How To Reclaim Your Life With The 'Hero’s Journey' Method, According To Research
Here’s why viewing your life as a hero’s journey can be a catalyst for meaningful change.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | November 21, 2023
A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examined the connection between adopting the timeless narrative of "the hero's journey" in one's personal life and experiencing greater meaning in life.
I recently spoke to lead author Benjamin Rogers and co-authors Michael Christian and Kurt Gray of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to discuss the benefits of viewing oneself as a heroic protagonist living out their story and how to incorporate this narrative into one's daily life experiences. Here is a summary of our conversation.
Could you briefly describe the "Hero's Journey" and the seven elements of this narrative mentioned in your research?
The concept of the Hero's Journey was originally developed by mythologist Joseph Campbell and popularized in his book, "The Hero with a Thousand Faces." Campbell had found when studying myths and legends that, while aspects of a given story may vary, most heroic tales were variations of the same basic plotline, which he called the monomyth or the Hero's Journey.
This story has been told going back at least to Beowulf or Gilgamesh in 2000 BC and is as prevalent as ever, seen in the current superhero blockbuster and fantasy movies of today, such as Star Wars, Marvel, and Harry Potter.
Campbell's original Hero's Journey formulation had 17 steps, but in our paper, we sought to translate it for everyday modern life. For example, everyday people may not literally be thrown into unknown magical realms that set them off on new journeys, but we all encounter events and moments that shift our perspective towards our jobs, other people, or our lives.
We were able to distill the Hero's Journey into seven key elements: protagonist (a clear and defined character or identity), shift (a change in setting or circumstances), quest (a goal or purpose), allies (others who support the protagonist), challenges (obstacles or rivals), transformation (personal and/or moral growth), and legacy (positive impact on others).
The hero (protagonist) experiences a change in setting or life circumstances (shift) that sets them off toward a goal (quest) during which they encounter friends and mentors (allies), as well as obstacles (challenges), but eventually triumphs and grows from the experience (transformation), enabling them to return home and benefit their community (legacy).
What inspired you to study the connection between the narrative of the Hero's Journey and meaning in life?
A lot of my own research is concerned with helping people to find more meaning in their lives and their careers. This is important given that many believe we are facing a crisis of meaninglessness in the modern era with traditional sources of meaning like religion or community bonds decreasing in prominence.
One primary way in which people find meaning in their lives is through the narratives they develop to explain and give context to their experiences. People's life stories are based on their experiences obviously, but people choose to tell their stories in different ways; they emphasize or omit parts, they make certain connections between events.
Stories shape our understanding of the world and ourselves, so telling a more meaningful life story should spill over into perceptions that life itself is more meaningful.
My coauthors and I were curious what might be the "best" story for people to tell about their lives and we began discussing the concept of the Hero's Journey. If you read a book or article on screenwriting, the advice often given to writers is to use frameworks that are just variations of the Hero's Journey, because it is a structure to tell a really satisfying story.
The idea then became to apply the advice for screenwriters to people's life stories. We thought that life stories that were more similar to this enduring, popular narrative would feel more meaningful because they would contain many of the same themes and would be more culturally resonant.
What was your methodology and what were your key findings?
In the paper we conducted 14 studies which used a variety of approaches to test our predictions. The paper was generally broken up into three sections:
- In the first section, we took the 17 steps originally identified as comprising the Hero's Journey by Joseph Campbell and distilled it into the seven key elements—protagonist, shift, quest, allies, challenge, transformation, legacy. We then translated these elements into the Hero's Journey Scale where people can answer a series of questions that combine to indicate how similar their personal narrative is to the Hero's Journey. This was an important step because it allowed us to quantify how similar people's stories were to the Hero's Journey.
- In the second section, we took the Hero's Journey Scale and looked at the relationship between meaning in life and the extent to which people see their lives as a Hero's Journey. We found a pretty robust positive relationship between the Hero's Journey and meaning in life in our studies. The closer people felt their life was to a Hero's Journey, the more meaningful they felt their lives were. This relationship held even when we controlled for nine of the most common predictors of meaning in life in the literature (things like feeling a sense of belongingness or generativity), which suggests there is something unique about the combination of elements into a narrative above and beyond some of its constituent parts. The connection between the Hero's Journey and meaning in life was not just in the storyteller's internal narratives, we also saw the correlation when we asked people to record their life stories for us and we had coders rate how similar the stories were to a Hero's Journey. The more closely people told their story to a Hero's Journey, the more meaning they reported in their lives.
- In the final section, we looked at whether the Hero's Journey was causally related to meaning in life. We showed that rewriting your story as a Hero's Journey can increase meaning in life, using what we called a "restorying intervention." This intervention was a short writing exercise in which people reflected on how aspects of their lives connected with the seven Hero's Journey elements, and then were guided through connecting the elements into a cohesive Hero's Journey narrative. When people crafted their personal stories as a Hero's Journey as compared to a control reflection task, they found their lives to be more meaningful, they experienced a variety of well-being benefits, and they were able to be more resilient to personal challenges they faced in life, both in the way they viewed their problem and the strategies they used to tackle them.
How does the restorying intervention in your research enhance meaning and resilience and is there anyone in particular who would benefit from it?
We designed the restorying intervention to match the key mechanisms in our theory as to how the Hero's Journey is related to meaning in life. Essentially, we think there are two mechanisms by which seeing life as a Hero's Journey enhances life meaning:
- First, as a type of cultural narrative, the Hero's Journey provides information about societal goals and values. We see the heroes in such stories as valuable because they exemplify certain characteristics that are important to society. Thus, living a life with more of those elements should feel more meaningful because it is more attuned with goals and values in the broader culture.
- Second, because of its ubiquity, we are also innately—if not consciously—familiar with the narrative framework that makes up the Hero's Journey. Having a life story that aligns with this framework will make it more coherent, recognizable, and compelling because of this cultural resonance.
Thus, our restorying intervention consists of steps that match these mechanisms. People first identify the seven elements of the Hero's Journey as they already exist in their lives. Then, they weave those elements together into a coherent narrative united by the theme of seeing life as a heroic journey. In this way, we help to rewrite people's stories in an authentic way, resulting in more life meaning. Feeling life to be more meaningful, people are then able to be more resilient in the face of challenges because they have that meaning as a resource to draw from and because they have the knowledge that they have successfully faced and grown from challenges in the past.
Can anyone be a hero on a journey? Could you provide real-life examples of how an individual can adapt this narrative into their own life?
This is a great question and was a central motivator as we approached this research. If we discovered that only people who had lived fantastically heroic lives could see themselves as heroes on a journey to experience more life meaning, our work would have had minimal benefit to the broader population.
Fortunately, we both believe and found in the paper that anyone can be a hero on a journey. This was built into how we translated the steps in Campbell's original formulation of the Hero's Journey into seven elements. We focused on identifying how those narrative elements could manifest in the lives of everyday people.
We trace parallel Hero's Journeys—one mythical and one modern—that shows what this could look like.
In the modern version, the protagonist sets off to a new city to start a business, facing challenges of self-doubt while supported by her family and friends, and is transformed and able to return home to use her new skills to improve her community.
Results from our studies supported our view that anyone could be a hero on a journey. For example, in our studies employing the Hero's Journey Scale, we found no difference between men and women in terms of seeing life as a Hero's Journey.
But to the broader point, through the studies in which we conducted the restorying intervention, participants from a range of backgrounds and life experiences were able to retell their personal narratives as a Hero's Journey and subsequently experienced the benefits to life meaning and well-being.
We even tested if the restorying intervention had floor or ceiling effects such that it only worked for people who did not feel life was meaningful (and thus had ample room to increase meaning) or only worked for people who felt their life was meaningful (since they might be more amenable to a positive frame of their life). We found that the effects of the intervention did not depend on prior views of life meaning. In other words, it boosted the meaning and well-being of all our participants in the same way.
What wisdom does your research offer for individuals seeking more meaning in their lives?
We would point to two pieces of wisdom stemming from our research.
- First, this research shows that our life stories do not only reflect our lives but also can influence how we see them. While there are of course limits to how much you can reshape your personal story, if you are able to identify with powerful cultural narratives and apply them to your own experiences, you can connect your life to a broader system of meaning. We can choose to tell a "better" life story by using narrative forms with which we are innately familiar.
- Second, people may be reluctant to claim the title of a hero for a host of reasons, but this may be a mistake. Our distilled version of the Hero's Journey helps to translate heroic stories into everyday life. We show that the seven key elements of heroic myths can be found in almost anyone's life, such that anyone can be a hero on a journey. There are big and small ways to be a hero and reflecting on the ways in which you are a hero in your personal journey seems to have psychological benefits that are worth pursuing, without needing to feel inauthentic or narcissistic in picturing oneself as an epic hero.
Could you provide insight into the practical applications of your research? How might individuals, educators, or therapists use the knowledge of the Hero's Journey to enhance personal development and well-being?
Certainly! We see three general buckets of practical applications arising from our research.
- First, people can do writing or reflection exercises such as those that we feature in the paper to bring their life stories closer to a Hero's Journey. The restorying intervention we designed consists of writing just a few sentences in response to 8 prompts, where we guide people through the seven elements of the Hero's Journey and then reflect after about how the elements combine into a story of them as a hero on a journey. This could be something people do regularly as a way to take stock at points in their lives or it can be done when people are facing a particularly difficult life challenge. The restorying intervention is not only for people's broader life stories but also can be more targeted, as in one study we feature a career-focused restorying intervention. If people want a way to reframe their work, the Hero's Journey intervention can be a great way to tap into why you do your work, what impact it allows you to have, and how the challenges you face have helped you grow and benefit others.
- Second, as more of a foundational takeaway, is that people can do some reflection on what their current personal story is and whether they find that story meaningful, because our work (and other research as well) shows that this matters for how people navigate and respond to life experiences. If people are mired in narratives of rumination or past mistakes, they can seek out resources and opportunities to try and dislodge some of those narratives, from journaling to more intensive therapeutic practices.
- Finally, they could go have heroic adventures. We do not mean to suggest that people do anything risky or dangerous. However, there is something to the idea that the elements of the Hero's Journey reflect societal values and so engaging in activities that connect to those values should help make life more meaningful. For example, heroes experience a profound shift at the start of their stories that sets them on their quest. Finding ways that you can have new experiences that change or alter your perspective has been linked to more meaning in life. The Hero's Journey elements can act as a menu of sorts of ways to experience more life meaning. A side benefit of this will hopefully be an increased comfort in seeing oneself as a hero, since we all do kind, thoughtful and heroic things in our lives that are worth reflecting on.
Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on this topic go in the future?
Yes! We are hoping to explore these ideas in a variety of ways. Most directly stemming from this is a project where we take the central idea of our intervention a step further and use generative AI to help people instantly craft compelling Hero's Journeys that integrate their own experiences. We're also curious about what other downstream effects that telling personal narratives as a Hero's Journey might have. For example, would telling your story as a Hero's Journey make others more likely to help you by getting them invested in your story?
Does telling your story as a Hero's Journey help quell anxiety about mortality by connecting your story into a tradition of stories told for thousands of years? There are many ways in which we think the Hero's Journey might apply to people's life and we are excited to explore some applications in follow-up research.