The other day I listened to a podcast in which a woman shared a funny story about her son. Her 5 year old boy was in the process of learning how to read, but he had some trouble sitting still. His mother -wanting him to push through- promised him that once he could read ‘a whole new world would open up to him‘.
He had obviously listened carefully to his mother, because by the time he could read he turned to his mother and remarked -somewhat disappointed- : ‘I can read now, but when is the world finally going to open up!?’
I laughed out loud in the car while listening to this endearing story. It took me back to the year I learned how to read. I can still recall the first words I learned in school: tree, rose, fish, fire… Every day (or maybe it was every week) we learned a new word and a piece of paper with that word on it was hung up in the class room.
From the moment I could read, I binged. I made a habit of reading multiple books at the same time. I created a reading throne in the living room and surrounded myself with 3 to 4 books at a time. Curled up in my throne for hours, I would regularly switch from one book to the other, so eager to devour the stories they were telling.
What is it about stories that make them powerful?
I’ve loved stories for as long as I can remember. And I know I’m not the only one. But why is it that ‘we’ love stories so much?
Well, they inspire.
In the documentary ‘The final year’, former president of the USA, Barack Obama, is asked by a student ‘how can I become a great leader like yourself?’. Obama answers that sometimes we think that people are only motivated by money and power and other concrete incentives. He continues to explain that one of the major things he had learned as a leader is that a good story can in fact be a very strong motivator.
I for one can definitely relate to this. In January 2016 I moved to Austria. I had had nothing but 2 suitcases, a pair of skis and a temporary job as a ski instructor in a ski town filled with extremely spoiled kids. I had left my comfortable life behind in Amsterdam in pursuit of a new adventure. The goal was to build up a life in the mountains in order to improve my lung health. A beautiful, but also daunting quest.
It was difficult those first few months. I did not feel at home in the ski resort where I was teaching and it was not always easy to cope with the discomfort of not knowing if I would find a proper job after the ski season, integrate into Austrian society and in fact improve my health.
Food for the soul
In the midst of all this uncertainty there was a book full of stories that kept my spirits up! And it was not just some book. It happened to be the book of one of my best friends, Mark. Shortly before I moved to Austria, Mark had finished the draft of his very first book. He had asked me to read the draft and supply him with feedback.
I tried to manage his expectations by saying that I wasn’t sure if I would have the time to read it, but I would give it a try nonetheless. Little did I know that this book would become a talisman helping me through my first months in Austria. The book is basically a life-crafting-guide for ‘quarter-lifers’ (people between 24 and 36) and it’s filled with stories of people who had embarked on their own personal adventures. These stories, these examples, empowered me and provided me with comfort, inspiration and guidance on my journey. Every time I felt down or insecure I grabbed Marks’ book and read a few paragraphs. It made me feel better every time.
The healing power of stories – Bibliotherapy
The beauty of a good story is that it helps us feel less alone and feel empathy for the characters’ problems. When we dive into a story we temporarily forget and disconnect from our own concerns and fears. A good story cultivates our minds and gives us a broader perspective on life. It can make our own situation feel less dramatic.
This is also at the heart of what is called ‘bibliotherapy’.
According to Wikipedia, bibliotherapy is:
A team of neuropsychologists from the University of Essex discovered in 2009 that reading as little as 7 minutes brings down two-thirds of your stress levels. Reading works better than walking, drinking tea or listening to music according to the researchers.
More and more research is emerging underscoring the value of bibliotherapy. I don’t want to bother you with too much theory, so I’ll only share this one other small, but interesting and also funny study from researchers at Emory University. Their study seems to indicate that a good story can not only put you in the shoes of someone else in a figurative sense, but it may also be happening biologically.
The researchers saw heightened connectivity in the central sulcus of the brain. Neurons of this region have been associated with making representations of sensation for the body, which is also known as grounded cognition. To give an example of that: by just thinking of exercise, you activate the same brain areas that are activated during real exercise. I wrote a blog about this some time ago if you want to get deeper into this stuff.
So guess what I did? The other day I bought ‘The magic mountain‘ by German writer Thomas Mann. This book is a beast. Almost a 1000 pages of hardcore literature. And to challenge myself I decided to treat myself to the original German version. This seemed like a great idea in the bookstore… Now, a week later I’ve not come any further than page 20. This is going to take a while I’m afraid.
I was triggered to get this book because the story is set in a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland. In the middle of the 19th century, Davos became a popular destination for people with lung disease, because the micro-climate in the high valley was deemed excellent by doctors.
As you’ll understand I’m basically hoping that by reading Thomas Manns’ ‘€ 12,50 paperback, I can save myself the money to go all the way to expensive Davos, but still reap the benefits of an imaginary stay in a sanatorium on his magic mountain. Seems like a good trade-off to me.
Be your own leader, which stories are you feeding yourself?
Of course I’m not taking all of this too literally, but I do believe strongly in the power of stories.
Following Obama’s point about leadership and storytelling: we are first and foremost leading and governing ourselves.
So what stories are you feeding yourself?
It might not be a panacea for all the (health) issues you are dealing with, but I think it’s worth surrounding yourself with inspiring stories…Because these stories might very well become your thoughts and as Frank Outlaw would say:
Watch your thoughts, they become words;
watch your words, they become actions;
watch your actions, they become habits;
watch your habits, they become character;
watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.