Getting Our Story Straight is a Matter of Life & Death (Literally)

The stories we tell ourselves have great influence over our destiny. These narratives shape our belief system and thus, in turn, the decisions we make.

Find yourself making poor choices? That's likely due to a fallacy in one or more of the beliefs you hold.

Psychology and social science have re-discovered this key learning: We can improve our odds of success in life by improving the stories we tell ourselves. Hence the flood of recent books on the topic (The Power of Story, Flourish, Being Happy -- to name just a few)

But this insight is nothing new:

Great transformers throughout history like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass, America's founding fathers, Leif Ericson, Copernicus, and Aristotle all demonstrate the immense positive change that simply holding a different -- but more authentic and useful -- set of beliefs can unleash to the world.

The stories we tell ourselves not only ultimately determine our actions, but they determine how we perceive the world around us. Meaning: the exact same events can happen to two individuals; but if each holds a different set of beliefs, they can have extremely different interpretations of reality.

As a theoretical example, let's take two survivors of the same aggressive cancer. Both went through years of treatment in which their health and quality of life suffered greatly from the symptoms of the disease as well as the harshness of the surgeries and chemotherapy they had to endure. But both successfully emerged from the experience with the cancer in full remission. One survivor has an internal narrative that "fate is cruel" and spends his time lamenting the lost years, dwelling on the trauma and living in fear of the next metaphysical grenade to explode in his life. The other survivor holds an opposite story in his head, that "life is precious" and feels great gratitude at being one of the lucky to survive, full of excitement and eagerness to get the most out of the years ahead that he's been gifted with.

This example shows why having the 'right' programming within our narratives is so valuable. If our narratives are enabling and positive, yet aligned with reality, they can inspire us to happiness -- potentially greatness -- even in the face of adversity. If instead we guide ourselves by negative or unrealistic stories, the inevitable discouragement and disappointment handicap our ability to meet or even pursue our goals.

Broken Narratives

For years now, Chris and I have warned of the increasing damage being wreaked by the broken narratives that our society lives by:

  • 3%+ GDP growth will rescue our economy. All efforts to make that happen are necessary, even if they punish the prudent.
  • American energy independence is just around the corner.
  • Our banks are too-big-to-fail (or jail) and therefore need to be supported at taxpayer cost.
  • Preserving the euro is essential to Europe's future.
  • Enhancing national security requires sacrificing more of our civil liberties.
  • Gold is not money.
  • We're all better off if the stock market is higher.
  • Most of our social problems (schools, jobs, global competitiveness, etc.) will be solved with more taxes and more regulation.
  • Housing and education loans are "good debt."
  • We live in a completely free and fair society.
  • The Fed knows what it is doing.

By telling ourselves stories that aren't supported by the underlying data, or even rational logic, we create unrealistic expectations for what should happen. That leads to making bad decisions. And when events play out differently than our deeply held convictions say they should, we experience the cognitive dissonance of not believing the reality we are seeing.

If we aren't willing to revisit and alter our beliefs based on new observed data, our actions are unlikely to change, and we fall victim to Einstein's famous definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting a different outcome.

This can manifest in laughable ways, such as how investment bankers have developed such an oversized belief in their deserved income, they simply can't imagine a universe in which they could live on US$1.5 million or less:

When a million isn’t enough: why top bankers are struggling to get by

For some people working in financial services, however, £1m is simply what’s needed to cover the cost of living.

“You get a lot of people who have a very expensive lifestyle,” said Louise Cooper, a former Goldman Sachs salesperson and financial analyst at Cooper City. “They will always have a nanny, private schools for the children and they will have a very big expensive house. All of this has to be paid for out of taxable income,” she points out. “With a top tax rate of 45%, this means that you need to be earning nearly double what you’re spending.”

Tax is an issue in the U.S. too. “After tax, your million dollars will be around $600k,” said Goldstein. “Out of that, you get people trying to pay the mortgages on, and maintain houses, in the Hamptons and Manhattan, to put three children through private schools costing $40k a year each, and to pay living costs.”

Why can’t bankers simply ditch the house in the Hamptons and put their children into state run educational establishments? Unfortunately, this seems easier said than done. “When you work in banking, you end up surrounded by people who earn a lot of money,” said Erika Shapiro, a former fixed income saleswoman at Goldman, Citi, Credit Suisse and UBS who became a yoga instructor. “Everyone around you has a big mortgage and is sending their children to private schools.”

“You just get trapped at a certain level of expenditure,” said Tony Greenham, a former investment banker at Barclays and head of finance and business at the New Economics Foundation. “You’re in a peer group which aspires to and achieves a certain standard of house in a certain area, a certain type of holiday home, and certain schooling for your children.”

The social conditioning to spend heavily is insidious and is enforced by bankers’ peers, said Nell Montgomery, an ex-Goldman Sachs sales trader-turned psychotherapist. “People in banking get into a thought process whereby having three children at private schools costing £100k after tax is normal. You hear people saying they’d rather pay for private tutoring than spend £10k on a holiday. It’s a mindset in which things which are not normal come to be perceived as standard,” she said.

I know, I know. Cue the violins...

But there's a darker side to holding on to a dysfunctional narrative. When our beliefs don't provide us with enabling material, disappointment and despair commonly result when we experience negative surprises.

An example mentioned previously on this site is the dramatic increase in alcohol-related suicides across Russia following the dissolution of the Soviet Empire.

Many middle-aged men experienced an abrupt change to their identity. Jobs were lost; uncertainty about the "new Russia" swirled. A man who had been a pipe-welder his whole life suddenly did not know if he would have more pipes to weld.

The loss of identity and the stress of not knowing what would come next sadly drove a tremendous amount of once-productive individuals to literally drink themselves to death. From the NIH:

Heavy Drinking and Suicide in Russia

Rates of alcohol consumption and suicide in Russia were high before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, rose sharply during the early 1990s, and are currently among the highest in the world...

...Repeated political and economic crises in 1990s Russia resulted in uncertainty and diminished hope for the future at a time when a paradigmatic shift of social, cultural, economic and political norms were creating anomic conditions (Durkheim [1897]1966). It is generally accepted that the social and individual stress resulting from the reforms were the main causes of increased demand for alcohol at this time (Leon and Shkolnikov 1998)...

...Leon and Shkolnikov (1998) argued that alcohol played a central role in the mortality crisis of the 1990s, Notzon et al. (1998) showed that about 12 percent of the decline in life expectancy between 1990 and 1994 was directly due to alcohol-related mortality...

Remember that Russia remained communist at this time, with much of its social support system intact. In many cases, those who chose to drink themselves to death were not facing looming penury. But they had a narrative in their head that told them that a life different from the one they knew was not worth living.

What could have happened if they held a different, more encouraging belief? What if they believed that fate just gave them a chance to reinvent themselves. Or if they simply believed that "change brings opportunity" and waited to see what open doors the next few years might offer? Others in Russia did, and lived.

A Manifesting Concern

A growing worry here at Peak Prosperity is that we see increasing signs that people elsewhere in the world, particularly in the squeezed middle and lower classes, are falling victim to the same toxic cognitive dissonance that ruined so many post-USSR Russians.

In the U.S., individuals and families are increasingly realizing that playing by the rules society is asking them to is not resulting in the outcomes they've been sold on.

For example, imagine you're a college-aged student. The story is still:

    nearly $300K, and other studies think the actual amount is much higher?
  1. Retire? Ha! Don't even think about it...
  2. Oh, yeah. And while you're pursuing all this, the national infrastructure you're inheriting is crumbling, you'll be taxed increasingly to pay for the debts racked up by past generations, energy and commodity prices will be marching higher, and health care costs will be off the charts. Good luck!!

Is it any wonder that millennials are giving up on the American dream in huge numbers?

And it's not just the younger cohorts. In fact, we may be seeing a Russia-like identity crisis emerge across the U.S. Baby Boomer population:

Suicide Rates Rise Sharply in U.S.

More people now die of suicide than in car accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which published the findings in Friday’s issue of its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report...

Suicide rates among middle-aged Americans have risen sharply in the past decade, prompting concern that a generation of baby boomers who have faced years of economic worry and easy access to prescription painkillers may be particularly vulnerable to self-inflicted harm.

From 1999 to 2010, the suicide rate among Americans ages 35 to 64 rose by nearly 30 percent, to 17.6 deaths per 100,000 people, up from 13.7. Although suicide rates are growing among both middle-aged men and women, far more men take their own lives. The suicide rate for middle-aged men was 27.3 deaths per 100,000, while for women it was 8.1 deaths per 100,000.

The most pronounced increases were seen among men in their 50s, a group in which suicide rates jumped by nearly 50 percent, to about 30 per 100,000. For women, the largest increase was seen in those ages 60 to 64, among whom rates increased by nearly 60 percent, to 7.0 per 100,000.

It is the baby boomer group where we see the highest rates of suicide,” said the C.D.C.’s deputy director, Ileana Arias. “There may be something about that group, and how they think about life issues and their life choices that may make a difference.”

The rise in suicides may also stem from the economic downturn over the past decade. Historically, suicide rates rise during times of financial stress and economic setbacks. “The increase does coincide with a decrease in financial standing for a lot of families over the same time period,” Dr. Arias said.

Dr. Arias noted that the higher suicide rates might be due to a series of life and financial circumstances that are unique to the baby boomer generation. Men and women in that age group are often coping with the stress of caring for aging parents while still providing financial and emotional support to adult children.

“Their lives are configured a little differently than it has been in the past for that age group,” Dr. Arias said. “It may not be that they are more sensitive or that they have a predisposition to suicide, but that they may be dealing with more.

Preliminary research at Rutgers suggests that the risk for suicide is unlikely to abate for future generations. Changes in marriage, social isolation and family roles mean many of the pressures faced by baby boomers will continue in the next generation, Dr. Phillips said.

“The boomers had great expectations for what their life might look like, but I think perhaps it hasn’t panned out that way,” she said. “All these conditions the boomers are facing, future cohorts are going to be facing many of these conditions as well.

In this report, we learn that the mismatch between expectations and reality -- between narrative and destiny -- is a driving force behind this recent rise in suicide. Again, we see the destructive outcome that can result when the stories we tell ourselves are too disconnected or useless to the world in which we actually live.

Improving Our Odds Through Emotional Resilience

The one thing that we can have confidence in about the future is that Change is coming.

If you've watched the Crash Course or read even just a few articles on, the rationale for why is abundantly clear. But while we feel increasingly certain about the nature of the events that will unfold, the timeline and the pathways in which they will remain challenging to predict. So, surprises -- certainly some of them negative -- undoubtedly await us.

So how do we avoid the fate that befell the post-Soviet Russians when their world changed in unexpected ways?

Answer: Cultivate useful narratives. And develop emotional resiliency now, in advance.

As the above insights have shown us, it's often our response to events, rather than the events themselves, which determines our fate. If we work on guiding ourselves by beliefs that are well-grounded empirical, and give us pragmatic optimism, we'll have much better odds of successfully persevering through whatever uncertainties arise.

To make this a little more tangible, I'll share a few examples of some of the narratives that Chris and I hold.

Both of us experienced sizable life changes when we left our corporate executive roles to pursue our mission, a big one being a dramatic drop in income. But we had worked in advance on re-defining what 'wealth' meant to us. True, money still plays a major role in our wealth, but we decided that there are many other components with an equal footing (purpose, health, self-sufficiency, strong relationships, time in nature, community involvement, etc.). We believed we could "cut our standard of living in half, yet double our quality of life" -- that was a foundational narrative for us. And it helped us weather the 'tight times' that ensued as we worked to get off the ground. Holding that aspirational belief, along with a practical plan (with specifics), really did take a lot of the worry and stress away during a time when, without it, we easily could have become consumed by the shock of the lost income and the uncertainty of our venture.

Another important belief we hold is that "Fundamentals eventually win out." This helps us retain our sanity during the nonsensical times when it feels like the laws of physics no longer apply to the markets we analyze. It's what keeps us from throwing in the towel when the precious metals head in the opposite direction than the overwhelming preponderance of data says they should. And it prevents us from capitulating when the Fed-juiced stock markets levitate to ever-unsupportable heights day after day. It's what allows us to feel comfortable with our peak "net energy" stance, despite the cheerleading going on the US media that the shale revolution will solve all our energy concerns. Without this grounding belief, it would be hard to look at the superficial data today and not feel like we've been horribly mistaken in our positioning. But we don't. In fact, we feel comfortably confident. Why? We revisit and battle-test this belief often, and we've yet to find an empirical, logical rationale for changing it.

Chris and I firmly believe in the merit of "Creating a world worth inheriting." In fact, for those who didn't already know it, that's our mission. Having clarity around our end goal enables us to construct a set of values that guide everything we do. Integrity, quality, a relentless focus on improving the customer experience, living the lifestyle we recommend, fiscal prudence, investing in our communities, finding joy in the journey -- all of these priorities dovetailed naturally out of the core belief once we embraced it. They have guided us very well so far, and have often provided non-monetary returns at least as equal as the monetary ones. Could we make more money or grow our audience faster with a different set of values? Sure, but they would violate our core belief; which we can't see a logical reason to abandon. Plus, we sleep very well at night guided by our current set. We're not looking to mess with that.

We also practice the recommendations contained within Peak Prosperity's Emotional Resilience wiki, which, if you haven't yet read, you should do so ASAP. It was written by a professional psychiatrist with deep interest and experience with the resiliency-building we promote through our site. This wiki is chock full of insights and techniques you can use to develop a mind-set that will give you more control over your life and decision-making (vs. being at the mercy of unexpected events) that will lead to greater calm and peace of mind.

And don't feel like you need to do all this inner work alone. It's a good idea to recruit support. For some that means involving close friends and family to serve as sounding boards and cheerleaders. For others, that might mean consulting with a good therapist. For everyone, the process should involve investing in developing and/or deepening relationships you can draw on as you go forward through life -- as we explored in a recent article, supportive relationships have been scientifically proven to be the most important determinant for living a long and happy life.

Returning back to Gandhi in closing: Another of his maxims is often paraphrased as "Be the change you wish to see in the world." A wise sentiment from a wise man.

Such change comes from within.

And starts with getting our stories straight.

FYI: we focus further on the importance of narrative, and how to improve our own internal ones, at our Peak Prosperity seminars. If you feel you could benefit from this, as well as working to build your overall resiliency with the company of like-minded individuals, please consider joining our upcoming seminar at Kriplu in July in western Masschusetts. Click here to learn more.

~ Adam Taggart

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Discouraging suicide is so yesterday.

"The World Health Organization predicts that by 2020, anxiety and depression –which tend to co-occur – will be among the most prevalent causes of disability worldwide, secondary only to cardiovascular disease," Dolcos said. "So it's associated with big costs."

Read more at:

Check out the Black line!

I find the game facinating.

My daughter who is a seer and a witch asks me not create such a black future. I deny responsibility on the grounds that Quantum physics suggests that I cause reality to come into being by observing it. (Ever wonder what goes on behind your back?). Nowhere in the contract does it say that I am responsible for any control of the outcomes. That appears to be beyond the halogram's event horizon.

You have got to admire the exquisite detailing of the illusion of reality. It is just so convincing. Until you inspect it up close. 11 dimensions indeed! (String theory) Infinite numbers of branching multiverses! Yeah Right.

(But then again I did end up with two copies of Scientific American's Parallel Universe magazine.) God is such a wag.

The future is what is sneaking-up behind me.
OBTW in the quantum world…not only what occurs occurs but what didn't or couldn't occur occurs, so that  outcomes occur without respect to cause. high-energy state? we ask…just a tenseless omniverse.

I gotta go milk my cows. robie

and while in meditation with my mother,Peanut who is .5Jersey.5Dexter, she told me to clarify the statements made in my previous post. The truths, in that #2 post, are realized as Energy approaches infinity and Mass approaches 0.
In India it wouldn't be impossible for Peanut to be my Mother, there in an omniverse for everything.robie

I've got a nephew graduating this year. I agree with Adam that we should at least question the value of taking the path through a traditional undergraduate program.
He would be better off picking an engineering company and offering to work for free for 1 year. Seems like a win …win scenario. They can asses his value with little commitment and he can see if he really likes that particular field. And he does not start to accumulate college debt. 


Not a broken narrative? I think our belief system that humans are not changing climate (at an unprecidented rate) is the most dangerous, all the others will just be crushed.

…in that they have bought into the entitlement of the (massively marketed) "American Dream", thereby succumbing to the same type of mindset as shown in investment bankers as describe in the article. There exists that pressure to "keep up with the Jones", enabled by the debt super cycle, and which has resulted in massively un-realistic expectations. Being content with what one has is so yesterday! Why be content when you can have it all now (and pay for it later)? Instant gratification is the name of the game.
Somewhere along the way people, (especially those in first world countries) lost the ability to value what they have. This ties in with the Ghandi quote re our beliefs. A value system that has no basis in reality is bound to result in un-met expectations, which translates into deep disappointment. To exacerbate matters, the last few decades have seen a change in how children are raised. Massaging self-esteem, eliminating failure, and the belief system of "I want my kid to have everything I never had growing up" have all contributed to a mindset where many do not know how to deal with un-met expectations. Having to deal with adversity was avoided at all costs, which may very well be contributing to the rise in depression and suicides in our current era.

Thanks Adam, for the good reminder of how important this subject is. It is one more aspect of personal resilitence that we have more time to cultivate before we (may) really need to tap into it.






Uh, Arthur, where'd you get that graph? Need to send it to Eric over on the climate change thread.  He wanted to know what a catastrophe was.

Uh, Arthur, where'd you get that graph? Need to send it to Eric over on the climate change thread.  He wanted to know what a catastrophe was.

What a great post.  And I love how you and Chris are such excellent writers and get these deep ideas onto paper with such clarity.

ha. The black line of death. Literally.
according to that graph theres not much beyond 2050 for most of us.

lets hope that one is wrong…

You can rip it out of my post. Right mouse click on the image- choose Copy URL.- Paste the URL into the little image icon at the top of this page. A dialogue box will open up in which you can adjust the size etc.You can put any image on the web by posting it up on an image hosting site such as imageshack and then useing the above proceedure to paste it on your postings.

Try doing something real small, like slowing down on the highway and see how many crazy looks you get.  People will think that you are either senile or a lunatic.  Tell people that you don't watch TV, they look at you like you just said that you are from alpha centauri, then they pretend that you that you didn't say anything at all and go on wth the conversation.  If you want people to think that you are really crazy, when they ask if you watched the game last night, tell them you don't really follow sports.
Start talking about differnet economic models, energy alternatives, a different set of values (the're are alternatives?) that don't involve maximizing personal economic gain, well they have a padded cell for you somewhere you can't do any harm or hurt yourself. I think about the fact that just about every American (myself included for a good protion of my life), from the time we could barely hold themselves erect, spent typically over 5 hours a day watching a device that spent half the viewing time trying to sell us something.  Inculcating values of materialism, consumerism, and other unsavory cultural norms.  Ah, the formative alpha waves of a childs formative mind, what a marketing oportunity!

Nothing wrong with driving a little fast on the highway or following sports of course, but it is amazing how strongly enforced cultural norms are, we all do this to each other.  But as certainly as winter turns to spring of night turns to day, things change.  Reality creeps in. The world is written on our inward parts, as has been said, the truth will out.  We are co-creators of this amazing unfolding universe, but there are limitations. When we observe light we get either a wave or a partical, not a nice warm slice of mom's best apple pie.

The game isn't worth playing unless we are all playing for keeps is it? And right now we certainly are, makes you sit up and take notice.  Kind of wakes you up in the morning, do we really need that cup of coffee any more?  The oposite of life is not death, it's convenience, the kind of life that never takes you out of your comfort zone. As much as it takes to wake us up, we will get, and that is better than the alternative, an infinity of dreamless sleep.  Wouldn't get all this lovely black humor on this thread either.

Tomorrow, doing everything with your oposite hand, and see how that makes you look at things.  When you walk in the woods with a friend, do it holding hands back to back.  One person see what is ahead, the  other is what your are leaving behind. Where are we going anyway?


Broken narratives lead to broken dreams. Find a new dream.
I did what Chirs and Adam did, and am not looking back. When I quit my $80-$100K-a-year job to move from NY to semi-rural SC the response was always the same… Response part one: "Are you crazy?" was followed in every case almost immediately by response part two: "I'm so jealous." We are hadnling more and more of our food and energy needs by ourselves and enjoying every minute of it.

Jumping off the merry-go-round takes courage, but - guess what? The damned merry-go-round is a broken death trap.

Thanks for the helpful (to me) tips on posting and Age of Limits site Arthur. On the importance of narritive, in a study, nursing home residents were told on one floor, "this is your home, you're in control, watch Tv or not, rearrange the furniture, walk around, oh heres plant, take care of it. On a different floor the narritive was slightly different, "This is your home, we're here to take care of you,we're doing everything to make you happy, Oh, and here's a plant, we'll take care of that for you too."  The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking" - Matthew Hutson, p74.
Three weeks later 71% of the first group had deteriorated, but, 93% of the empowered group had actually improved! But the kicker is,18 months later, first group still more fun, and only half as many had died as in second group - 15% versus 30%.

Chris, in case you didn't know , Bill Bonner quotes you in his Last Word colum in "MoneyWeek" magazine,

the British version, not the terrible US one.- about Bernanke's "magic recovery plan", 3rd May issue.



A lot of this article resonated deeply for me, primarily because I've been on both sides of the "narrative divide" and know first-hand the way that it can be either liberating or crushing – depending on the narrative you choose.
Several years back I left the engineering world to go back to school and become a history teacher.  I attacked it with single-minded determination and graduated with just under a 4.0 GPA and an award for one of the papers I wrote.  I managed to get a F/T teaching gig less than a year after graduating.  What I didn't realize at the time was that I had wrapped up too much of my identity into what I was pursuing as a change-of-career.  That was forced into clear view when I expressed a view of the curriculum I was teaching that didn't jive with one of the administrators who helped write it, and I found myself let go after just a single year.

Because I had invested too much of my person into what I wanted to do, when that didn't work out I spiraled down into the depths of a serious depression.  I look back now and realize that I barely hung on by my fingernails to my marriage, my family, and very likely even my life.

Eventually, though, with some help I was able to claw my way back out of it.  I gave up on the teaching gig and returned to engineering (and got my license).  Along the way I also discovered permaculture, and last year completed my PDC through Green Phoenix Permaculture in High Falls, NY.

My job still demands a fair amount of my time, and I do strive to do it well – but it just isn't "who I am".  More than anything, it's something I can leverage to eliminate the mortgage and accumulate significant capital reserves.  My main focus in my own narrative now is unattachment to outcomes, to learn to be content by just doing what I can do in the time that I have, and focusing on the people and things that truly give me joy.  Working the combination of permaculture and engineering into a viable livelihood in the future is a goal, but even if it doesn't work out I can still spend time working on the homestead forest gardens and help friends put in their own.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that although many of the core things I believe about the world we inhabit from a purely physical limitation standpoint (peak oil, peak credit, overshoot, etc.) have not changed from before, the way that I process those ideas certainly has.  And the different narrative that emerged from that process makes all the difference in the world.

Your thoughts create your world and your future. If you think that you will have debt, will not find a job nor raise a family, guess what you will get. It is a self fulfilling prophecy. Stop the doom and gloom and look at the bright side of life. Henry Ford said that if you think you can do it, or you think you can't, you're right.

-I really like that, Christopher.  After spending so many years strenuously pursuing the typical goals we are taught to strive for (education, career, decent home, etc.), I feel like the world's been turned topsy-turvey.  The things that used to matter so much don't matter nearly as much as the intangibles you describe (given that your basic needs are met).
One of the lawyers on a popular cop/lawyer show said it well:"Life is a funny old dog!"
(oops!  tv admission!:slight_smile:

"Broken narratives lead to broken dreams.  Find a new dream."Might have to borrow that one in the future…

The graph is too optimistic. Compare
I agree with Christopher: focus on today's joys. And maintain decency as long as possible.