Studies show that when people find meaning in their experiences, even painful experiences, they are more apt to find happiness and fulfillment. In fact, a happiness-boosting exercise sometimes assigned is to ask people to write their life stories. When people are asked to do this, and when they reflect on their lives in a constructive way, they feel happier.
I know this is true for myself. When I’ve been able to take painful past experiences and feel as if I’ve learned something important from them, they lose some of their negative charge. For example, my biography of John Kennedy, Forty Ways to Look at JFK , didn’t sell well at all. How I love that book! And yet it didn’t sell. This was very disappointing to me, and had potential serious consequences for my career. But I kept asking myself, "What have I learned? About myself, my writing, the reading audience, the publishing industry? Am I myself satisfied with the book I wrote?" Et cetera. I learned a lot from that disappointment, and that was a comfort. My former boss Reed Hundt often quoted Benjamin Franklin: "Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other."
I never watch the insanely popular TV show American Idol —I can’t stand to watch people lose—so I know almost nothing about Simon Cowell. But a friend told me to take a look at his " Letter to My Shallow, Reckless, Cocky Younger Self ," written on the occasion of his 50th birthday, and I was fascinated by it.
Simon Cowell’s letter to himself is a great example of writing a life story to find meaning in painful past experiences. As he writes to his younger self, Cowell expresses gratitude to the people he loves, he shows how he’s learned from his mistakes, he reflects on how he was responsible for some of the problems he faced, he emphasizes how he’s learned to trust his own judgment and taste, he considers his choices and why some were right for him and some wrong, he emphasizes his values, and he shows a sense of perspective and even humility.
I've never sat down to do something like this, but I'm sure it would be a very useful exercise. I loved reading this letter.
* I spent waaaay too long poking around Fresh Living on Belief.net this afternoon—"health and whole with two women who (usually) practice what we preach." Great material there.