The Story of Your Life IS Your Life

On my Facebook profile, I state my religious beliefs as “The story of your life becomes your life.”

After my happiness post, I realized I didn’t comment on one of the key linchpins in happiness: storytelling.

Daniel Kahneman, in his excellent TED talk above, speaks to two different kinds of selves:

  • The experiencing self, or the self that experiences things moment by moment
  • The remembering self, or the self that tells stories about our lives and has a vision of who we are

Both Kahneman & Gilbert agree that the storytelling impetus is critical—because the story we choose to tell about our lives can very well overwrite our true, “real” experiences and create a new memory.

Here’s another passage from Stumbling on Happiness related to a research study:

Only 33% of the describers were able to accurately identify the original color. Apparently, the describers’ verbal descriptions of their experiences “overwrote” their memories of the experiences themselves, and they ended up remembering not what they had experienced but what they had SAID about what they experienced.

Our remembrance of things past is imperfect, thus comparing our new happiness with our memory of our old happiness is a risky way to determine whether two subjective experiences are really different.

Since reading Kahneman, I’ve become much more conscious of the stories I tell about my life … to everyone. If I tell a story about my past that is very sad or negative, I perpetuate the negativity. While I certainly wouldn’t advocate anyone putting on rose-colored glasses when evaluating the past to make a better decision for the future, I look for positive frameworks for my experiences—especially when it involves circumstances I could not have possibly changed. (E.g., you don’t choose your parents, you don’t control where you’re born and raised, etc.)

Telling Stories About What Has Not Yet Come to Pass
I’ve realized recently, when I’m waking up in the morning, and I’m writing the story in my head about how difficult or bad the upcoming day will be, I’ve already created unhappiness without giving myself a chance to enjoy what’s ahead without judgment or restriction. I’m trying to stop that behavior—it’s difficult. We live in a culture that adores the drama.

When Stories Are Co-Opted By Loved Ones
I had a rude awakening recently when I realized that the story or vision I have in my head about my life (and who I am) is not the same story that others tell.

What happens when a loved one tells your story in a way that you don’t like? Or even worse, what if their stories, which you may or may not agree with, make other people find you repulsive?

What if The Conductor doesn’t like how I tell stories about us on this blog? What if he told stories about me on HIS blog?

Our stories embody who we are. They are a component of our happiness. They are not to be treated lightly.

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Jane Friedman has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. From 2001–2010 she worked at Writer's Digest, where she ultimately became publisher; more recently, she was an editor at the Virginia Quarterly Review, where she led digital strategy. Jane currently teaches writing and publishing at the University of Virginia and is a columnist for Publishers Weekly. The Great Courses just released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (2017). Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.
Posted in Life Philosophy, Reading.


  1. “I’ve realized recently, when I’m waking up in the morning, and I’m writing the story in my head about how difficult or bad the upcoming day will be, I’ve already created unhappiness without giving myself a chance to enjoy what’s ahead without judgment or restriction. I’m trying to stop that behavior—it’s difficult. We live in a culture that adores the drama.”

    Powerful and true. Thanks for a great post, Jane.

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  3. Great post, Jane, and one that is perfect for me today, as I had a therapy session just this morning 😉
    I've worked hard the past 5 years to “find happiness” only to realize, for me, happiness is different than it is for others. There's no one definition. What I need to be “happy” is to be true to myself. No veneer. No polish and buffers. Just the raw, real, vulnerable me. The truth is, being honest about who I am has drawn more wonderful people to my world than when I put the veneer on. Not only that, it's made my life simpler. I don't need to work so hard to keep my veneer shiny. I don't need to polish it regularly or fear people will find the story of me unattractive if I let the veneer down. They already know my flaws. When they tell the story of me and it's full of my imperfections, I smile, because its those flaws that make me who I am. The good, the bad and the ugly. I've learned from every mistake I've made. I'm not afraid of the unattractive story of the past or the present. I'm not perfect. I embrace that. Bring it on… it makes me happy to see how far I've come.

  4. Thanks for sharing current resources on an age-old truth; I was raised with a healthy respect for both perspectives, luckily, so this is not news to me, but it will be to a surprising number of people so it's great that you're writing about it so clearly.
    Keep up the good works ~ !

  5. I think I know why we get along so well. I feel the same thing (only removing that veneer is totally inappropriate for me in the workplace! — still deciding what to do about that one).

    I can tell *immediately* when I meet someone who is completely at ease with who they are. They are so much more attractive in every way — intoxicating, even.

  6. I love your comment about people at ease with themselves being “intoxicating.” I feel exactly the same way. Perhaps it's because most of us are afraid to shed the veneer, so when we see someone who has, we're immediately in awe and want to be closer to them, in hopes their bravery will rub off on us. Hey, we should do a study of our Twitter friends and see if those with no veneer have the most followers – lol.

    You may not be able to remove your veneer at work, but you can indeed let your true self shine by your choice in desk toys 😉

  7. I've only just discovered your blog(s) and am enjoying reading through your back posts. This happiness thread is interesting. I think I'm most taken with your final two thoughts: 1) writing our stories for the day before events unfold and 2) dealing with co-opted stories.

    I suspect it's the norm to write our stories advance (either psyching ourselves up or out). Becoming aware of the act gives us more control as to which way we take the story. So thanks for this.

    As for the second thought, you gave me a new perspective on a problem I'm having with my own sister. She has most definitely co-opted part of my story. And now I understand exactly what is going on. Thanks for the insight.

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