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Thursday, March 9, 2023

Seeing your life story as a Hero's Journey increases meaning in life

B. Rogers, H. Chicas, J. M. Kelly, & E. Kubin
Originally posted January 2023


Meaning in life is tied to the stories people tell about their lives. We explore whether one timeless story—the Hero’s Journey—might make people’s lives feel more meaningful. This enduring story appears across history and cultures, and provides a template for ancient myths (e.g., Beowulf) and blockbuster books and movies (e.g., Harry Potter). Eight studies reveal that the Hero’s Journey predicts and can causally increase people’s experience of meaning in life. We first distill the Hero’s Journey into seven key elements—Protagonist, Shift, Quest, Allies, Challenge, Transformation, Legacy—and then develop a new measure that assesses the perceived presence of the Hero’s Journey narrative in people’s life stories: the Hero’s Journey Scale. Using this scale, we find a positive relationship between the Hero’s Journey and meaning in life with both online participants (Studies 1-2) and older adults in a community sample (Study 3). We then develop a re-storying intervention that leads people to see the events of their life as a Hero’s Journey (Study 4). This intervention causally increases meaning in life (Study 5) by prompting people to reflect on important elements of their lives and connecting them into a coherent and compelling narrative (Study 6). This Hero’s Journey re-storying intervention also increases the extent to which people perceive meaning in an ambiguous grammar task (Study 7) and increases their resilience to life’s challenges (Study 8). These results provide initial evidence that enduring cultural narratives like the Hero’s Journey both reflect meaningful lives and can help to create them.

General Discussion

Humans are natural storytellers. People make sense of their lives using stories and how they tell their stories shapes the way they see and react to the world (McAdams & McLean, 2013). While these stories are drawn from events in their lives, they are inherently subjective and people frame their experiences using common cultural narratives (Hammack, 2008; Meltzoff, 1988, McLean & Syed, 2016). In this paper, we tested whether one of the most enduring culturalnarratives—the Hero’s Journey—is tied to meaning in life.

Across eight studies and six supplementary studies, we found that Hero’s Journey narratives predicted meaning in life. We began by distilling the Hero’s Journey into its basic narrative elements and constructing a psychological measure using these elements (Supplementary Studies 1-3). Next, in Studies 1-3, we tested our first prediction that there is an association between the Hero’s Journey narrative and meaning in life. We found that the perceived presence of the Hero’s Journey in people’s lives correlated with meaning in life (Study 1 and Supplementary Study 4). The connection between the Hero’s Journey and life meaning also manifested in the stories people told to others. Life stories rated by independent coders as more similar to a Hero’s Journey predicted higher levels of meaning in life and a sense of
flourishing in the self-reports of the storytellers (Studies 2-3).

Studies 4-8 confirmed our second prediction that people can use a re-storying intervention to reframe their personal narratives as a Hero’s Journey (Study 4) which can increase meaning and benefit their well-being (Study 5 and Supplementary Studies 5-6). We provided evidence that the intervention increased meaning in life by helping people to identify and connect the important narrative elements in their lives into the culturally resonant Hero’s Journey framework (Study 6). The intervention did not only bring psychological benefits, but it also helped people to see more meaning in their ongoing experiences, from perceiving patterns in letter strings (Study 7) to finding solutions for their personal challenges (Study 8).

Once again, social psychology has significant contributions to clinical psychology.