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Editing Your Life's Stories Can Create Happier Endings

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It was a rainy night in October when my nephew Lewis passed the Frankenstein statue standing in front of a toy store. The 2 1/2 year-old boy didn't see the monster at first, and when he turned around, he was only inches from Frankenstein's green face, bloodshot eyes, and stitches-covered skin.

The 4-foot-tall monster terrified my nephew so much that he ran deep into the toy store. And on the way back out, he simply couldn't face the statue. He jumped into his mother's arms and had to bury his head in her shoulder.

For hours after the incident, Lewis was stuck. He kept replaying the image of Frankenstein's face in his mind. "Mom, remember Frankenstein?" he asked over and over again. He and his mom talked about how scary the statue was, how Lewis had to jump into her arms. It was "like a record loop," my sister said.

But then, suddenly, Lewis' story completely changed. My sister was recounting the tale to the family: how they left the store, how they had to walk by Frankenstein. And then — "I peed on him!!" Lewis blurted out triumphantly, with a glint in his eyes.

In that instant, Lewis had overpowered Frankenstein — if only in his mind.

"Well, your nephew is a brilliant story editor,'" says psychologist Tim Wilson of the University of Virginia.

Wilson has been studying how small changes in a person's own stories and memories can help with emotional health. He calls the process "story editing." And he says that small tweaks in the interpretation of life events can reap huge benefits.

This process is essentially what happens during months, or years, of therapy. But Wilson has discovered ways you can change your story in only about 45 minutes.

Wilson first stumbled on the technique back in the early 1980s, when he found that a revised story helped college students who were struggling academically. "I'm bad at school" was the old story many of them were telling themselves. That story leads to a self-defeating cycle that keeps them struggling, Wilson says.

The new story Wilson gave them was: "Everyone fails at first." He introduced the students to this idea by having them read accounts from other students who had struggled with grades at first and then improved. It was a 40-minute intervention that had effects three years later.

"The ones who got our little story-editing nudge improved their grades, whereas the others didn't," Wilson says. "And to our surprise ... those who got our story-editing intervention were more likely to stay in college. The people in the control group were more likely to drop out."

Similar interventions have also helped students feel like they fit in socially at college and have helped parents to stop abusing their kids.

The idea is that if you believe you are something else — perhaps smarter, more socially at ease — you can allow for profound changes to occur.

You can even try story-editing yourself at home with these writing exercises. Simply pick a troubling event. And write about it for 15 minutes each day for four days. That's it.

These exercises have been shown to help relieve mental anguish, improve health and increase attendance at work.

No one is sure why the approach works. But Wilson's theory is that trying to understand why a painful event happened is mentally consuming. People get stuck in thinking, "Why did he leave me?" or "Why was she so disappointed in me?" Or for Lewis, "Where did that scary Frankenstein face come from?"

As you write about the troubling, confusing event again and again, eventually you begin to make sense of it. You can put those consuming thoughts to rest.

So as you look forward to changing yourself this year, consider looking back on whatever your Frankensteins may be. And if you squint your eyes a little and turn your head just a bit, you may see that your leg was lifted. That maybe you did pee on him after all.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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