We swim in an increasingly turbulent sea of narratives: the ones we tell ourselves, the ones we tell others, and the ones we choose to watch on Netflix—and read in books, listen to on podcasts, and follow on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Research suggests these stories have powerful impacts on our well-being.
Some forms of narrative are deeply nourishing. A study at the New School for Social Research found that reading literary fiction especially (as opposed to best-selling thrillers or romances) helps people develop skills they need in social relationships, like the ability to see from another person’s perspective. In particular, participants who read literary fiction were better able to read emotions in other people’s eyes—a critical skill for determining the state of mind of another person.
The researchers believe that the key ingredient in literary fiction is that it improves your creative and intellectual skills as you come to understand the characters in a novel. The ability to understand that another person has his or her own thoughts and feelings is something psychologists call Theory of Mind. Developmental psychologists believe Theory of Mind begins in toddlers and small children and continues to develop with time. Reading brings new perspectives and the ability to see the world through someone else’s experience.
Other forms of narrative, on the other hand, can be exhausting and even destructive: the constant influx of negative, sad, or traumatic news coming our way, violent films, and pornography, as well as the constant barrage of advertising and irrelevant information. Even when the narratives that surround us are nourishing, they can still be overwhelming. As a friend shared with me, “I think I am suffering from narrative overload. So many projects, stories—whatever—that even if all of them are ‘good’ I still feel frazzled.” We all need firm boundaries around the types and numbers of narrative we pursue and accept.
A 2009 study found that the average American consumes 34 gigabytes of content and 100,000 words of information every day, certainly more than our brains evolved to handle—and those numbers have likely grown in the last seven years. Is it any surprise we feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and stressed? Of course, it is wonderful to be so in touch with the world, and this is a time of tremendous freedom of speech and information exchange, but it is more important than ever to be able to disconnect to retain our sanity.
Grounding practices like walks in nature, meditation, exercise, and technology fasts can help us get centered. Verbalizing our experiences and feelings by talking them out or writing them down have also been shown to be deeply therapeutic. By calming our nervous system, we regain the resilience we need. Instead of being overwhelmed and distracted, we get back in touch with our values, and are reminded of what is actually important to us. Fundamentally, to stay true to ourselves, we need to stay in touch with our own core narrative.
The form our narrative takes is also critical. Depressed or anxious feelings, for example, are often accompanied by self-focus—narratives revolving around “me, myself, and I” as the central character. As a consequence, we feel more disconnected and lonely. We are less able to connect with others and more likely to brood over negative thoughts. However, exercises as simple as focusing on the things we feel grateful for, remembering how much in our life is going right, doing a loving-kindness meditation focused on sending love to others, taking a yoga or exercise class, or engaging in acts of service can quickly shift the discourse of our narrative to one that is more positive and uplifted.
Suffering, pain, and illness are narratives we don’t prefer, yet are inevitable, and they too have a powerful and sometimes beneficial influence. As Sri Sri Ravi Shankar says: “Hardship makes you deeper.” One way it makes you deeper is that you begin to understand that if you hurt, so do others. And that is a powerful realization. Happiness is something everyone wants; pain is something everyone does not want. By fundamentally realizing this point, you begin to participate in a narrative where you actively choose not to hurt others. You become more conscious: of the food you eat, of the words you speak, of the actions you take. Others’ pain becomes your pain.
As a fellow mother told me the other day: “Every time I give my baby cow’s milk to drink, my heart hurts for the cow who was forcibly taken from her calf in order to produce milk for us.” The Jain and Yogic concept of ahimsa comes from a deep understanding that others’ pain is also our pain. You therefore weave a new narrative: a narrative in which you walk lightly and delicately, in which you speak consciously and compassionately, in which you act mindfully and with love.
Emma Seppala, is the author of The Happiness Track (being published January 26th) and Science Director at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research at Stanford Medical School.