2012. Vol.3, No.12A, 1189-1195
Published Online December 2012 in SciRes (http://www.SciRP.org/journal/psych) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/psych.2012.312A176
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1189
Happily Ever after: The Use of Stories to Promote Positive
Daniel J. Tomasulo1, James O. Pawelski2
1Psychology Department, New Jersey City University, Jersey City, USA
2Positive Psychology Center, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA
Received September 21st, 2 012; revised October 21st, 2012; accepted November 17th, 2012
People turn to myriad ways to achieve happiness, such as physical pleasures, relationships, or the achieve-
ment of goals. Success in these endeavors varies, however, and may not be sustainable. Recent advances
in scientific research may be able to help, with a number of studies suggesting that people have the power
to increase happiness through intentional activities. Narrative is one of the most pervasive and promising
elements of positive interventions, and stories play a significant role both in psychological research and in
application. A proposal is made that stories should be used more frequently as a vehicle to demonstrate
and encourage the use of positive interventions, and a suggestion is made on how to collect and dissemi-
Keywords: Happiness; Positive Interventions; Stories; Narrative; Narrative Psychology
“Story is fa r old er tha n th e art of science and psychology, and
will always be the elder in the equation no matter how much time
passes.” —Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Human beings desire to be happy. Most of our daily thoughts
and actions have the end goal of achieving, maintaining or sal-
vaging our happiness. Yet despite the species clamoring toward
these goals since antiquity, a formula offering a consistent,
reliable path toward their realization remains elusive. People
turn to myriad ways to achieve happiness, such as physical
pleasures, relationships, or the achievement of goals. Success in
these endeavors varies, however, and may not be sustainable.
As Adler (1962) has pointed out, the authors of the Constitution
of the United States could only guarantee the right to pursue
happiness. They were wise enough to realize they could not
assure that it would be attained.
Throughout history, philosophers, priests, playwrights, self-
help gurus and now researchers struggle to understand what
happiness is and how we can have more of it in our lives. Yet
each of these approaches offers a perspective that yields differ-
ent advice. Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, describes a
happy life as a good life. He claims that we can judge whether a
life was happy only after it is over. The Bible tells us something
different. In the Gospels, we are told that happiness must wait
until we are in heaven: “How happy you are when men hate
you and turn you out of their company…Be glad when that
happens and jump for joy—your reward in Heaven is magnifi-
cent” (Luke, 6: p. 23). In Buddhism the Karmic cycle of cause
and effect returns the soul to this life to continually rid the mind
of delusions and desires. When this is accomplished, and a soul
also becomes free of its av ersions, the mind becomes still an d the
soul reaches a state called Nirvana. This can take several life-
Is there something we can do now without having to wait?
What about being happy in this life? Waiting for others to
evaluate our life when it is over, waiting until we get to heaven,
or reincarnating until we get it right seems like happiness is
being put on hold.
Recent advances in scientific research may be able to help,
with a number of studies suggesting that people have the power
to increase happiness through intentional activities. The new
science of positive psychology is devoted to researching how
people thrive and flourish. Historically, psychology has empha-
sized what is wrong with human beings and ways to help peo-
ple cope with mental illness. This focus on alleviating suffering
did not look much past getting people out of pain. Positive
psychology adds something beyond recovery. It seeks to move
toward happiness and well-being, not simply away from suf-
Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psycho-
logical Association, made his 1998 presidential term a clear
platform for the development of positive psychology (Seligman
& Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). The creation of positive interven-
tions that can be tested for effectiveness is central to this effort
and focus. A positive intervention is an intentional act that has
the goal of increasing happiness. Seligman, Steen, Park, and
Peterson (2005) have identified this emphasis in positive psy-
chology by declaring: “The causal efficacy of happiness has
focused our research group on one practical matter: intervene-
tions that build happiness” (p. 414). The application of positive
interventions is important because among other benefits, re-
search shows happier people live longer (Danner, Snowdon, &
Friesen, 2001); are kinder (Otake, Shimai, Tanaka-Matsumi,
Otsui, & Fredrickson, 2006); are more successful (Lyubomir-
sky, King, & Diener, 2005); and have better relationships
(Scinta & Gable, 2007). The results from these studies and
many others have prompted Seligman, Steen, Park, and Peter-
son (2005) to note: “…the efficacy of psychological interven-
tions [is] in many ways the bottom line of work in positive
psychology” (p. 432).
One of the most pervasive and promising elements of posi-
D. J. TOMASULO, J. O. PAWELSKI
tive interventions is narrative. Stories play a significant role
both in psychological research and in application. A number of
key positive interventions use participants’ narratives as a
component in the research (Danner, Snowdon, & Friesen, 2001;
Pennebaker, 1997, 2004; Seligman et al., 2005). Furthermore,
three of the first five positive interventions reported on by
Seligman and his colleagues (Seligman et al., 2005) involve the
use of autobiographical narratives: The gratitude visit, you at
your best, and three good things in your life. Other major posi-
tive intervention programs and research use storytelling as a
central element in the means to deliver or facilitate the inter-
vention. In fact, the Penn Resiliency Program (PRP), the world’s
most widely researched program for the prevention of depres-
sion, (Seligman, Ernst, Gillham, Reivich, & Linkins, 2009)
includes storytelling as a central component. The Master Resil-
ience Training (MRT) program (Reivich, Seligman, & McBride,
2011), is a face-to-face resilience training course, which is
comprised of three component of preparation, sustainment, and
enhancement. It is a central component of the Comprehensive
Soldier Fitness Program, for the US Army, the world’s largest
consumer of positive psychology interventions.
In the pages that follow, we will explore in much more detail
these and other uses of narrative in positive psychology re-
search and application. In the first part of this paper we will
discuss the role of positive interventions with an emphasis on
how some interventions use stories. In the second part we will
discuss contributions from narrative psychology on the influ-
ence stories and personal narratives have on well-being. In the
final part, we will propose that stories with certain features and
characteristics be used more frequently as a vehicle to demon-
strate and encourage the use of positive interventions, and then
suggest how to collect and disseminate them.
Michael Fordyce (1977, 1983), was one of the first to use
randomized controlled trials in positive interventions. He is
considered a pioneer in evidence-based positive psychology for
introducing fourteen practices he referred to as “The 14 Fun-
damentals Program” (Fordyce, 1983: p. 484). A summary of
these practices are: stay active and busy; increase time spent
socializing; engage in productive, meaningful work; plan and
organize; stop worrying; lower expectations and aspirations;
develop positive thinking (be optimistic); stay in the here and
now; work on a healthy personality; develop an outgoing, so-
cial personality; be yourself; eliminate both negative feelings
and problems; emphasize close relationships; make happiness
your number one priority. In seven studies he consistently
found students who engaged in these exercises were happier
than those who did not. This was one of the first demonstra-
tions of using positive interventions to increase positive feel-
ings. While these practices are rudimentary suggestions, they
encapsulate the seeds of more defined, effective interventions.
In a landmark article on the effectiveness of positive inter-
ventions, Seligman, Steen, Park, and Peterson (2005) reported
on the gratitude visit and four other interventions, each of
which was compared to the placebo condition of participant’s
journaling about early memories. The study was an Inter-
net-based experiment conducted over the course of a week. The
other interventions had participants write down each night three
things that had gone well during the day and what caused them
to happen (three good things); write about when they felt they
were at their best and reflect on their strengths (you at your
best); and in the final two conditions participants were asked to
take a survey about character strengths. In one condition they
had to use these strengths in a new way, and in the other condi-
tion to use their top five strengths more often. The impressive
results are best described in the author’s own words:
Two of the exercises—using signature strengths in a new way
and three good things—increased happiness and decreased
depressive symptoms for six months. Another exercise, the
gratitude visit, caused large positive changes for one month.
The two other exercises and the placebo control created posi-
tive but transient effects on happiness and depressive symptoms.
Not surprisingly, the degree to which participants actively con-
tinued their assigned exercise on their own and beyond the
prescribed one-week period mediated the long-term benefits
(Seligman et al., 2005: p. 416).
Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade (2005) also support the
value of intentional acts. They have put forth a sustainable hap-
piness model that invites interventions as a viable way to both
increase and maintain happiness. This model has three compo-
nents: a set point, which is the core happiness value determined
by our makeup; a life circumstance factor; and specifically
chosen intentional acts (interventions). While the set point ac-
counts for about 50 percent of our happiness trait and 10 per-
cent of it is due to the situation, these interventions can account
for 40 percent of the intentional activities leading to happiness
(Lyubomirsky, 2009; Lyubomirsky et al., 2005).
The proliferation of conferences and journals now supports a
steady stream of data about the ways and means of attaining
well-being. Evidence suggests that positive interventions can
increase well-being and reduce depressive symptoms (Sel igma n
& Csikszentmihalyi, 2000; Seligman et al., 2005; Seligman,
1992, 2002, 2011; Sin & Lyubomirsky, 2009), and that these
changes can reach a critical mass or tipping point that leads to a
positive spiral (Frederickson, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2009;
Fredrickson & Levenson, 1998; Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002;
Fredrickson et al., 2008). Further, these increases may be sus-
tainable over time (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005; Fredrickson,
Cohn, Coffey, Pek, & Finkel, 2008).
Concerns about Positive Interventions
In spite of the robust and broad support for positive psy-
chology interventions, critics caution that their use is not a
panacea. They argue that positive psychology rests on a flawed
assumption: that universally beneficial traits and processes for
well-being exist. This critique was most recently put forth by
McNulty and Fincham (2012) who asserted that “…positive
psychologists have not paid enough attention to the interper-
sonal context in which people spend much of their lives” (p.
101). The authors offer an important perspective by evaluating
positive psychology research with an emphasis on the context
under which an intervention will be optimal. This includes ar-
guing that positive interventions must be tested on both healthy
and unhealthy people, and understanding that traits and proc-
esses are neither positive nor negative and can have varying
effects. This viewpoint maintains that the success of a positive
intervention depends not only on what the intervention is, but
how and to whom it is delivered. This would align with the
research discussed above pertaining to the gratitude and kind-
ness interventions by Boehm and Lyubomirsky (2009).
This contribution notwithstanding, McNulty and Fincham go
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
D. J. TOMASULO, J. O. PAWELSKI
on to point very specifically to the literature on forgiveness as
being flawed, but this criticism seems unwarranted because it is
based on inaccurate generalizations about positive psychology
research. They write, “Most existing research, much of which is
based primarily on people not facing physical abuse…” (italics
added, p. 101). While this is true, they then ignore research that
does examine positive interventions with people who have been
abused. Positive psychologists have studied forgiveness with
regard to abusive relationships in major peer-reviewed journals.
Additionally, they have made recommendations for clinicians
to incorporate their findings into direct interventions. In spite of
McNulty and Fincham’s comments, positive psychologists have
paid attention to “the interpersonal context in which people
spend much of their lives”.
Worthington and Luskin, for example, both leaders in the
field of forgiveness, recommend caution when employing for-
giveness in an abusive relationship. In a meta-analysis, Wade
and Worthington (2005) surveyed 14 empirical studies of ap-
plied research on forgiveness interventions. This revealed a
consensus on four intervention types: remembering the hurt in a
supportive environment; building empathy for the perpetrator;
acknowledging one’s own transgressions; and encouraging
forgiveness of the offender. Further, these findings were dem-
onstrated to be effective across subjects, methods and theoreti-
cal approaches. An earlier study found that a meta-analysis of
subjects, facilitators and interventions suggest that the act of
forgiveness interventions were better than placebo treatments
(such as discussion groups), suggesting that intervening to
promote forgiveness is more important than the actual content
of the intervention. Worthington and Wade (1999) as well as
Wade and Worthington (2005) make specific notations on their
findings concerning forgiveness in the face of abuse. They spe-
Misunderstandings can be particularly troublesome for vic-
tims of severe abuse. People who confuse forgiveness (i.e., an
internal change in thoughts, emotions, or motivations) with
reconciliation (i.e., restoring a relationship) may not see that a
victim can forgive without reconciling. Such confusion may
lead to irresponsibly encouraging clients either to accept abu-
sive situations or to retain the angry and resentful emotions to
protect them from future harm. However, understood in terms
deﬁned by the reviewed interventions, forgiveness can occur
and the victim can still hold the offender accountable, see the
offender in realistic terms, and make wise decisions about
whether to return to the relationship (p. 165).
The Stanford Forgiveness Project, Forgive for Good: A
Proven Pre scription for H ealth an d Happiness (Luskin, 2001) is
one example of a direct application of research that continues to
gain empirical support (Harris et al., 2006). These studies have
been distilled into a trade paperback and accompanying suc-
cessful workshops. Luskin (2001) explicitly included the re-
search and intervention strategies that echo the writing of Wade
and Worthington (2005). McNulty and Fincham (2012) do not
include a single reference to his wealth of research and applied
McNulty and Fincham (2012) might have had a more bal-
anced perspective had they reviewed this work. By not doing so,
they make two serious errors in argument. First, they make the
assumption that positive psychologists believe character traits
and processes are universally beneficial. Second, they fail to
include the work of leaders in the field of forgiveness who have
already identified and addressed their concerns.
Using Stories to Facilitate Positive Interventions
Stories, autobiographical narratives, journals, letters and re-
flective descriptions are some of the ways researchers are using
to deliver, enhance, clarify or identify a positive intervention. In
this section we will review the Penn Resilience Program (PRP)
and the Nun Study, two of the most prominent research en-
deavors in the field of positive psychology, from the perspec-
tive of narrative. We will pay particular attention to the value
the effective use of these and similar methods can have.
Martin Seligman, Jane Gillham and Karen Reivich at the
PRP are using a variety of storytelling methods to help students
cope with depression and anxiety (Seligman et al., 2005). There
has been a steady rise in adolescent depression over the past
several decades and the PRP was designed to help students
cope with the daily struggles of being a teenager (Seligman et
al., 2009). At the program’s core is the use of story-conveying
methods to show the problem, the intervention, and the correc-
tion. The PRP is the world’s most widely researched depression
prevention program. To date there have been twenty-one stud-
ies with children and young adults ranging from ages 8 to 22.
The findings from these studies have broadly influenced not
only the field of education (Seligman et al., 2009), but have
become the foundation for the development of the Master Re-
silience Training (MRT) program employed by the US Army
(Reivich et al., 2011).
The specific focus has been to reduce a sense of helplessness
while preventing or reducing depression and anxiety and in-
creasing optimism. The research found there were fewer con-
duct problems reported and those involved displayed better
physical health. The PRP draws heavily on the Adversity-Be-
liefs-Consequences (A-B-C) model (Ellis, 1962), in which be-
liefs about ev ents affect our emo tions and behavio r. Stud ents a re
introduced to coping skills and given information on situational
dilemmas through the use of short stories, skits, cartoons, and
role-plays. From the work at PRP, a more ambitious project
was launched. The Strath Haven Positive Psychology Curricu-
lum was designed to help students both identify and enhance
the use of their signature character strength (Seligman et al,
2009). In this study, 347 14- and 15-year-olds were randomly
assigned to a language arts class. Only half received a positive
psychology curriculum. Those who were in the experimental
group kept a narrative journal of their experiences and engaged
in weekly discussions about character strengths and applying
positive psychology in their own lives. These discussions were
their shared stories. For example, they discussed three good
things that happened each day for a week and answered the
questions: “Why did this good thing happen?” “How can you
have more of this good thing in the future?” The power of sto-
ries to teach and inspire was also applied more directly through
the use of classic literature. Not only did the students in the
experimental group have to report on the character strengths in
themselves and t heir fr iends , the y had to id e ntif y those stren gths
in literary figures in their effort to overcome obstacles in the
In a blind review, the study found empathy, cooperation, as-
sertiveness and self-control got better with the positive psy-
chology group, while the strengths of curiosity, love of learning,
and creativity were also improved. Mothers reported fewer
conduct problems, and students’ reports of engagement and
enjoyment in school were higher. This study showed well-being
enhanced classroom learning. Central to this process was narra-
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1191
D. J. TOMASULO, J. O. PAWELSKI
tive journaling, sharing stories and reading literature through
the lens of character strength and resilience. Seligman and his
colleagues sought to shift the culture of an entire school toward
positive psychology. While not a research study, the Geelong
Grammar School Project uses many of the features already
described (Seligman et al., 2009). But there were two important
additions with regard to the use of stories. First, as part of the
English literature curriculum, the process of analyzing literary
figures in novels with regard to character strengths and resil-
iency was established. Second, the daily religious services
highlighted stories, which reinforced character strengths dis-
cussed elsewhere in the curriculum; stories from scriptural pas-
sages were used to teach positive psychology.
The use of stories to convey issues, interventions, and in-
sights are at the base of these studies and project. They are an
integral part of the delivery and facilitation of the positive in-
terventions such as the A-B-C model and identification of sig-
nature strengths. They are used to teach and strengthen learning
of positive experiences. In short, stories are woven into the
fabric of some of the best and most well-known research on
In the Nun Study1, researchers Danner, Snowdon, and
Friesen (2001) analyzed the emotional content of handwritten
autobiographies of nuns seeking entry into the convent when
their average age was 22 and found a strong correlation be-
tween positive emotional content and longevity more than fifty
years later (Tomasulo, 2010). The researchers hypothesized that
analyzing autobiographies the nuns had written as young
women would reveal their emotional temperament and that a
positive verses a negative expression would predict the nuns’
health and longevity. The religious sisters were ideal subjects
because of the profound similarities in their physical lives.
Nuns have similar, regularized diets, live together in similar
surroundings, do not have children, and do not smoke or drink
to excess. In other words, their physical backgrounds and con-
ditions are very well controlled, and the impact of their early
emotional disposition and risk of mortality in later life could be
more directly determined. Researchers coded the autobiogra-
phies in terms of positive, negative and neutral words, ulti-
mately focusing on three features of these statements: positive
emotion words, sentences, and variety of positive emotional
expressions. The analysis was done roughly 60 years later,
when the nuns were between 75 and 94 years old. By that time
42 percent of them had died. The nuns who expressed more
positive emotions lived, on average, a decade longer than their
less cheerful peers. By the average age of 80, 60 percent of the
least positive nuns had died. The probability of survival was
consistently in favor of the more positive nuns. There seems to
be a direct relationship between positivity and longevity: The
stories we tell about ourselves are related to our health and
This landmark study was not just about happiness and health,
it was actually about Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers consid-
ered the effect these positive approaches toward life might have
on the devastating effects of dementia. Over a decade after the
original study was conducted, ongoing research about these
nuns is more than curious. Scientists have harvested the brains
of the sisters who have died and have archived medical, dental
and academic records. Research on the sisters’ brains suggests
not only that those with a positive outlook on life enjoyed less
disease and lower mortality rates but also that these nuns may
have had a natural immunization against the ravages of Alz-
heimer’s disease. About half of the brains are free of Alz-
heimer’s, and researchers have found a strong and seemingly
causal correlation. The nuns with positive perspectives on life
were free of the disease, and those with negative outlooks had
symptoms of dementia. The autobiographical narratives the
nuns told about themselves in the early part of their lives were
associated with their well-being throughout. In this study, the
independent variable was the way the story was told, and this
variable was correlated with emotional temperament, which
predicted better health and longevity.
Stories, Morality and Empathy
Stories influence us because we can relate to them and this
ability seems to be something we are able to do very early in
life. When someone tells us a story about her troubles we are
moved by her plight; when it is about her triumphs we celebrate
with them. Robert Coles (1989, 2000) a Harvard psychiatrist
and Pulitzer Prize winner, places great value on narratives to
understand the human condition. In the Call of Stories (1989)
he posits that we learn almost all of our moral lessons through
personal stories and literature. In the Moral Life of Children
(1986/2000) he notes that it is the stories children tell each
other that provides them with a moral compass. It is by listen-
ing to each other that they decide what is right and wrong.
But stories are not only about morality. They can influence
our well-being in a variety of ways. Psychologists Paul Bloom
(2010) and Jonathan Haidt (2006, 2012) believe there is great
power in the use of story as a vehicle to extend empathic un-
derstanding. They believe the development of empathy through
the use of story may be part of the core dynamic inherent in
why stories work. Bloom’s work with his colleagues Karen
Wynn and Kiley Hamlin (Hamlin, Wynn, & Bloom, 2007;
Kuhlmeier, Wynn, & Bloom, 2003) used a variety of one-act
morality plays with good guys and bad guys interacting with
various objects. The infants witnessed these interactions, these
stories, and it influenced how they behaved toward these char-
acters by preferring them as choices afterward. In subsequent
studies the researchers used younger and younger infants and
they repeatedly found the infants preferring the good guy: They
are sensitive to the positive and negative nature of third-party
interventions. If watching these moral stories can influence how
children behave toward the character at such early ages it em-
phasizes the power and potential of human ability to appreciate
story dynamics and learn from them. Understanding which
features are innately determined as “good” and which are cul-
turally established will help strengthen innate vs. learned traits
related to well-being. As McAdams (2008) says: “They implic-
itly understand that a story’s characters act in accord with
goals” (p. 250).
While there are many different types of stories that may be
helpful to positive psychology, space limitations will allow us
to focus only on the personal narrative. The stories people tell
themselves and others can influence well-being. Many kinds of
stories can affect us. From Aesop’s fables to the book of Exo-
1A version of the material in this section appears in a blog written by one o
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
D. J. TOMASULO, J. O. PAWELSKI
dus and the myths analyzed by Joseph Campbell in The Hero
with a Thousand Faces (2008), stories have long been used to
tell people what to value, how to live, and what has moral
worth. But one type of story—the personal narrative, the tell-
ing of a story about a personal memory—seems to have a
unique influence. It helps to integrate the person narrating it
while conveying understanding through empathy. The under-
standing of the way stories shape lives is the subject of a broad
area of study known as narrative psychology. This section will
focus on theory and research about how personal narratives can
be helpful to those who tell them, and what makes them valu-
able to those who hear them.
The study of personal narratives recently has become a cen-
tral topic in personality research. In part this is due to personal-
ity theorists writing that the self develops over time (Maslow,
1964; Moreno, 1964; Erikson, 1963). As Dan McAdams (1996),
one of the leading theorists in this domain, points out:
It is no coincidence that the rise of the novel as a Western art
form and the growing popularity of journals, diaries and other
autobiographical devices neatly parallel the rise of modernity
in the West, for making sense of the modern self as it changes
over time centrally involves the construction of self-narratives
McAdams writes further, “The stories people tell about their
lives is no longer a promising new direction for the future of
personality psychology. Instead personal narratives and the life
story have arrived” (McAdams, 2008: p. 242, italics in text).
This emphasis rests on what McAdams has called “narrative
identity,” which he defines as the “internalized, evolving, and
integrative story of the self” (p. 242). In this understanding, the
construction and development of the self is a blend of both the
storyteller and the stories told (Bauer, McAda ms, & Pal s, 2008) .
Pennebaker (1997, 2004) found that integration is central to
the process of writing about negative episodes in life and offers
research to show how writing about traumatic events can im-
prove the immune system. In his book, Writing to Heal: A
Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma and Emotional
Upheaval (2004) he shows how this writing can improve not
only the im mune system, bu t also grades and liv es. In an ef fort to
improve the benefits of writing about negative nuclear episodes,
Pennebaker and his colleagues (Pennebaker, Francis, & Booth,
2001) have developed a text analysis program called Linguistic
Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC). This helps identify categories
of words such as word s expressing ne gative emotio n (sad, angr y),
words reflectiv e of positiv e emotion (ha ppy, laugh), causal term s
(because, reason), and insight words (understand, realize).
Pennebaker and Chung (2007) report on a series of studies
analyzed using LIWC and found that people who wrote about
experiences using a greater percentage of positive emotion
words had health improved. The use of LIWC can be used to
identify those stories having the most beneficial impact .
The results about writing about positive and negative ex-
periences are mi x ed, but very inter esting. King & Mine r (2000)
researched different participants exposed to three conditions.
The first condition is writing about a trauma in their life. The
second condition is writing about benefits from the trauma
experience. The third condition is a mixed condition where
participants write about the trauma first, then switch to the per-
ceived benefits from the traumatic experience. The trauma only
and benefits-only participants had health improvements. The
mixed condition did not. Pennebaker and Chung (2007) theorize
this may be because the participants were not able to write
about their trauma and then integrate thinking and writing about
the benefits. Another study found that an extensive review and
processing life events has a differential effect with regard to
measures of well-being. Lyubomirsky, Sousa, and Dickerhoff
(2006) found when one group of subjects wrote about negative
events participants reported higher well-being. But this influ-
ence was reversed when other subjects were asked to write
about positive events. This intervention led to reduced well-
bein g. The authors theoriz ed that the ac t of organizing thoughts
helped with the integration of negative life events in a way
similar to what Pennebaker has argued (1997, 2005). However,
trying to organize thought about only positive experiences may
interrupt the cognitive process associated with savoring positive
emotions. In contrast, Laura King (Burton & King, 2004) has
also studied intensely positive experiences (IPE) when com-
pared to control (trivial) topics and has found improved mood
and fewer medical visits for the participants writing about IPEs.
These are intriguing differences and more research is needed on
the narrative effect of writing only about a positive experience.
McAdams’s research and comments (1996, 1998, 2001) ana-
lyzed and categorized the life stories of more than 200 indi-
viduals. He proposes a framework for understanding the struc-
ture and content of life stories via narrative tone, imagery,
theme, ideological setting, and endings. But there are two addi-
tional features of the structure and content he describes that we
believe have particular relevance for positive psychology: ima-
goes and what he refers to as “nuclear episodes.”
The imago, according to McAdams (1996), is the idealized
version of the protagonist telling the story and is a characteriza-
tion of a possible self, “the good boy or girl.” As life stories are
psychosocial constructions, the tale must have meaning in the
culture as well as to the person telling it. Stories of positive
experiences may be a version of a best possible self. It seems
likely that the structure and content of the narrative will have
that of an imago—a positive version of the self that others can
relate to within the cu lt ure.
Alternately, a nuclear episode is a life scene that is typically
high, low, beginning, ending, or a turning point. It can be an
emblematic truth about a person, or a declaration of profound
transition. These are typically more powerful scenes because
they stand out in our memory. For better or worse these power-
ful internalized scenes inform an individual’s identity. In the
telling of these nuclear episodes others can be inspired. Both of
these story motifs reflect what McAdams (2006, 2008) identi-
fies as the redemptive self. He argues the redemptive-self sto-
ries that arc from tragedy to triumph are most often generative
in nature. They tell a story with a message designed to promote
well-being in future generations and the world in which they
live. In other words, McAdams (2008) believes the “reflective
self is a narrative model of the good life” (p. 255).
McAdams (2001) believes integration is the main function of
a life story. He proposes that as we look at how narrative influ-
ences the self, the focus should be on dispositional traits of
personality and the social and cognitive features of human be-
havior (McAdams, 1996, 2001). Within his proposed frame-
work he believes it is the psychosocial construction of life sto-
ries that creates an identity. We become who we are via our life
stories, but this is a two-way street: People tell stories about
themselves in the act of forming their own identity, and in do-
ing so help others make sense of their own lives.
Roy Baumeister, a leading figure in the field of positive
psychology, agrees with McAdams (Baumeister & Wilson,
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1193
D. J. TOMASULO, J. O. PAWELSKI
1996), and offers that the life stories we tell and are told string
together to form meaningful patterns with a unique bias in their
formulation. The bias is along the lines of our need for meaning.
Baumeister and Wilson (1996) identify four such needs: Pur-
pose (goals and fulfillment); value and justification (seeing
one’s self as good); efficacy (making outcomes happen); and
self-worth (accomplishments). He believes a story without all
four of these will be unsatisfactory. In other words, to regard
our life as meaningful we look for stories and tell ourselves
narratives that have these four elements.
The Use of Stories to Promote Positive
Martin Seligman (2011) has set a goal for fifty-one percent
of the world to be flourishing by the year 2051. To achieve this,
people will need to be educated and inspire people to use posi-
tive interventions. Stories seem a natural means for promoting
this effort. Storytelling is woven into the human psyche through
our cultures and development, stories are embedded into the
facilitation of positive interventions, and the personal narrative
can provide a vehicle for recovery from negative emotions
while helping to integrate meaning in our lives. Tal Ben-Shahar,
who between 2004 and 2008 taught the most popular course in
the history of the Harvard psychology department, sees stories
as essential to the teaching of positive psychology:
Stories form an important part of every class when teaching
positive psychology topics, regardless of whether they are per-
sonal stories or stories about other people. Each of the topics
discussed in the course includes presenting a story as an intro-
duction to research on the topic, followed by an application. In
other words, the story “sets the stage” for a study or a theory,
which in turn leads to action—the implications of the ideas
presented and how they can be implemented in “real-life”. It is
important to tell stories that will inspire the students, move
them and enable them to better remember the material. Stories
can also bring research to life (Russo-Netzer & Ben-Shahar,
2011: p. 472).
One among several purposes behind the use of stories in
positive psychology is to bring research to life. We propose the
development of an Internet site for the collection of stories to
inspire people to use evidence-based positive interventions.
Based on the research done in this paper successful stories will
include at least some of these attributes. The story should: be an
example of a positive intervention in action, be a personal nar-
rative, activate empathy and engagement, be nuclear in that it
reflects a high or low point—a beginning or an end, be an
imago (a positive version of the self that others can relate to
within the culture), be a reflective self and redemptive having
the arc of tragedy to triumph. In addition, the stories should
evoke meaning by incorporating elements proposed by Bau-
meister and Wilson (1996): purpose (goals and fulfillment),
value and justification (seeing one’s self as good), efficacy
(making outcomes happen), and self-worth (accomplishments).
A website would allow people to submit stories that follow the
above criteria, have these stories categorized according to the
positive interventions they promote, and provide an ever-in-
creasing resource for educators, researchers, clinicians and
Like all good stories, we end where we began. “Happily ever
after” is traditionally the ending of a fictional story. But in
positive psychology, it is the beginning of the real story, be-
cause the writing and rewriting of the narratives of our lives is
one of the most powerful means available for moving toward
This article is dedicated to Chris Peterson who died unex-
pectedly on October 9th, 2012. He was one of the leading re-
searchers in the field of positive psychology, and a friend,
mentor, and colleague to many. He was a great storyteller, and
a person about whom many inspirational stories will be told.
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