically in the Pennebaker writing technique, you write for three or four nights in a row - maybe 15 minutes each time - about a particular problem. And you just write about your deepest feelings. You try to open up and just write freely about what it is.
MILLER: And that's all you do. You pick a troubling event and write everything you can about it for 15 minutes for four days.
WILSON: We know that from many, many experiments that randomly assign people to do this or to a control condition that doesn't is that on average it is helpful. We know that college students who do this don't go to the health services much. Workers who do it have better attendance records. There's lots and lots of data.
MILLER: The way that this seems to work is that as people write about this troubling, confusing event again and again, eventually they begin to make some new sense of it.
WILSON: By the end of it, they have constructed a new narrative. They've found some new meaning in the event. They've looked at it in a different angle. They've, in a way, tied it up so that it doesn't prey on them as much.
MILLER: Which brings me back to my nephew. I can report that as of Thanksgiving 2013, Lewis is unafraid of Frankenstein. My sister actually tested. She pulled up a photo of that same green, bolted-face...
ALEXA: Alright, ready?
MILLER: ...to see how Lewis would react.
LEWIS: He doesn't look scary.
MILLER: A self-confidence...
MILLER: ...that is built on an act of imagination. He didn't pee on Frankenstein. He cowered like a little baby in his mother's arms.
WILSON: But what's the harm? If it conquers the fear and doesn't lead to maladaptive behaviors in the future, I see no problem with it.
MILLER: A little lie can go a long way.
LEWIS: Bye, Frankenstein
MILLER: Lulu Miller, NPR News, Washington.
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CORNISH: For writing exercises to help you edit your own story, visit our health news blog, Shots, at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.