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Jack Bauer, PhD
Professor
Department of Psychology
University of Dayton
Dayton, OH 45469
(937) 229-2617

 

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Research:

Narrative Self-Identity and Eudaimonic Growth

Or: How Our Life Stories Foster Human Flourishing

“Our lives are shaped by our minds. We become what we think”
–Buddha

UD Magazine article on life stories, meaning, and happiness: Your Story, Your Life

Research Project 2015-2017:
Eudaimonic Growth & the Development of Virtue

What follows:
Overview and theoretical background
Findings from my research
Current research and future directions

Overview
I am primarily interested in how people construct an understanding of their lives (especially in their life stories) that fosters what I call "eudaimonic growth"—the development of qualities in life like happiness, wisdom, and love...and not just for themselves but for others as well. My research addresses the questions: How do people...

• construct a narrative self-identity that fosters development in the self and others?
• create a richly meaningful, happy life for the self and others?
• transcend egotism?
• interpret their past (i.e., their memories)?
• plan their future (i.e., their goals)?
• make and adapt to major life transitions?

Personal Growth and Scientific Psychology
Never in the course of human history have so many individuals had as much opportunity to shape their own lives as they do today. Yet the field of psychology has generated relatively little scientific understanding of this process. Psychology has historically viewed the individual's personality as created by forces outside the individual's intentions, namely nature (biology, genes) and nurture (family, peers, culture). However, a growing body of rigorous, empirical research is examining how the individual person can uniquely contribute to his or her own development.

Eudaimonic Well-Being and Growth
Eudaimonia and eudaimonic well-being are terms that refer to the "good life"—not in the sense of having merely material goods but in terms of a more meaningful sense of happiness. Eudaimonic well-being involves more than just pleasure or hedonic happiness. While eudaimonic well-being can be defined many ways, it generally involves some form of meaning, growth, vitality, taking others' perspectives, or wisdom (see Deci & Ryan, 2008). Some researchers define eudaimonic well-being in terms of what I call "meaningfulness"--that is, being satisfied with various sources of meaning in life, one's personal growth, purpose in life, autonomy, relationships, etc. (see Ryff & Singer, 2008). I take the perspective that eudaimonic well-being involves not only subjective meaningfulness but also a heightened capacity to think complexly and integratively about the self and others. In other words, I define eudaimonic well-being as a combination of hedonic happiness and psychosocial maturity (Bauer, McAdams, & Pals, 2008; see also King & Hicks, 2007). There are pros and cons to both, and I view these perspectives as two among several good definitions for the scientific study of eudaimonic well-being.

I am particularly interested in the development of eudaimonic well-being—that is, increases in both maturity and happiness, which I have called eudaimonic growth (Bauer, 2008; Bauer & McAdams, 2010). Fostering eudaimonic growth is not easy, partly because greater capacities for psychosocial maturity typically do not correlate with happiness (see Bauer, McAdams, & Sakaeda, 2005). In other words, people who can think complexly about their lives are just as likely to be happy or unhappy. So one must foster two kinds of personal growth in order to foster eudaimonic growth.

I have argued that these two kinds of personal growth are part of two broad paths of personality development—one toward happiness and well-being, the other toward psychosocial maturity (Bauer & McAdams, 2004a). In this sense, eudaimonic growth is a matter of eudaimonic personality development—a kind of optimal or well-balanced personality development at that (Bauer, 2008, in press). I am particularly interested in how people intentionally cultivate high degrees of both happiness and maturity.

So how do people attain happiness and maturity in life? Aristotle said that luck and leisure are necessary (and research supports this to a degree; one needs food and shelter before happiness typically arises). But beyond that, happiness and meaning in life are largely matters of interpretation--of how we interpret and make sense of our lives.

How We Interpret & Plan Our Lives: Narrative Identity
What is narrative identity? People think about and create meaning in their lives by constructing life stories (Bruner, 1990; McAdams, 1985, 2001; Singer, 2004; Taylor, 1989). These stories create a sense of personal identity, or what's called narrative identity. Like stories in fiction, a life story revolves around particular themes, like power and love. However, a life story is not "fiction" (though its degrees of historical truth may vary). A life story guides a person's actions and sets an interpretive foundation for psychological health, life decisions (such as what career we pursue and whether/whom we marry), and other very real things in a person's life.

How is it studied? Personal narratives, more than any other source of data, open a window to how people make sense of their lives--and notably how people foster personal growth or not. By coding personal narratives according to well-defined forms of growth-oriented thinking, my colleagues and I transform qualitative (narrative) data into quantitative (numerical) data. We then compare these data with various measures of personality development. For a sampling of this kind of research, see the Journal of Personality special issue on narrative identity and meaning-making (June 2004).

Growth narratives. Growth can serve as a dominant theme in a person's narrative identity. I have called such narratives "growth stories" (e.g., Bauer et al., 2008). Growth stories are personal narratives that emphasize development. A growth story can be a narrative of the past (a growth memory) or of the anticipated future (a growth goal). For example, in a growth memory, a person might say, "It was important because I learned something about myself" or "...because our relationship grew" (deepened, etc.). My research has shown that people whose narrative identity emphasizes growth stories--i.e., interpreting and planning one's life in terms of growth--attain higher levels of eudaimonic personality development.

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FINDINGS FROM MY RESEARCH

Growth Narratives and Eudaimonic Well-Being
Growth Memories. My colleagues and I have found that two kinds of growth memories—integrative memories and intrinsic memories—relate to psychosocial maturity and well-being, respectively (Bauer & McAdams,2004b; Bauer, McAdams, & Sakaeda, 2005a). The findings suggest that, on the one hand, people who interpret episodes in their past as important because they learned or integrated new information about their lives have higher capacities for psychosocial maturity (measured as ego development; see Loevinger, 1976). On the other hand, people who interpret past events as important for internally motived, prosocial reasons (like personal growth, meaningful relationships,and contributing to society or future generations) have higher levels of well-being, compared to people who think past events were important because the events gained them status, money, or other forms of approval (based on Sheldon & Kasser, 1995).

Growth Goals. My colleagues and I have also found that two kinds of growth goals—intellectual-growth goals and socioemotional-growth goals (formerly called exploratory and intrinsic)—relate to maturity and well-being, respectively (Bauer & McAdams, 2004a). In other words, people who plan for a future of exploration and learning score higher on measures of maturity. People who plan for a future filled primarily with concerns for experiential growth have higher levels of well-being than people who plan primarily for more materialistic or extrinsic reasons.

Hierarchies of growth goals. People were especially likely to have higher levels of meaning-making and happiness (Bauer & McAdams, 2004a) if their major-life growth goals matched their everyday growth goals. One likely explanation for this is that the shorter-term everyday goals may have helped these people implement their longer-term major life goals (see Gollwitzer & Brandstatter, 1997).

Growth Goals and Eudaimonic Growth. We found that people with intellectual-growth goals showed increases in maturity three years later, whereas people with socioemotional-growth goals showed increases in happiness three years later (Bauer & McAdams, 2010). This is the first study of which we are aware to demonstrate that growth goals (or any kind of goal, for that matter) predict increases in both maturity and happiness (i.e., eudaimonic growth) longitudinally.

Might all this be due to how positive or negative a person is in general? No, not in my research. This is an important question for the study of personal growth. In my research, people's degrees of negativity/anxiety or positivity/extraversion had little or (typically) no effect on the findings reported here. In other words, something about they way people plan their lives may well be independent from supposedly basic personality traits and has a relation to how people's lives turn out.

What about money? The findings above were also true regardless of people's income level, which supports the vast majority of research on happiness (Myers, 2000). (Beyond the poverty level, increases in income tend not to correspond to increases in happiness.) The American Dream of striving toward ever-newer cars and ever-bigger houses is one we would be better to wake up from (see Kasser & Kanner, 2004). Pursuing such a dream as a primary aim in life may have its roots in trying to make up for more personally meaningful things that have been lacking in our lives (Kasser & Ryan, 1993).

Conclusions. These findings suggest that specific ways of planning the future and interpreting the past correspond to specific paths of personality development. People who emphasize the importance of cognitive growth in their lives are likely to develop the capacity to think complexly and integratively about the self and others—but they won't necessarily be any happier. In contrast, people who emphasize the importance of experiential growth (rather than status, approval, and money) in their lives are likely to develop higher levels of happiness and well-being—but they won't necessarily think more complexly or integratively about the self and others.

Growth Isn't Just for the Young
The good life, like good wine, may take some aging (Sheldon & Kasser, 2001). Greater capacities for meaning-making require years of experience, among other things (Erikson, 1950; Loevinger, 1993). And recent research has shown that older adults have higher levels of well-being than younger adults (e.g., Mroczek & Kolarz, 1998). My colleagues and I have found in two studies that older adults have higher levels of life satisfaction, and marginally higher capacities for meaning-making, than younger adults. But older adults were also more likely than younger adults to have growth-oriented goals and memories. In fact, growth goals and growth memories explained much of the relationship between chronological age and the good life (Bauer & McAdams, 2004a; Bauer et al., 2005). In other words, the good life seemed not to depend on age as much as one whether people interpreted and planned their lives in terms of growth. A second twist on these findings—as well as a second reading of previously published data elsewhere—demonstrates that, contrary to popular belief, older adults are indeed focused on growth, not just maintenance and decline (Bauer & Park, 2010).

Growth Motivation
Much of the research that I describe above and below focuses on growth themes in personal narratives. But narrative research is resource-intensive; it takes more time and money than survey research that uses scale measures (i.e., that asks participants to rate on a scale of, say, 1-7 how much each given statement applies to them). So in the past few years my colleagues and I have developed a scale measure of growth motivation, called the Growth Motivation Index (GMI). It measures the degree to which people do things for the purpose of fostering personal growth. It is supposed to capture some of what my measures of growth narratives capture, but in a fraction of the time. It has cognitive and experiential subscales that map onto maturity- and happiness-related measures much as the growth narratives do (Bauer et al., 2014).

My former master's student, Sun Park, played many important roles in developing the GMI. He has used it in something like 15 studies in the past two years (I lose track). Among his many findings with the GMI, he has found that growth motivation attenuates the self-serving bias (Park, Bauer, & Arbuckle, in press). Research generally demonstrates that people with high levels of self-reported self-esteem are more likely than those with lower self-esteem to accept responsibility for failure. Why? To keep their high self-esteem inflated. However, Sun has found that this isn't the case for people with high levels of growth motivation. People with high growth motivation are likely to take responsibility for failure, regardless of their levels of self-esteem. Why? So they can learn from their mistakes and grow.

Growth-Minded Changes in Careers & Religions
My colleagues and I have also studied personal growth during major changes in different life domains (domains such as love/relationships, work, and spirituality/religion). In a study of people who either changed careers or changed religions (Bauer & McAdams, 2004b), we found that people who changed religions were more likely than career changers to tell stories that emphasized conceptual meaning-making (noting that meaning-making is one of religion's primary purposes). However, not all transition stories reflected the qualities of their respective social institutions (i.e., work culture and religions). For example, even though work culture praises the success of the individual, career changers who emphasized individual growth and success did not have higher levels of well-being. In contrast, those who emphasized interpersonal growth and work-related friendships did have higher well-being (personally and professionally).

Major Life Decisions
Life-changing decisions guide the broad contours of a life course, so I pay special attention to how people make these decisions. It has been proposed that people only decide to make a major life change after they’ve reached a “crystallization of discontent” (Baumeister, 1994). In other words, only when people come to the realization that the negatives in a life situation (one’s career, one’s marriage, etc.) outweigh the positives do they decide to change things. However, I have proposed that sometimes people make major life decisions when they realize not just what they want to escape in the past, but what they want to move toward in the future. In other words, some people reach a “crystallization of desire." In two studies so far, my colleagues and I have found that people who based their life decisions on a crystallization of desire had higher levels of well-being than those who based thier decisions on a crystallization of discontent (Bauer, McAdams, & Sakaeda, 2005b). It is important to realize that people can base decisions on a crystallization of desire even in the most difficult of circumstances; what matters is how the individual interprets the options for the decision.

Transcending Self-Interest
Egotism can be found just about anywhere you see a human. And for years the field of psychology has preached the virtues of a strong sense of self. But a growing body of research is showing that the benefits of self-promotion and individualistic self-interest are limited. In a nutshell, the quiet ego is characteristic of people who strike a balance between the self and other and who strive for the development of happiness, wisdom, and maturity of the self and other (Bauer & Wayment, 2008). Dr. Heidi Wayment (Northern Arizona University) and I edited a book on this topic published in 2008, called Transcending Self-Interest: Psychological Perspectives on the Quiet Ego. Most of the lead authors in it participated in The Quiet Ego Conference, which Heidi and I held in Flagstaff, Arizona.

In my own work on this topic, I look to Loevinger's (1976) theory and measure of ego development as a barometer of a quiet (note: not weak) ego (Bauer, 2008). At each successive level of ego development, the individual has a greater capacity to understand and incorporate other people's viewpoints into one's own--among other qualities of a quiet ego. I have found that higher levels of ego development correlate with transcendent insights in people's life stories. Transcendent insights are one component of integrative growth stories. A transcendent insight involves an identification with a heightened knowledge of self as unified with something much bigger than the self--society, humanity, spirit. In fact, similar to findings above, transcendent insights in life stories predicted increases in stages of ego development three years later (Bauer & McAdams, APA talk).

Self-Actualization: Where Maturity = Happiness?
Several stage theories of psychosocial maturity posit a highest stage of development that, according to the theorists themselves, parallels Maslow's (1968) stage of self-actualization (Fowler, 1981; Kegan, 1982; Loevinger, 1976). Notably, Maslow characterized self-actualization as the pinnacle of psychological health and well-being. This creates a problem, because (1) the theories deal with increasing capacities to think complexly and integratively about the self and other and NOT with well-being and, (2) appropriately, scientific measures of maturity stages do not correlate with measures of well-being, as noted earlier. In other words, maturity is not supposed to deal with well-being, and it doesn't. As a result, we have neither theoretical nor empirical reason to think that, after stages and stages of not correlating with well-being, psychosocial maturity should, in its final stage, coincide with well-being. Either the theorists are wrong in claiming that their highest stage is akin to self-actualization or something mysterious happens with well-being upon reaching the summit (or at least summit we can measure) of psychosocial development.

My colleagues and I recently re-analyzed datasets that were published previously, this time isolating those few people who scored at the highest stage of Loevinger's measure of ego development, comparing them to people scoring at all other stages, and seeing if the former group had statistically higher levels of well-being. Across three studies total, only 8 of 320 participants scored at the highest stage (the Integrated stage). We found that these participants indeed had higher levels of well-being than did participants at all other stages (Bauer et al., 2011). Their personal narratives also involved a greater emphasis on personal growth than did the others' narratives. Now, it's very important to interpret these findings with caution; so few people scored at the highest stage. However, if these findings do speak to how maturity and well-being actually work, we now must figure out why and how psychosocial maturity suddenly involves a boost in well-being? One possibility is that the person becomes comfortable with thinking about life in terms of processes, feels less of a need to define oneself in terms of permanent products and outcomes and achievements--and thereby transcends self-interest even more--and accepts life as it is as good (as in Erik Erikson's notion of ego integrity).

Gratitude and Well-Being
Gratitude plays an essential role not only in human relations but also in personal growth and the cultivation of the good life (Solomon, 2004). In the project on voluntary life changes reported earlier, we found that people who expressed gratitude in their life stories had much higher levels of well-being than people who did not (McAdams & Bauer, 2004). Interestingly, this was especially true for career changers, but not religion changers. In fact, the overt expression of gratitude was the strongest predictor of well-being for career changers--stronger than forging relationships, and stronger than doing what one loves.

Meaning-Making amid Loss
My grad school advisor, Dr. George Bonnano, and I have also investigated the stories of people who experienced a particularly difficult, involuntary life transition: the death of a spouse in mid-life. We examined these stories for various patterns of self-evaluation. Narratives gathered at 6 months post-loss were compared with measures of adaptation at 6 months, 1 year, and 2 years post-loss.

Positivity and negativity. People who expressed an optimal level of positive and negative self-evaluations adapted best (Bauer & Bonanno, 2001a). As common sense would suggest, people who had many negative things to say about themselves adapted more poorly. However, people who had no negative things to say about their lives adapted just as poorly as people who had many negative things to say. People who made approximately 5 positive self-evaluations for every 1 negative self-evaluation adapted best at 6 months, 1 year, and 2 years after the loss (see also Gottman, 1994; Pennebaker & Segal, 1998).

Actions v. characteristics. People who evaluated their actions ("I do") more so than their broad characteristics ("I am") adapted better over time (Bauer & Bonanno, 2001a; see also Janoff-Bulman, 1992; Neidenthal et al., 1994; Zirkel & Cantor, 1990). The reason for this may have been that, during times of loss, focusing on concrete activities may be more adaptive than mulling over one’s life in general. However, the picture wasn’t that simple...

Linking actions and characteristics. People who made connections between their actions and their broad characteristics adapted particularly well (e.g., “I am happy; I do fun things"; Bauer & Bonanno, 2001a). The reason for this may have been that linking concrete actions and abstract characteristics provides an exceptionally strong form of meaning making: People can then view their actions as part of broader meanings in life, while simultaneously validating those broader meanings in the everyday world of actions.

Self-efficacy. People who expressed a sense of feeling capable (“I can…”) adapted particularly well, even beyond the effects of thinking one did things well and thinking one is a good person (Bauer & Bonanno, 2001b). The sense of “being able” serves as a source of resilience during times of difficult change (Bandura, 1997).

Continuity and growth. Finally, in a purely qualitative analysis we found that, despite the great discontintuities in one's life created by the death of a spouse, most people were able to weave the death into the continued fabric of their life overall (Bauer & Bonanno, 2001c). Several people viewed this continuity as also involving transformation--that they grew as a person in various ways as a result of the death, difficult as the loss was. This finding supports recent research on bereavement and posttraumatic growth (Bauer, 2003; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004).

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Current Interests
In upcoming research I will be expanding the above ideas to include:
• Transdisciplinary study of eudaimonia
• Growth versus recovery narratives
• Narratives and neuroscience
• Personal strategies & sublter processes of personal growth
• Buddhism and psychology, e.g., cultivating a predisposition for acting and reacting based on wisdom, peace, and compassion
• Higher stages of personality development (beyond self-actualization as typically studied)

Interested?
Perhaps you are interested in this research and want to exchange ideas? Or perhaps you're a student interested in working on such projects? Please feel free to contact me at jack.bauer@udayton.edu.

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