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Psychology and History Converge in Book on the Caring Personality

November 29, 2005 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- As a research psychologist who has systematically collected and analyzed the life stories of hundreds of adults for two decades, Dan P. McAdams has long argued that people find meaning and purpose in their lives by formulating and telling their life stories.

In his latest book, “The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By” (Oxford University Press, 2006), the Northwestern University professor and Fellow of the American Psychological Association focuses on the life stories of what he calls highly “generative” adults – women and men who score exceptionally high on psychological measures of social responsibility, productivity and caring for others.

Not only does he find that highly generative midlife adults experience greater psychological health than their less generative counterparts, McAdams discovers that they are far more likely to describe their lives as variations on a script he has dubbed the “redemptive self.” In that script, these highly caring individuals tell stories in which they transform negative life events or experiences into positive outcomes that give direction and meaning to their lives.

In a book that is part cutting edge psychology and part cultural history, McAdams – professor of education and social policy and of psychology at Northwestern -- draws comparisons between the redemptive life stories of the “generative superstars” he has interviewed over 20 years and those of Americans from Ben Franklin to Oprah Winfrey.

“Oprah today personifies the redemptive self,” says McAdams. “Although poor, lonely and abused as a child, she knew she was special. Staying true to herself, she transformed her suffering into strength to become one of the world’s richest women and most influential philanthropists,” says McAdams. “What’s more, by telling her redemptive story, she gets others to tell and live theirs. It doesn’t get any more American or redemptive than Oprah.”

The redemptive self, McAdams argues, is a story common not only to the generative adults he has studied but also is part of a rich American tradition dating back to the country’s earliest European settlers. As a result, McAdams views the life stories of his most generative participants as “cultural texts that tell as much about American society as they do about the individual narrators themselves.”

According to McAdams, two key ideas underscore the redemptive self in American culture. The first is the belief that, as a young child, the individual was advantaged or somehow special in a world with considerable suffering and pain. Possessing a special destiny, they journey into the dangerous world, clinging to simple truths and basic values of goodness and decency.

Second is the theme of redemption itself. “Again and again bad things happen to these individuals but they consistently overcome and learn from them.  They then reach maturity with the desire to give back to others for the benefits they have received in life,” McAdams says.

Until lecturing at a conference in the Netherlands in the summer of 2000, McAdams assumed that his research correlating highly caring individuals with stories of the redemptive self was, as social scientists like to say, “generalizable.” After completing his remarks, however, a woman in the audience told him his findings sounded “peculiarly American.”

The woman then proceeded to tell him that Europeans might appreciate the story of the idealistic hero holding fast to his moral principles and making the world a better place out of his suffering, “but that’s not us.”

It was after mulling over her comments that McAdams began to examine some of the great redemptive texts in American history and culture, including spiritual autobiographies of the Puritans, the life story of Ben Franklin, the narratives of escaped slaves like Frederick Douglass and Horatio Alger’s “rags to riches” tales.

He moved on to study self-help literature from Dale Carnegie’s 1937  “How to Win Friends and Influence People” to Rick Warren’s 2002 bestseller “The Purpose Driven Life.” Then he looked at the proliferation of redemption themes in American fiction, film and TV.

As a result, McAdams now places the redemptive self squarely in the tradition of American culture, insisting that it is a story that speaks eloquently of who we are as Americans.

As a social scientist, he is aware of some of the potential problems and limitations of the redemptive self as a cultural myth. “There’s a quiet confidence in the stories of these redeemed individuals that can be seen as Pollyannaish, inflexible or even arrogant,” he says. “The idea that something good comes out of everything bad can cheapen the pain of individuals who endure life’s worst setbacks and calamites. How can you make a positive out of Katrina or the Holocaust?” he asks.

Nonetheless, McAdams believes that highly generative individuals should be celebrated and that emulating aspects of their stories can add meaning and purpose to people’s lives.

He found that the life stories of adults low in generativity were the most likely to contain themes of victimization or “contamination.” The opposite of the “redemptive self” script, contamination stories describe how an experience that is initially a positive one turns into something negative.

”Highly generative adults enjoy high levels of life satisfaction and positive relationships with others while those low in generativity are far more likely to suffer from depression and low self-esteem,” McAdams notes.  “One of the things that most contributes to the well-being of highly generative American adults is the redemptive story they tell and live.”

Topics: Research