Seeing Your Life Story as a Hero’s Journey Increases Meaning in Life

Elliott L. Conklin, Psy.D.
December 26, 2023

By Benjamin Rogers and colleagues
Reviewed by Elliott Conklin

In a series of 8 studies, Benjamin Rogers and colleagues investigated whether framing one’s experience as a “Hero’s Journey” can increase a sense of meaning in life. The Hero’s Journey is a recurring theme in literature and art throughout history and across many cultures, and the authors hypothesized that viewing one’s own life through this lens would be associated with a greater sense of meaning. First, they identified key elements of the Hero’s Journey narrative and produced a measure to assess how much participants endorse the narrative in their own lives. Then, over the course of several studies, Rogers and colleagues identified that a positive relationship does indeed exist between the Hero’s Journey and sense of meaning. But they didn’t stop there. The authors also developed a “restorying” intervention that frames the events of one’s life as a Hero’s Journey. They found that the intervention “causally increases meaning in life by prompting the participants to reflect on important elements of their lives and connecting them into a coherent and compelling narrative.”

I was pleased to see this study because it reminded me of the importance of narrative in therapy. I believe the stories we tell ourselves about our past and present do contribute to our mental health and quality of life. This idea is not unlike the theory behind cognitive behavioral therapy, which posits that our emotions are impacted by core beliefs and cognitive schema. Trauma-focused therapists also can attest to the ways that narrative shapes memory and experience. Victor Frankl, the famous philosopher-psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, wrote of the importance of finding meaning in one’s suffering as a foundation of mental health. I think these ideas can be helpful for anyone trying to make sense of a difficult time.

I’ll finish with one final reference, a true story told by Michael Lewis on the radio program This American Life, that suggests the power of narrative. The story is better if you listen to it yourself, so I’ll just give a teaser. Emir Kamenica survived the war in Bosnia and was forced to emigrate to the United States. He goes on to have enormous academic and career success all the while telling himself and everyone else that he is the beneficiary of incredible luck. He tracks down an elementary school teacher to thank her for changing the trajectory of his life, but finds out that she has a different story to tell.

Rogers, B. A., Chicas, H., Kelly, J. M., Kubin, E., Christian, M. S., Kachanoff, F. J., Berger, J., Puryear, C., McAdams, D. P., & Gray, K. (2023). Seeing your life story as a Hero’s Journey increases meaning in lifeJournal of Personality and Social Psychology, 125(4), 752–778.

Image Credit: RyanKing, cropped, Canva Pro