Balloons with happy and sad faces with text why it's a mistake to only tell happy stories

We want our legacies to be positive.  However, it’s a mistake to only tell happy stories. We miss out on opportunities to cement connections.

Recently I wrote the following on social media.

As I studied countless images of myself in various historical and cultural contexts through #MyHeritage’s AI renderings, something interesting happened. Never, ever, comfortable with my looks, at first, I studied the portrayals for the same flaws that annoy me in the mirror—or looked for flattering pictures. But as I continued, the contexts caused me to look at myself as a character. What others might see in my countenance… A woman who’d seen life. A bad ass. An innocence lost long ago. What I might look like in other circumstances.

After a while, I didn’t object to the lines between my eyes (at least not nearly as much). I’m hoping I’ve learned something that will stay with me when the mirror and selfies seem unkind.

It occurs to me that this is a lot about how a lot of us approach our stories and our family’s stories. We want to look for the ones that look glamorous. Or heroic. Or Iconic.

We don’t want to share the ones that show us as hurt, tired, worn out.

That’s a mistake.

Why we should tell ALL types of stories, not just the happy ones.

Just as our lives have highs and lows, so should our stories.

Perfection doesn’t connect with others the way that our real-life lumps and bumps do.

I talked about this in my 2018 post Roses Aren’t Perfect—Family Stories Shouldn’t be Either.

If we only tell the sugar-wouldn’t-melt-in-my-family’s-mouth stories, we miss the dynamics that made our family unique. Readers won’t look at our stories and think, “ah, they’re people like us.”

In fact, fiction writers learn to make sure their characters have flaws. That too-good characters are flat and uninteresting.

Behaviorists agree. Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, an expert in relationships, says:

Perfect people are annoying and off-putting. We connect with people through their cracks. It’s what makes them human and, ultimately, attractive.

A weed in the sidewalk with text Perfect people are annoying and off-putting. We connect with people through their cracks. It's what makes them human and, ultimately, attractive.

Underlying image courtesy of


The first of Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling (originally tweeted by Emma Coats) supports this::

Pixar Rule No.1: You Admire a Character More For Trying Than For Their Successes

Think about it, if the character (or real-life person) has already achieved everything in life, that leaves us readers nothing to root for.

Writing honestly means leaving the cult of happiness and other things that make us look good.

Keely Herron, a survivor of some really horrible circumstances, has a perspective that family historians and memoirists can learn from.

In her Ted Ex talk, Leaving the Cult of Happiness, Herron explains that because of the stigma attached to the type of trauma she experienced, she developed what she calls an “armor of perfection.” She wasn’t honest about who she was and how she felt. She pretended everything was great.

That’s not uncommon in Western culture. We think others will judge us if we don’t paste on a bright smile or if we’re honest about our struggles. If we say, “I’m a train wreck,” instead of “I’m great!” We’re supposed to have our acts together.

What are we really doing when we ascribe to that?  (I’m pointing my finger back at myself. I don’t like to bring up my struggles with anxiety and depression).

First, we’re taking the positivity culture to an extreme. Even those who post memes about looking on the bright side of life or choosing joy, don’t expect all of us to do that 24/7. They’re not demanding that we deny our trauma.

At least most of them aren’t.

Dishonest isn’t the only reason it’s a mistake to only tell happy stories:  When we hide our sad stories, our trauma, our struggles, we overlook a chance to educate.

People learn through others’ personal stories. If, for example, I explained how hard I try to choose joy, how I can have life by the tail when my brain chemistry pulls the rug out from under my optimism, I could help others to find more compassion for their “blue” friends and family.

Finally, by judging ourselves and our trauma as unmentionable, we’re denying our community the opportunity to support us. We’re also assuming our family would be judgmental.

It’s hard to throw traumatic experiences into conversations. Sometimes writing our stories can help us break the ice and start talking about what makes us tick and what stops us in our tracks.

Listening and Reading is an act of Healing

Likewise, when we read or listen to others’ stories, we not only gain insight and perspective, we can help them heal.

In an interview with Wyoming Humanities, Herron explains why it was important to talk about the stigma of some stories.

“The message that I wanted to make sure to get across is that listening is not a passive practice, it’s an act of healing.“

My take on that: telling stories and sharing stories gives our family, friends—and total strangers—the opportunity to part of our healing.

Your Turn:

Do you find yourself gravitating towards stories that portray a level of perfection you don’t feel? How have you found ways to tell your truth?

See also: Writing the difficult chapters of your story: An Overview

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