Who Are We? How To Tell Powerful Stories

Margarita Tarragona – photo credit University of Pennsylvania

We are the stars of our lives with action always happening around us. With so many stories to choose from, selecting what to tell ourselves and others can seem difficult, but the stories we tell have a profound effect on our lives. So how can we create our best narratives?

Maragarita Terragona, PhD; positive psychology expert, helps us mine the gold in our lives. Her book Positive Identities: Narrative Practices and Positive Psychology includes six-weeks of thoughtful exercises to help us create engaging, positive stories. Terragona said, “The way we story our experiences can limit our options or expand our possibilities. As a therapist, I love to see positive stories working and how changing our stories is so powerful.”

Tarragona teaches us to live our “preferred identity” (living according to what we believe and value) to create a “dominant story” and this shapes our identity. For instance, if your dominant story is “outgoing adventurer” you might choose an airline job to create adventurous stories to tell.

Mining the Positives

Wondering how to create the identity you prefer? One gem Tarragona recommends is to think of 2-3 people you admire and then list positive qualities of that person. For instance, Mother Teresa is kind, loving and patient. Circle the qualities you feel are most important, and write them as if they are yours. Tarragona said, “Notice and appreciate qualities in other people and then see if these qualities fit with the way you see yourself.”

She also recommends using the “Best Possible Future Self” exercise, created by Professor Laura King from the University of Missori-Columbia. For this exercise imagine everything in your life is going as well as it possibly could and write about this for twenty minutes a day. Do this for three days in a row. Research has proven that writing about goals helps us achieve them and increases subjective well-being.

But what if you discover that your dominant story produces an effect you don’t like? For instance, if your dominant story is “shy”, and you want to change this; look for evidence of times you aren’t shy to create an “alternative story”. You can then focus on past and future outgoing behavior to create a new dominant story. “Ultimately we want to choose a story congruent with who we want to be,” said Tarragona. Our preferred self is fluid and can change over time, like choosing to exchange “shy” behavior for “outgoing.”

Tarragona added, “Our stories are very important to how we think and feel. When objective things happen in our lives there are a range of possibilities depending on how we interpret them.” One example is when we wave at a friend and she doesn’t wave back. We could think: “she doesn’t like me” or “maybe she was distracted and didn’t see me wave.” Think about the different feelings these stories might produce. Our thoughts affect our feelings, so choose your thoughts wisely.

In addition to using stories to create our positive identity, Tarragona recommends harnessing stories to help problem-solve. She says, “Your problems are not your identity. Think of problems as adjectives instead of nouns.” For instance, instead of telling yourself:  “I am disorganized” think “my house is disorganized.” She adds, “The first sounds like part of who you are and there’s not much you can do about it, but the second gives you the chance to tackle disorganization and embrace the good feelings organization gives.” You might then choose to tell a funny story of how you cleaned up your messy behavior.

Using Stories to Connect

Tarragona helps us learn to cultivate and reflect on positive emotions, such as gratitude, hope and love; to create positive stories and increase our well-being. Tarragona’s book provides several exercises to help readers increase positivity. One of these helps us track our positivity ratio, (researchers have found that people that flourish report three positive emotions for every negative).

Another way to strengthen our stories is to focus on engagement in life or “flow experiences”. Dr. Martin Csikszentmihalyi, at Claremont University discovered that these experiences involve total concentration, challenge and use and development of skills. Tarragona recommends thinking of an activity so absorbing that you lose track of time. This is a flow experience. Her workbook’s exercises help us discover and maximize flow experiences, which we can later story,

Tarragona also recommends using character strengths to create good relationships and then utilize stories to enrich the way we connect. (To discover your character strengths take the free VIA Character Strengths Survey.) For instance, we could use the character strength of “bravery” to reach out to new friends in a hiking group and later tell the story of how we met our best friend. “Using character strengths to tell stories allows our relationships to become stronger and helps us be more present in life,” says Tarragona. She hopes readers of Positive Identities will explore the emotion of our best self and have fun identifying and strengthening our stories.  “Have an inventory of joyful fulfilling stories and use them to get through the difficult parts of life and create your best possible future,” she says.

I found the ideas and exercises in Positive Identities a treasure trove, and learning about the positivity ratio changed my life for the better. I use this ratio and my character strengths every day to create positive stories. I give the book 5-stars.

No alt text provided for this image

I’m excited to continue trying these ideas.

About the author(s)

Kendeyl Johansen

Kendeyl Johansen is a tech geek creating inspirational multimedia content to increase happiness and health for individuals and organizations.

Want A Realistic Happily Ever After? Create It Today …

Well-being experts Suzann Pileggi Pawelski (MAPP) and James Pawelski (PhD) didn’t expect their book Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts to cause a breakup with my fiance, and neither did I. When I bought their book I had hopes of strengthening my romantic relationship. I knew something felt wrong, but I didn’t know what.

Happy Together taught me that great romantic relationships use John Gottman’s “magicratio” of 5-1 positive to negative interactions. Relationship researcher, Gottman, discovered that for happy relationships every negative comment, or action, needs 5 (or more) positive comments or actions. That night I tested my relationship …

Ought-oh …

We had 12 negative interactions for every positive. After realizing this I tried to fix our ratio but couldn’t, so I ended that relationship and cried on the bathroom floor.

That got boring after a while. I decided to use my character strength of bravery to began my quest for a realistic happily ever after using the Pawelski’s relationship research. “We wrote our book to help couples create loving, long-term romantic relationships using the science of happiness,” says Suzanne (“Suzie”) Pawelski. After discovering how to create and sustain their happy marriage they wanted to inspire others to do the same.

The Pawelskis teach us to grow our relationship calmness, commitment and trust by cultivating “Aristotelian love” . To do this, couples identify their character strengths and then help each other grow their strengths. This sounded interesting to me ,and I’m excited to try it.

Don’t know your strengths? Take the free VIA Character Strength Survey to discover them. Here’s a wordcloud of my strengths.

No alt text provided for this image

Helping your partner grow strengths creates deep and connected love. This also means together you create your best possible relationship future.

Additionally, the book reveals that positive relationships take work. “Pop culture does us a disservice, all of the attention is on getting together and planning a wedding, and no one teaches what to do the day after the wedding,” says Suzie. Remember all of the decisions needed for a wedding–the dress, flowers, venue, menu, etc,? Suzie recommends pouring similar effort into your relationship regularly, not just on one day. She states the most robust research shows a happiness habit doesn’t “just happen”. It takes regular work.

She invites us to join her and James in the “relationship gym”. Similar to how exercise gyms create healthy bodies, growing a relationship creates love and happiness.

The Pawelskis teach couples to evolve the fiery passion of new love into a calmer, healthy passion. This is because the initial passion of new romance cools, and to expect it to continue can create obsession. To keep things fresh, Suzie recommends practicing positive emotions as your relationship develops; for instance, choosing activities to enjoy together, such as hiking, to create gratitude and awe. Positive emotions create connection and happiness. “Relationships without a lot of positive emotions often fizzle out,” she says.

Suzie does caution about chasing too much happiness, though. Sometimes we need to feel appropriate negative emotions, such as when our dog does. So strive for realistic happiness and positive emotions when appropriate.

A fun way to cultivate positive emotion is a “strengths date”, an activity developed by positive psychology founder, Martin Seligman. To plan a strengths date, choose a character strength from each person and plan a fun event that uses the strengths. For instance, Suzie combined her creativity with James’ love of learning for a date to a Purivian and Cantonese restaurant. Before the date she researched the Latino and Asian culinary background, printed out the information, and brought it to dinner for them to discuss while savoring their food. They loved their evening and she encourages others to strengthen bonds with similar activities.

She recommends taking time for mindful savoring. “Couples rush through life and miss magical moments to connect while waiting for momentous events to happen,” she says. If your partner isn’t whisking you off to Paris, like on The Bachelor, it’s ok; research shows daily happy moments add up. “For more happy moments, seek out strengths in your partner and how to facilitate them,” she says.

Also, don’t be a killjoy. For instance, if you’re vacationing in California enjoy your moments together and don’t think, maybe we should have gone to Hawaii. “Celebrate your good times together and appreciate what’s in front of you,” says Suzie.

But what happens when bad times occur? Couples that work to build up happy times can more easily weather challenges. Also happy couples know they can rely on each other to problem-solve. One way to do this is to use character strengths.

Suzie says the most important takeaway from her book is to focus on what is going right in a relationship. She says, “When everyday annoyances happen remember what your partner’s strengths are and what attracted you to them in the first place.” So help your partner be their best to create Aristotelian love and a realistic happily ever after.

I found ideas in Happy Together immensely valuable, and give the book 5-stars.  I’m excited to try out these ideas in my next relationship.

No alt text provided for this image

Shellee Godfrey

Shellee Godfrey creates happiness for her clients as a Systems Analyst and writes comedy screenplays based on her smart and sassy 80’s diva background.