The tales we tell ourselves could change everything

| November-December 2011

The tales we tell ourselves could change everything

What story do you tell yourself about what’s going on in your life and in the larger world? Is life getting better and better, every day in every way? Or are we going to hell in a handbasket? Or do you imagine something else?

According to Harvard motivation theorist David McClelland, the waxing and waning of civilizations, and the growth and decline of economies, are heavily influenced by the stories we tell ourselves and our children. If the predominant images in our folktales, children’s stories, and popular myths are positive, and emphasize moderate risk-taking, creative initiative, personal responsibility, and long-range vision, McClelland contends, then our society as a whole, and the economy in particular, are more likely to flourish.

From the late 1930s through much of the 1960s, films like The Wizard of Ozand It’s a Wonderful Life and books such as Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking and Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich reflected and fueled a relatively prosperous era. Conversely, today’s most popular movies, novels, and video games present chaotic, postapocalyptic scenarios in which the human condition is, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Consider, for example, Blizzard Entertainment’s online role-playing game World of Warcraft, Tom Perrotta’s bleak after-the-Rapture novel The Leftovers, and much of today’s pop music (Lady Gaga’s defiant anthem for the dispossessed, “Born This Way,” comes to mind). Dystopian novels like Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy and Michael Grant’s Gone have eclipsed vampire novels as the most popular genre for adolescent readers. Roll over, Horatio Alger.

Since our business and political leaders today seem to believe that the best way to solvency is through cutting rather than creating, I’ve recently been wondering: What sorts of stories should we be telling ourselves and each other to create a more positive future?