The quest for a meaningful life has been a central pursuit throughout human history. This search for meaning has gained urgency due to global challenges and social trends that undermine traditional sources of meaning, such as religion, societal trust, and community bonds. In response, the scientific community has been exploring various person-focused interventions, including narrative-based approaches, to enhance individuals’ sense of meaning in their lives.
In a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a profound impact of perceiving one’s life story through the lens of the hero’s journey narrative on life’s meaning has been revealed. This extensive research, led by Benjamin A. Rogers, PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, employed a series of studies to explore and confirm the relationship between adopting a “hero’s journey” perspective on life and an increased sense of life’s meaning.
Rogers noted: “My research is largely concerned with helping people find more meaning in their lives and their careers, recognising the broad well-being benefits of having a meaningful job and life. One primary way people find meaning is through the narratives they develop to explain and give context to their experiences.”
The concept of the hero’s journey, popularised by mythologist Joseph Campbell, is a recurring narrative across cultures and epochs, from ancient myths to modern cinema. This structure typically includes a protagonist, a transformative quest, allies, challenges, and a legacy. Aligning one’s life narrative with the hero’s journey could provide a template for a more meaningful existence.
Rogers emphasised, “People’s life stories are based on their experiences, but the way they tell these stories varies. They emphasise or omit parts, making certain connections between events. Stories shape our understanding of the world and ourselves. Thus, telling a more meaningful life story should enhance perceptions that life itself is more meaningful.”
To measure how closely individuals’ life stories align with the hero’s journey narrative, the research team developed the Hero’s Journey Scale (HJS). This scale, comprising seven essential components – protagonist, shift, quest, allies, challenge, transformation, and legacy – is a condensed version of Campbell’s original formulation. The HJS was rigorously tested and validated through various studies.
Rogers explained: “In our study, we conducted 14 studies using a variety of approaches to test our predictions. We first distilled Campbell’s 17 steps of the Hero’s Journey into seven key elements for the HJS. We then examined the relationship between life’s meaning and the extent to which people see their lives as a hero’s journey.”
The study employed a series of experiments to test the hypothesis that a stronger presence of the hero’s journey narrative in one’s life story correlates with higher perceived life meaning. This was confirmed through a survey of a nationally representative sample, showing a significant positive relationship between the HJS scores and meaning in life.
Expanding on the implications of this research, Rogers said: “We aim to explore these ideas further. A key project involves using generative AI to help people instantly craft compelling Hero’s Journeys from their experiences. This method might foster supportive communities and alleviate existential concerns by embedding personal legacies within a tapestry of ancient, enduring narratives.”
An important part of the research involved “restorying” interventions, where participants reframed their life narratives in the context of a hero’s journey. These interventions not only increased life’s perceived meaning but also positively influenced well-being aspects, like life satisfaction and resilience to challenges.