Nautilus

How Aging Shapes Narrative Identity

It’s not just our flesh and bones that change as we get older.Photograph by dirkmvp41 / Flickr

In 2010, Dan McAdams wrote a biography about George W. Bush analyzing the former American president using the tools of personality psychology. It was, in his own words, a flop. “I probably had three readers,” McAdams laughs. But an editor from The Atlantic happened to read it, and asked McAdams to write a similar piece analyzing Donald Trump. It was a hit, attracting 3.5 million readers.

“So something good came out of it,” McAdams tells me. He used the case in class. And, he explains, he has always been interested in politics anyways. “I’m kind of a political junkie going back into the ’60s. That’s my autobiographical reasoning.”

Autobiographical reasoning gets far more sophisticated as you age.

By autobiographical reasoning, McAdams means finding and attaching meaning using your own life history. It’s how he has come to interpret the time he spent writing his book, and it’s part of how all of us build our broader narrative identity—the story of who we are and where we’re going.

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