Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Nov 27, 2019

What Is Your Single Greatest Life Challenge?

by Henry R. Cowan
photo of stones Balanced against the sea.

Consider these instructions: “Looking back over your entire life, please identify and describe what you now consider to be the greatest single challenge you have faced in your life.” What would you say? What kind of story would you tell?

If you are like the Chicago-area adults who participated in the Foley Longitudinal Study of Adulthood, your story may start with your family. As these adults, who were approaching retirement age, looked back on their lives, their greatest challenges often centered around overcoming a difficult family upbringing, navigating intimacy and marriage, or caring for children or aging parents. The challenges we face are not usually solitary, but rather involve the people around us—for better or for worse.

When we set out to study life challenges, our research team leaned toward focusing on the “worse” end of “for better or for worse.” The research on challenging life events tends to follow an adverse events model, which focuses on stressful or difficult life events, such as death, trauma, and divorce. We expected people’s major life challenges to focus on these kinds of negative events. But we were wrong.

When we allowed research participants to identify their own greatest challenges, they covered a much broader sweep of human experience. In fact, loss and trauma were the least common topics, appearing in only 15% of the challenges that participants reported.  Instead, participants were much more likely to talk about challenges involving family (52%), health (28%), personal development (28%), career (26%), and social and cultural issues (23%).

Even when discussing loss or trauma, participants did not necessarily focus on the negative aspects of these events. One of the most powerful stories came from a woman who was left to raise her grandchild after her own child’s sudden death. Her challenge, she said, was not the tragic loss of her child, but rather a lifelong commitment to raising her grandchild with love, acceptance, and forgiveness.

Why are we interested in people’s stories about great life challenges? Of course, these stories are fascinating in their own right. But more importantly, they reveal important psychological processes. A growing body of psychology research focuses on narrative identity, the idea that people make sense of their lives by telling stories about themselves. Our autobiographical stories—our personal narratives—not only give our lives meaning, continuity, and coherence, but they also impact our mental health and well-being.

In this study, we scored each participant’s life challenge story for 14 narrative variables. For example, did the participant give a wealth of detail or just the bare minimum? Did they emphasize or minimize the personal impact that the experience had on them? Were their stories emotionally hopeful or distressing? Using a statistical technique called exploratory factor analysis, we looked at how these 14 questions grouped together and found one particularly important factor we called agency/emotion.

Agency refers to the way a person talks about his or her role in events—as a dynamic, motivated agent or as a passive observer. Emotion refers to the emotional tone of a story, from enthusiastic and hopeful to distressing and hopeless. Our results showed that agency and emotion went hand-in-hand—that is, stories about a dynamic, agentic protagonist were also stories with a hopeful emotional tone. Most importantly, people who told hopeful and agentic stories tended to have better psychological well-being and fewer depression symptoms.

Can you improve your mental health by changing the stories you tell about yourself? This study cannot say whether agentic and hopeful stories caused our participants to have better mental health. However, counseling and psychotherapy teach clients more effective and productive ways to talk to themselves about their experiences. And research by the psychologist Jonathan Adler has shown that clients who are involved in psychotherapy tell increasingly agentic and hopeful stories about their lives as they progress through therapy.

So, as you reflect on your own challenges, think about the role in which you are casting yourself. Are you, as the protagonist in your greatest life challenge, helpless or active? Are you hopeless or courageous? The answers to these questions matter more than you might think. They can help you understand—and maybe even change—your present-day mental health and well-being.

For Further Reading

Cowan, H. R., Chen, X., Jones, B. K., & McAdams, D. P. (2019). The single greatest life challenge: How late-midlife adults construct narratives of significant personal challenges. Journal of Research in Personality, 83, 103867.

Adler, J. M. (2012). Living into the story: Agency and coherence in a longitudinal study of narrative identity development and mental health over the course of psychotherapy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(2).


Henry Raffles Cowan is a doctoral student in Clinical Psychology at Northwestern University. He researches the ways we process information about ourselves, and how our ways of thinking about ourselves can support well-being or contribute to mental illness.

About our Blog

Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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