Narrative Self-Identity and Eudaimonic Growth
Or: How Our Life Stories Foster
UD Magazine article on life stories, meaning, and happiness: Your Story, Your Life
Research Project 2015-2017:
• construct a narrative self-identity that fosters development
in the self and others?
Personal Growth and Scientific Psychology
Eudaimonic Well-Being and Growth
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:
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.
Growth Narratives and Eudaimonic Well-Being
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
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
Major Life Decisions
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)
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
Self-Actualization: Where Maturity = Happiness?
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
Meaning-Making amid 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).