What connects Beowulf, Batman, and Barbie? A shared storytelling blueprint known as “the hero’s journey.” This enduring narrative structure, originally conceptualized by mythologist Joseph Campbell in 1949, weaves its way through ancient epics like the Odyssey and the Epic of Gilgamesh, as well as contemporary favorites such as Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings. Many of these hero’s journey tales have become cultural touchstones, shaping the way people perceive their world and themselves.
However, the hero’s journey isn’t exclusive to legends and superheroes. Recent research, detailed in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, indicates that individuals who frame their own lives as hero’s journeys discover more profound meaning within them. This newfound understanding has inspired the development of a “restorying” intervention aimed at enhancing people’s sense of purpose and well-being. Remarkably, those who begin to view their lives as heroic quests also report reduced levels of depression and improved resilience in the face of life’s challenges.
The human brain seems inherently wired to make sense of the world through stories. Throughout millennia, Homo sapiens gathered around the fire, sharing tales of struggle and triumph. Our innate interest in storytelling is evident when we engage with magazine articles that kick off with an anecdote, and when we naturally frame our life experiences within the context of a narrative. These life stories weave together diverse events into a cohesive overarching tale, with the storyteller as the central character. These narratives serve the vital purpose of helping individuals define their identities and render the journey of life more comprehensible.
Admittedly, not all stories are created equal; some inspire awe and excitement, while others induce yawning. This raises the question of whether the hero’s journey offers a template for crafting a more compelling rendition of one’s personal life story. After all, the hero’s journey is at the heart of many of the world’s most culturally significant stories.
To investigate the connection between people’s life stories and the hero’s journey, we initially needed to streamline the storytelling arc from Campbell’s original 17-step formulation. Some of the original steps were highly specific, like the “magic flight” following the completion of a quest. Think of Dorothy in “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” being carried by flying monkeys to the Emerald City after defeating the Wicked Witch of the West. Others were out of touch with contemporary culture, such as encounters with “women as temptresses.” We condensed the 17 steps into seven elements that could be observed both in legends and everyday life: a central protagonist, a change in circumstances, a quest, a challenge, allies, personal transformation, and the resulting legacy.
Take, for instance, “The Lord of the Rings,” where Frodo, the protagonist, embarks on a journey (the quest) to destroy the Ring, departing from the Shire (a shift). Supported by allies like Sam and Gandalf, he faces daunting challenges against Sauron’s forces. Through these trials, he unearths unexpected inner strength, undergoes a profound transformation, and ultimately returns home, leaving behind a lasting legacy. Similarly, in everyday life, a young woman (the protagonist) might relocate to Los Angeles (a shift), conceive an idea for a new business (a quest), garner support from her family and newfound friends (her allies), conquer self-doubt following initial setbacks (a challenge), evolve into a confident and successful leader (a transformation), and finally, give back to her community (a legacy).
Our simplified version of the hero’s journey prompted us to explore the connection between how individuals framed their life stories and their perception of life’s meaning. In four separate studies, we gathered life narratives from over 1,200 participants, including online contributors and a group of middle-aged adults in Chicago. We employed questionnaires to gauge participants’ sense of life’s meaning, life satisfaction, and levels of depression.
We delved into these stories, searching for the seven elements of the hero’s journey. Our findings revealed that those who incorporated more hero’s journey elements into their life stories reported a heightened sense of meaning, greater overall well-being, and reduced depression. These “heroic” individuals (both men and women equally likely to embrace this perspective) exhibited a clearer sense of self and were more open to new adventures, robust goals, and deep connections.
Furthermore, hero’s journey narratives yielded more benefits than other narrative types, such as a basic “redemptive” story where one’s life journey transitions from defeat to triumph. While redemption is often part of the hero’s journey’s transformation phase, those whose life stories only contained the redemptive narrative reported less overall meaning compared to those who embraced the full hero’s journey.
This led us to investigate whether altering one’s life story to make it more “heroic” would amplify the sense of life’s meaning. We introduced a “restorying” intervention that encouraged people to retell their stories as hero’s journeys. Participants initially identified the seven elements in their lives, and we motivated them to weave these elements together into a coherent narrative.
Across six studies involving more than 1,700 participants, our restorying intervention proved effective. It enabled individuals to perceive their lives as hero’s journeys, leading to an increased sense of meaning, improved well-being, and enhanced resilience when facing personal challenges. These participants learned to view obstacles more positively and tackle them more creatively.
Crucially, our intervention involved two steps: identifying the seven elements and connecting them into a coherent narrative. In other studies, we observed that merely engaging in one of these steps, like describing life aspects resembling the hero’s journey without linking them, had a less pronounced impact on the perception of life’s meaning than completing both steps.
Moreover, the intervention enhanced participants’ ability to recognize meaning in general. For instance, after retelling their stories using our prompts, people became more adept at discerning patterns in seemingly random strings of letters on a computer screen.
The ability to frame one’s life as a hero’s journey is within everyone’s reach, and we believe that even small steps can lead to a more heroic life. You can cast yourself as the heroic protagonist by identifying your core values and keeping them at the forefront of your daily life. Embrace friendships and seek out new experiences. Set goals akin to classic quests to maintain motivation and challenge yourself to enhance your skills. Reflect on the lessons learned and contemplate ways to leave a positive legacy for your community and loved ones.
While you might not save the world on a grand scale, you can save yourself. You can become a hero in the context of your own life, which, at the very least, will make for a more captivating and meaningful story.
- The Hero’s Journey – TV Tropes
- To Lead a Meaningful Life, Become Your Own Hero – Scientific American
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