Learning to Tell a Better Story

Project: Research project

Project Details

Description

We seek to create a school-based program: “Learning to Tell a Better Story.” This program harnesses work in narrative psychology that identifies reliable predictors of prosocial purpose, gratitude, and grit, combines them into two scalable intervention options, and applies them for the first time as a developmental tool that will help students develop an impactful new way of thinking about themselves, others, and situations.

Project Background

Character traits like prosocial purpose, gratitude, and grit are critical not only for school success but also for non-academic life outcomes like well-being, social integration, and finding productive and fulfilling work. These traits, in other words, have the potential to contribute to human flourishing – a sense of happiness and meaning on top of important but ultimately limiting indicators of success like standardized test scores or income. A particularly powerful predictor of flourishing is how individuals narrate important events in their lives. For example, individuals high in prosocial purpose – with aims to accomplish goals that are meaningful both to the self and to the larger world – tend to narrate stories about their lives in two distinctive ways: (1) they often tell “redemptive narratives” in which they focus on the goodness or growth that comes out of adversity (McAdams, 2006) and (2) they often integrate the concepts of “agency” (building up of the self) and “communion” (building up of others) (Jones, forthcoming; Walker & Frimer, 2007) in stories about triumphant life events.

Literature documenting a variety of school-based psychosocial interventions supports the idea that programs designed to shape students’ personal narratives can have dramatic consequences. Redemptive narratives overlap with concepts like Dweck’s (2008) “growth mindset,” benefit-finding (Pennebaker & Chung, 2011), and resilience (Cohen & Sherman, 2014). And a large body of research suggests that feeling self-worth (agency) and finding self-transcendence (communion) work together in a virtuous cycle (Crocker, Niiya, & Mischkowski, 2008; Dweck, 2008; Keough & Markus, 1998), motivating individuals to accomplish impressive goals that are also of value to their communities.

Combining these two lines of research, we propose a simple pair of school-based interventions that target three critical narrative tendencies in first-year high school students: how they view (1) themselves, (2) others, and (3) situations. In particular:
(1) We seek to enhance students’ agency – to develop their recognition of their personal strengths, talents, and resources, and the actions they have taken in the past that have made them successful.
(2) We seek to enhance students’ sense of communion, to develop their recognition of how others have helped them and to consider how they might use their gifts for the benefit of the larger world.
(3) We seek to enhance students’ ability to think in terms of redemption about difficult situations – how they can look for the good that’s already present or that may come.

Methodology
Although the main character strength we target is prosocial purpose, we also expect to improve two other targeted character strengths: gratitude (from identifying help one has received from others and the goodness that can come out of difficult experiences) and grit (from building resilience by learning to tell redemptive narratives about struggles). We target students during their first year of high school. It is best to develop healthy personal stories while individuals are still malleable, but it can
StatusFinished
Effective start/end date7/1/1511/30/18

Funding

  • Character Lab (Agmt 08/11/2015)

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