Stories matter. The stories we tell over our lives affect our health and happiness (Tomasulo & Pawelski, 2012). Stories can be about specific individuals, but likely the more powerful ones are those which apply to big groups or time periods (meta-narratives or “big stories”) which invite us to play a small part in world-size drama.
Major religions get this–successful churches make people feel like they are a part of God’s plan of redemption. Great movements of philosophy have this–Descartes started the modernist project by saying that we can base everything on unquestionable truths and eventually create a perfect society. Successful politicians get this–Marx wrote a story that inevitably ended in revolution and the rule of the working class.
Postmodernism itself is often defined by (Middleton and Walsh for example) as “incredulity towards meta-narratives.” Postmoderns think that all ‘big stories’ are bullshit, so its stupid to be Democrat or Republican, Buddhist or Christian, or a part of any tradition at all.
But there is some evidence that being story-less is not healthy. Humans have reason to want the meta-narrative. Positive psychologists define meaning as being a part of something bigger than yourself and have found that meaning defined in this way is a key pillar of deep and lasting happiness (Seligman, 2011). We crave a deep sense that life has order and direction. This passion often motivates the historian in each of us. We want to know who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.
We know that endings matter. Psychologists have found a phenomenon they call “peak-end theory” which maintains that the last few moments of an experience or human life (Rozin & Stellar, 2009) tend to define the entire experience (e.g. Kahneman & Wakker, 1997). In other words, you never get a second chance to make a last impression. One of the reasons why our meta-narratives are so important is because meta-narratives tell us the end of the story. Then we create meaning “pro-retrospectively” (looking forward to look back).
But all this stuff about story, endings, and meta-narrative was not on my mind this summer. For my masters thesis, I was just trying to figure out what judgements of the universe helped people live happier lives (full text here and non-academic summary here). I called these judgements “universal assessments” (UAs) and found 13 of them that seemed particularly good for increasing people’s strengths and positive emotions. Only after I finished the analysis did I realize that one of those 13, the following UA, is really all about the story people tell over existence:
The world is getting better vs. the world is getting worse.
Where are we headed? Where are we going? Will the world be renewed, or does it decay and die? Unlike the other 13 UAs , this one has handy-dandy terms that are already in use. A meliorist believes that the world is getting better (think bambi-eyed believer). The pejorist believes the world is getting worse (think grumpy old man). Together, these two positions represent the two major possible story-lines: is the universe a tragedy or comedy (as in Dante’s Divine Comedy rather than Comedy Central)?
Of course, many meta-narratives are too complex for these simple categories. For example, many Christians believe that the world is presently declining, but God will come back and the universe will end well (e.g. Romans 8:20-21). Other people might believe in human progress and look at how in the last decade 350 million people have been lifted out of extreme poverty (International Fund of Agricultural Development, 2011), but still believe that humans will eventually destroy themselves in nuclear holocaust. However, for the time being, this UA is meant to encompass both ideas. First, it is concerned with present trajectory. Even if down the road the world is renewed, what is the trajectory now? Second, it is asking if the story ends with “happily ever after” or “and then they all died.”
Out of the 24 strengths in the CSV, I found 18 that could potentially be encouraged by meliorist stories and eight by pejorist stories. Also, out of 10 positive emotions identified by researchers, 9 might be encouraged by meliorism, and 3 by pejorism. Here’s an example of one connection between meliorism and strength:
Hope is an important psychological strength. It keeps people motivated and moving, even in dark times. Empirical studies indicate that those with lots of hope tend to say certain things that sound similar to meliorism. They include “I expect the best,” “I always look on the bright side,” “despite challenges, I always remain hopeful about the future,” and most strikingly, “I believe that good will always triumph over evil.” Believing that the world is getting better might be tied to being a hopeful person. Likewise, believing that the world is getting worse may make hopefulness elusive.
And here is an example of one connection to pejorism:
People who have strengths in humor can sometimes develop it as a coping skill. Thinking that “the world is going to shit” might push some people to be light-hearted about tragedy and pursue novelty and fun in the moment. This could be the thinking behind the popular paraphrase of Isaiah 22:13b: ‘Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.’
Future research is needed to know for sure, but I expect that, overall, a beleif that the universe is improving helps us live better lives. In addition to developing strengths and increasing positive emotions, those with positive meta-narratives may enjoy other benefits too, like more close friendships, less depression, greater coping skills, and even higher incomes. But, first things first, I need to develop an assessment tool that captures what stories people have for existence and see if it correlates with life outcomes. Where do you fall on this UA? I’d love to know. Is the world getting better or worse?
What is so fun about this is that I know I have a damn good hypothesis. Hopefully, in a few years, I’ll be able to let you know for sure about wether I am right or wrong about meliorism having good effects on human life. Either way, it will definitely be interesting! It will be fascinating if I am wrong! : )
This post concerns one of 13 universal assessments that were identified in my masters thesis as being possibly critical for the ‘good life.’ An abstract and full download of the capstone project at the University of Pennsylvania is available here on scholarly commons. A non-academic summary (with pictures and bad puns) can be seen here. Also, this is the second UA I have elaborated on. The first was “the world is bad vs. the world is good” that I talk about in the post “Is my WIFE good, and does it matter?”