How are life stories related to well-being?

Several studies have shown that meaning and coherence in life stories are related to well-being. Life stories characterized by positive events and positive causal connections have been shown to be associated with higher well-being, whereas life stories characterized by negative events and negative causal connections are related to poorer well-being. Some studies also indicate that lack of meaning and coherence in life stories are related to psychiatric disorders such as borderline personality disorder and schizophrenia. To examine these ideas more closely, we are currently conducting studies focused on clarifying whether the way individuals think about their life stories are related to their experience of well-being and their psychological health.

Tine Holms Ph.D. project: Schizophrenia and life stories

The lacking experience of continuity in the self is a defining feature in schizophrenia, which involves the experience that the past self is not meaningfully connected to the present self. According to several theories, the experience of continuity in the self is established through the construction of a coherent life story. As part of the Ph.D. project, I conducted a study examining life stories among patients with schizophrenia and compared them to life stories told by people that did not have a psychiatric disorder. I was interested in examining whether the stories told by patients were less temporally and causally coherent compared to the stories told by the people that did not have a psychiatric disorder. The possible differences between the life stories may help explain how people with schizophrenia perceive themselves and their lives in ways that are different from people without a mental disorder. The first results have been published in Consciousness & Cognition and Comprehensive Psychiatry (see under “relevant publications”).

Questions regarding the study can be directed to Tine Holm, Ph.D., tinehol9@rm.dk 

Rikke Jensen’s Ph.D. project: Mental health, life stories, and aging

In the fall of 2014, we conducted a study on the association between life stories and subjective well-being. 259 adults were asked to describe up to ten chapters and up to ten specific memories in their life story and answer questions about the valence of the events and positive and negative self-event connections, that is, whether the events were related to positive or negative aspects of who they were. We found that life stories dominated by positive events and positive self-event connections were related to higher subjective well-being, while life stories dominated by negative events and negative self-event connections were related to lower subjective well-being. We also found that older adults (aged 65-76) had more positive life stories compared with younger (aged 20-25) and middle-aged adults (aged 45-55). These findings are important because they underscore the relationship between life stories and our experience of subjective well-being.

In her Ph.D. project, Rikke Jensen is also examining how people suffering from schizophrenia and people suffering from depression tell their past life story and imagine their future life story compared with a healthy control group. The possible differences between the life stories may explain how people suffering from schizophrenia and people suffering from depression perceive themselves and their lives in different ways than people without mental illness.

 

Questions about the project can be directed to Ph.D.-fellow Rikke Jensen, rjensen@psy.au.dk

Majse Lind’s Ph.D. project: Personal and vicarious life stories - relations to self-understanding, other-understanding, and psychopathology

Majse Lind’s Ph.D. project consists of studies that revolve around relations between personal and vicarious life stories. Vicarious life stories refer to an individual’s knowledge about other people’s life stories such as parents and friends. The project also examines how personal and vicarious life stories relate to other processes of self and other understanding such as identity, empathy, and mentalization. In addition, we examine how personal and vicarious life stories relate to psychopathology with a main focus on patients with borderline personality disorder. In the project, we examine how patients with borderline personality disorder change their personal and vicarious life stories of parents after one year of psychotherapy. The first results have been published in Memory (see under “relevant publications”).

For any questions or information about the studies please contact Ph.D. fellow Majse Lind, ml@psy.au.dk

Anne Mai Pedersen’s Ph.D. project: Life stories and wellbeing in patients with bipolar disorder and patients with diabetes

Anne Mai Pedersen’s Ph.D. project focuses on characteristics of the life story in patients suffering from bipolar disorder and patients suffering from diabetes, and how life stories are associated with subjective and psychological wellbeing. In a previous study, we found that people with bipolar disorder describe their past life stories in more negative ways and that they described fewer and shorter future chapters. This study was published in Memory (Pedersen, Straarup, & Thomsen, 2018). The current project aims to generate a deeper understanding of the associations between emotional themes in life stories and wellbeing, and to investigate whether these associations are specific to bipolar disorder. Understanding the association between characteristics of the life story and wellbeing may inspire initiatives in treating people suffering from psychological disorders.

For any questions or information about the studies, please contact Ph.D. fellow Anne Mai Pedersen, annemai@psy.au.dk.

Other studies

An ongoing study focuses on whether life stories play a role in how bereaved partners adapt to their loss. Over the life span, most people experience grief as a result of losing a close other. For some individuals the grief may become prolonged and so severe that it can be characterized as prolonged grief. In collaboration with The Palliative team, University Hospital Odense, Marie Lundorff Kristensen, Maja O’Connor, and Dorthe Thomsen examine whether life stories play a role for grief reactions.