Why Storytelling Has the Power to Help Us Survive and Thrive
Updated: Oct 27, 2022
Storytelling is an innate tool that lives inside all of us.
It’s in our very DNA. It is an evolution throughout generations. The ability to share stories with each other and to ourselves has contributed to our survival and the definitive growth of the human species.
Our daily lives are painstakingly built upon the story formula of character-obstacle-goal that has pushed the human race forward into the modern world we live in today. For the human population to survive this long is so much more than just avoiding predators; it’s about connecting with others to form more significant stronger communities, reproducing to continue the human race, and believing in our ability to thrive. This is all done through the power of the stories that we tell ourselves and each other.
A Brief History of Storytelling
It’s believed that stories originated as a tool to help humans communicate experiences to overcome deadly obstacles in the future. Humans learned through others how to improve their ability to hunt, gather food, avoid predators, and other survival tactics. Humans also used storytelling to spread ethical standards, which led to more peaceful interactions amongst groups, allowing groups to grow more significant than ever before.
There are three distinct types of storytelling: oral, visual, and written. There are examples of storytelling we know of today that dates back 40,000 to 50,000 years ago. Even right here in Australia, one of the most significant examples of oral storytelling is from an Aboriginal tribe in South Australia. They share a creation myth of Budj Bim, a long-extinct volcanic mountain that still stands today. It last erupted about 37,000 years ago, and there is archaeological proof to show this same tribe has lived in this area for the past 40,000 years. What this connection indicates is that this particular creation myth has been passed orally for roughly 1,600 generations.
We’ve found visual storytelling dating back 30,000 years. One of the earliest examples is the Chauvet cave in France. In the deepest crevices of this limestone cavern lie markings of hundreds of animals. These ancient artists used a pointed stick dipped in wet clay, tracing along the cave’s walls bringing to life the animals, humans, and tools of their time. There are even instances of the artist etching shadows into the animals’ silhouettes, creating a three-dimensional effect.
From what we have gathered, written storytelling began much later, about 4,500 years ago. The oral and visual storytelling that humans had been sharing for centuries before finally had an outlet in which to communicate their stories even more effectively. What emerged from these first examples of written storytelling was the idea of ethical codes a person should follow. Essentially, it was one generation of people passing onto the next generation of people how they should see, think, and behave in the world. Based on the writings, it is clear that shared ethical codes were shared for many generations prior. It was simply that humans had found a way to record these through the written word.
Storytelling as a Tool
It seems so simple, right? The human species has survived as long as it has because we have evolved to achieve one thing: survival. We avoid death, and we reproduce. It seems so simple, right? But this explains most other living things on this earth, as well. So what has caused humans to become what we are today, a flourishing globalized community with a lower mortality rate than in the history of humankind? Likely, the answer is storytelling.
Storytelling may not be a tool that we can physically hold, but it is a tool nonetheless. And it isn’t mutually exclusive to survival and reproduction. It is a tool that has improved upon the ability to both survive, reproduce, and thrive.
Bigger Stronger Communities
One of the earliest examples of written storytelling dating back 4,500 years ago is ‘Instructions of Shuruppak’. The story was written by a King to his son. What is written are principles for his son to follow in life. Each code seems to derive from a personal experience of the King himself or the Kings before him. For instance, the King shares, “You should not make a well in your field: people will cause damage on it for you. You should not place your house next to a public square: there is always a crowd there.”
Examples such as ‘Instructions of Shuruppak’ allow a person to learn from one’s life experience without actually having experienced it themselves. When written down or passed on orally, these stories have a trickle effect, teaching these life experiences to not only one person but many. Because people have learned how to think, act and behave in culture through shared stories, that group gets along more peacefully through shared ethical code.
However, when people don’t align with those ethical codes, they are singled out and exiled or forced to reform. Imagine a man stealing food from his neighbor. Stealing is against the moral code of this broader group, and the man is caught. What do they do? They bring him to justice by putting him in jail. He is made an example, and the other people of the group sigh in relief. They feel rewarded that the criminal is punished, and they personally are not. This example of rejection has reinforced the group’s set of ethical standards.
You can imagine that once ethical codes are established in a group, the growth potential of that community grows tremendously. There is more peace amongst the population, which allows most people to live their lives above the ethical code. There is harmony within the group. People of similar moral principles couple up and reproduce. And the group grows in population steadily and healthily.
You can see how the very same stories that drove our ancestors still guide us today. Our cultural groups have gotten even more extensive. Unfortunately, there are so many examples throughout history of cultural clashes of ethical codes, even today. But as we continue to globalize, I hope we see that we are all humans ultimately sharing the same story: doing our best to survive.
Thrive Through Storytelling
How is it possible that storytelling helps us to thrive, above and beyond just simply surviving and reproducing? We may find the truth by starting at the end. It’s the place where we do not want to end up. And that is death.
We possibly are the only living creatures on this planet that consciously comprehend we will die one day, yet we go about every day as if it will not happen to us. We see others die, but we do not live our lives anticipating our death. At least, not consciously. How is this possible? Surprisingly, it’s the very act of storytelling that keeps us going. We create obstacles and goals to achieve to continue forward with our life, determined to believe in our bigger purpose.
When we overcome these obstacles and achieve these goals (no matter how small they are), we are rewarded with a sense of purpose and accomplishment. No, really, it’s true. Research has shown that happy dopamines are released into our brains when we achieve a goal. Essentially, we want to keep going on these journeys to achieve our goals because we know we’ll receive a dopamine hit. Even imagining you achieving your goal can cause a dopamine hit. That’s how potent it is.
In the book Redirect, Psychologist Timothy D. Wilson explains, “A critical element to our well-being is how well we understand what happens to us and why. Those who feel in control of their lives, have goals of their choosing, and make progress towards those goals are happier than people who do not.”
Once we achieve our goal, we are immediately filled with the desire to achieve again. This perpetuates us forward into discovering new obstacles to overcome and goals to achieve. Those obstacles and goals you have experienced in your life? Those are stories told by you. This constant storytelling within each of us keeps us going, glossing over our mortality very helpfully.
The Power of Storytelling
Character. Obstacle. Goal. Three little sequential words that have brought the human race to what it is today. As you go about your day, pay attention to the thoughts that are coming up. Is it a story you’re telling yourself? Something you’re telling others? Is the story an obstacle you’re trying to overcome? Is it a goal that you’re trying to achieve?
Perhaps it helps to know you’re not alone in this innate ability. You are an expression of human nature, sharing stories with the world through your actions. The stories that came before you for generations have resulted in you being exactly where you are in this given moment. Enjoy it. Revel in it. You and your stories are powerful beyond measure.