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The narratives of what happens: Why the stories we tell ourselves are so important

Nick Alchin, Head of College
25 March 2018

Anyone who follows anything about education or popular culture will know that student mental health, and the flipside - mental illness, are big areas of concern in systems across the word (read a Singapore story, US story, UK story, and an East Asian story).

Fingers have been pointed to mobile phones, technology in general, the increasingly competitive pressure to get into College, the shifting employment outlook, the environmental outlook, toxic political discourse or school cultures which repress creativity and demand conformity. All these are worth addressing, of course, and are the subject of debate as we increasingly seek to promote student well being. That said, the truth is, I think, not likely to be easily located in one specific area and I think there may be other things to do to address the issue, as well as seeking to remove stressors.

GoogleTrends suggests that interest in Wellbeing has soared in recent years.

GoogleTrends suggests that interest in Wellbeing has soared in recent years. A score of100 measures current interest; in 2004 the score was was 25. (Google Trends)

We can think of wellbeing as the balance point between the challenges we face, and the resources we have to draw on (Dodge et al, 2012). In seeking this balance, we must often look to reduce the challenges – especially, for example, in a crisis. But perhaps the longer-term solution is to build capacity so we have more resources to draw on – that is, to address the other side of the balance. If we can do that then meeting the challenges today and in the future may not seem so daunting. That seems to me to be the sustainable thing to do, and what as educators, we should be focussing on.

To understand the research, it helps to think about stories. Telling stories may seem a million miles from the harsh realities of anxiety, stress and depression, but in fact there is a powerful link. To understand why, if you aren't familiar with it, watch this classic and very famous video (Heider and Simmell, 1944).  

What's happening here?

It's almost impossible, watching this, not to tell ourselves a story. We all make a narrative of some sort - perhaps not consciously - which involves character, intention, and an overall explanation that likely stretched way beyond the events you see in the short clip. Most folk find it hard not to tell stories about what's happened - we add character, intention, ages, family relations, and the likely events leading up to and following this story. We can tell several very different narratives; there is no single, 'true' story here (these are, after all just animated shapes onto which we have projected the narrative - that is, it is our narrative); but the overall story can be happy or sad, pessimistic or optimistic.

A moment's reflection shows that we behave the same way most of the time; we interpret the events of our lives and place them in a broader context, telling ourselves stories as we do so. And it turns out that the specific nature of the details that we add are closely linked to our wellbeing - so much so that psychologists now refer to an optimistic or pessimistic explanatory style as a key determinant of wellbeing. This needs a moment to process as it is so counter-intuitive: the style of story we tell ourselves affects our mood. In fact, so much so that a good understanding offers a tool with which to address the mental-health issues that we are so concerned about.

The research here comes from positive-psychology founder Martin Seligman, who has found three ways that we can nudge students to promote wellbeing; by avoiding personal, pervasive and permanent narratives for troubling events.

Avoid the Personal

Students who blames themselves for mishaps, without seeing context and other factors place themselves under a heavy burden. There is a world of difference between I am awful at tests and This was a very difficult test or between I am just not a Maths person  and Trigonometry is difficult. In each pair, the former is framed in terms of personal identity, and can lead to nagging self-doubt, whereas the latter opens up a completely different conversation. Optimists blame bad events on causes outside of themselves, whereas pessimists blame themselves for events that just occur from time to time.

Avoid the Pervasive

When a student frames an upsetting social interaction as a limited Yesterday, the situation with X was upsetting rather than My friends always let me down, they are seeing one narrow thing, rather than a massive indication that something is wrong. This means that no single event needs to frame every single other thing that happens, and allows students to locate and contain difficult events. Optimistic people compartmentalise problems, whereas pessimistic people assume that problem in one area of life means problems in life as a whole.

Avoid the Permanent

This seems to me to be the most profound of the three elements. When a student can say This is tough, but it will pass there is a world of difference to This situation will never end; I can see no escape. There's some link to the difference between a Growth Mindset and a Fixed Mindset, and one of the most moving breakthroughs I have ever heard from a student was when she described how she had come to see her (dangerous) depression like the weather - she said "sometimes it's pretty bleak, but I know now that it's like the rain. It'll go eventually; you just need to hunker down and wait." Optimists point to specific temporary causes for negative events; pessimists point to permanent causes.

The most encouraging part of this research is that we can control what types of stories we tell ourselves; and for schools this may be a way to address the rising tide of anxiety, depression and self-harm that are being seen around the world.  We can actively build these ideas into our conversations and classes, actively teach students and teachers about framing.  These skills can be learned over time.  We have a need to ensure that these ideas are common knowledge for every teacher, in every school. 


Anderson, C. R. (1977). Locus of control, coping behaviors, and performance in a stress setting: A longitudinal study. Journal of Applied Psychology, 62(4), 446-451.
Dodge, R., Daly, A., Huyton, J., & Sanders, L. (2012). The challenge of defining wellbeing. International Journal of Wellbeing, 2(3), 222-235
Gilcrist, I. (2011) The Divided Brain. RSA Animate
Heider, F. and Simmel, M. (1944) Experimental study of apparent behavior. Youtube Video
Konnikova, M. (2016) How People Learn to Become Resilient. New Yorker
Seligman, M. (2006) Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Nicholas Brealey Publishing
Seligman, M. (2011) The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience Nicholas Brealey Publishing

Republished with permission of the author. Originally published on Nick's blog On Education.