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Our Stories—for Better or for Worse
Is the world a safe place? Are people trustworthy? Our answers to these and other crucial questions depend on our beliefs, even if we’re unaware of them and their impact on our lives. So says research by University of Pennsylvania’s Jeremy Clifton published in Psychological Assessment (“Beliefs about the world can shape a psyche” by Emily Esfahaui Smith, Sarasota Herald Tribune, 10/8/19, p. E22, accessed 10/10/19).
If you’re into self-help books or have been in therapy, you likely have heard this idea before: Our stories are just that—not truth, not fact—but nevertheless are the basis of our feelings and behaviors. Clifton’s research generated 26 primal world beliefs, including whether the world is “good, safe, changing, worth exploring, and intentional.” These beliefs beget the stories we tell ourselves which “predict how happy or depressed we are, how trusting we are in relationships, and the decisions we make.”
Consider your beliefs about these ideas and notice if they lean toward optimistic or pessimistic. What you discover makes a huge difference in how your will life play out because “People who believe the world is safe, enticing, and alive, for example, are more likely to show gratitude to others, to be more trusting, to have a growth mindset, and to be happier” while “Those who are depressed think of the world as unsafe.”
You might think that experiences would better predict happiness or depression. Untrue. It turns out that “our experiences play less of a straightforward role than one might think in shaping these beliefs.” I understand this to mean that we interpret our experiences based upon our beliefs. If we believe people are untrustworthy and someone mistreats us, we might say, “See, I’m right. You can’t trust anyone.” In the same situation, someone with a belief that the people are usually honorable and kind might say, “Maye they’re having a bad day” or “I wonder what’s going on with her to have done that.”
Primal world beliefs grow in the petri dish of childhood. Was your world predictable and safe? Were people trustworthy and dependable? Was life joyous and full of possibility? If so, your story is likely that the world is a pretty fine place to live in. If not, it’s probable that you suffered trauma, abuse or neglect in childhood, etched into your brain a grim template: the world is scary, people are untrustworthy and selfish, and life is hard.
Mind your story. If yours is a downer, recognize how that happened and that you won’t get much out of life with a view of life formed in childhood. As an adult, you can change your beliefs and focus on developing a more optimistic, positive worldview. For a better life, make sure that your primal beliefs are in sync with today’s reality, not yesterday’s.