Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger’s latest co-authored research focuses on storytelling. His paper is titled, “Seeing Your Life’s Story as a Hero’s Journey Can Increase Meaning in Life.” It explains how people can find well-being and resilience by reflecting on the important elements in their lives and connecting them to a coherent and compelling narrative.


What Is a Hero’s Journey?

Angie Basiouny: In your paper, you have this great quote, “People’s minds are made for narratives.” I love that. I think that’s why we all love a good story, a good biopic. Explain what this research is about.

Jonah Berger: First, it might be worth talking about what a hero’s journey is. If you’ve ever watched a famous movie like Star Wars or Harry Potter, you’re probably familiar with this old idea of a hero’s journey, which is there’s some sort of protagonist — maybe it’s Luke Skywalker, maybe it’s Harry Potter, maybe it’s someone else. They go through a journey to reach some outcome at the end, right? There’s a shift in their lives. Things start ordinary, and then suddenly they become extraordinary. They go on a quest. They meet allies or friends along the way. Think about Yoda or Hermione and others. They deal with some challenge. There’s some foe or enemy they must overcome. They undergo some transformation, where they change, and eventually they have a positive outcome at the end.

Things like a hero’s journey makes stories really engaging, right? They make movies fun to watch. They make books fun to read. But we wondered whether  beyond making other stories more engaging, the idea of a hero’s journey might also be useful in people’s personal lives as well.

How to Live a More Meaningful Life by Shifting Your Perspective

Basiouny: How did you go about studying this?

Berger: First, we quantified what a hero’s journey is. We looked at a variety of types of stories and content to figure out what the key dimensions are. They’re some of the things I talked about before: There needs to be a protagonist, that proverbial hero in that hero’s journey. There needs to be some sort of shift of going from daily life and ordinary things to something more unusual happening. There needs to be some sort of quest or goal. Along the way, the hero needs to overcome something. There needs to be barriers or challenges, whether a villain, or connecting with someone else, or creative problem-solving. Often, they meet allies along the way. Often, there’s some sort of transformation and positive outcome.

Then we said, “OK, now that we understand what hero’s journeys are, can we use this template to help people?” We started by looking at a natural study of existing stories and meaning in life. We looked at hundreds of different people and measured how they saw their lives. We asked them to write the story of their lives, and measured whether they tended to see their lives as a hero’s journey? Then we looked at how meaningful they saw their lives. Looking back on what they had done so far, and what they had overcome, how meaningful their life had been. It turned out that people who saw their lives as more of a hero’s journey tended to find their lives more meaningful.

This was intriguing, but one could wonder whether something else is driving the results. So, we wondered, “Could we encourage people to see their lives as a hero’s journey? And in so doing, help them make their own lives seem more meaningful?”

We prompted people to reflect on important elements of their lives and connect them into a compelling and coherent narrative. We gave them this idea of a hero’s journey and encouraged them to see their lives along those lines. What we found is, sure enough, doing that for one set of people made them see their lives as more meaningful. Taking the same life but organizing it in that way. Rather than seeing it as a random set of things that occurred over time, really seeing it as a hero’s journey made one’s life more meaningful. And that can be both in our personal or professional lives. Seeing your work life, seeing your resume, for example, not just as a bunch of different jobs over time. But thinking about, what’s the journey you’ve been on? What are some of the challenges you’ve had to overcome? What is that quest or goal you’re hoping to achieve? Who are some of the allies that you’ve met along the way? How have you been transformed by that process?”

All of those characteristics that make hero’s journeys so engaging to listen to as stories also make our own journeys seem more meaningful. They also help us be more resilient. Folks who were encouraged to see one’s life as a hero’s journey, or one’s work life as a hero’s journey, ended up more resilient. I think this has some important implications both for our personal and our professional lives.

Basiouny: What’s the biggest takeaway from this research? I almost feel like there’s a component of self-confidence that comes along when you rewrite or shift your own narrative.

Berger: I think the biggest takeaway is this: Our lives are what our lives are. Our work journeys, our work experiences, have been what they are. We can’t change what they’ve been. But we can change how we see them. We can change how we organize them. We can change how we think about them.

Seeing our lives as that journey, organizing it in that way, recognizing those challenges that we’ve overcome and those barriers that we’ve dealt with, the ways that we’ve been transformed — seeing our lives in that way can impact how we feel and how resilient we are. Stories aren’t just fun and interesting and engaging. They also have important implications for how we see ourselves, and how we may perform in the future.

How Marketers Can Leverage the Hero’s Journey

Basiouny: This research fits squarely into social psychology. Can you translate how people can use this information in a business context?

Berger: First, just from a personal well-being standpoint, seeing our lives as these journeys can have a beneficial impact. They can help us see our own lives as more meaningful.

Second, we should think about how we pitch ourselves, how we tell our own stories. There’s been a lot of interest in the past few years in the idea of narratives and telling our story with the advent and growth of social media. More people are online, dripping details of their life out on a moment-to-moment, or daily or weekly or monthly basis. But in dripping out those moments, in talking about what’s happening to us, we have the ability to shape that narrative, both when we post on social media, but also when we go in for an interview, for example. What should we talk about? How should we frame our experience? And how might the way we tell our story shape how we are perceived?

When we’re in an interview and someone asks us about our work experience, not just saying, “Well, I worked here and there and this other place,” but really talking about it as a journey. Helping the listener see what quest were we on. What did we overcome? What challenges did we deal with? How have we been transformed by that process? Organizing in that coherent and engaging narrative will not only be fun to listen to but will increase our likelihood of getting that job.

Marketers are also telling narratives, but there are different ways companies can talk about the role of products and services in those narratives.

A couple of years ago, I was working with a multinational consumer packaged goods company, and they had a campaign in the developing world where people could buy their product and be entered in a chance to win a college scholarship.

This program was doing a lot of social good, but it wasn’t getting a lot of word of mouth, so the company reached out for help. The couple of people that win the scholarship, they’re excited and tell others. But most people didn’t win the prize, so how could we get them more engaged? We analyzed this program in terms of a hero’s journey, and realized a problem.  The hero was the company not the consumer. The consumer had a challenge they wanted to overcome and buying something from the company could help them solve it. But if the company is the hero, that doesn’t really make people want to talk about it.

So we changed the narrative.  Rather than making the company the hero – the sword that slays the dragon in this hero’s journey – we made the customer the hero. By nominating or voting on who should get the scholarship, more people have a role in the narrative, and are more likely to talk about it as a result. The company’s still there. The company is helping. But the consumer is the hero. By seeing the program as a hero’s journey, we made it more effective.

Basiouny: You’re pulling the audience or the consumer into the story and making them a part of it, which would ultimately make it more effective for the marketing.

Berger: Certainly. We often have to think of who is a hero in the hero’s journey, and who is the villain? The more we can make consumers the hero, the more engaging it will be.

Can the Hero’s Journey Boost Your Interviewing Skills?

Basiouny: When you were speaking earlier about management and interviewing, it made me think about these very common interview questions when people apply for a job. “Tell me about a problem that you solved at work?” Or, “Tell me about your conflict-resolution skills?” If you think about your hero’s journey, you can come up with better answers during an interview.

Berger: Yes, certainly. Rather than the answer seeming like individual examples of things that don’t fit together, you can make it more of a common thread. What is the story you want to tell about yourself? What is the hero’s journey you’re on? What is the transformation you’ve already had, and what’s the quest you’d like to be on in the future? And how does this new role help you in that journey?

Rather than, “Oh, here’s a thing that happened to me,” the more it’s part of a cohesive narrative that showcases how you’ve overcome things in the past and been transformed, and how you’re likely to do that in the future, the more engaging it will be for the audience and the more impactful it will be.

Basiouny: If you’re interested in learning more, check out the full co-authored paper, “Seeing Your Life’s Story as a Hero’s Journey Can Increase Meaning in Life,” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.