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Crystallization of Desire and Crystallization of Discontent in Narratives of Life-Changing Decisions

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Two studies of adults examined personal narratives of life-changing decisions in relation to personality and well-being. Participants whose decision narratives emphasized a crystallization of desire (i.e., approaching a desired future) rather than a crystallization of discontent (i.e., escaping an undesired past; Baumeister, 1991, 1994) reported higher well-being, fewer avoidance strivings, lower Neuroticism (in Study 1 only), and better decision outcomes (in Study 2). However, neither strivings, traits, nor outcomes accounted for the relationship between crystallization of desire and well-being. The discussion considers the roles of life-changing decisions and personal narratives in research on personality, well-being, and positive personal development.
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Crystallization of Desire and Crystallization of
Discontent in Narratives of Life-Changing
Decisions
Jack J. Bauer
Northern Arizona University
Dan P. McAdams and April R. Sakaeda
Northwestern University
ABSTRACT Two studies of adults examined personal narratives of
life-changing decisions in relation to personality and well-being. Partici-
pants whose decision narratives emphasized a crystallization of desire
(i.e., approaching a desired future) rather than a crystallization of
discontent (i.e., escaping an undesired past; Baumeister, 1991, 1994)
reported higher well-being, fewer avoidance strivings, lower Neuroticism
(in Study 1 only), and better decision outcomes (in Study 2). However,
neither strivings, traits, nor outcomes accounted for the relationship
between crystallization of desire and well-being. The discussion considers
the roles of life-changing decisions and personal narratives in research on
personality, well-being, and positive personal development.
Jack J. Bauer, Northern Arizona University. Dan P. McAdams and April R. Sakaeda,
The Foley Center for the Study of Lives, Northwestern University.
The authors would like to thank the Foley Family Foundation for its major support
of this research, the Positive Psychology Summer Training Institute for its support, and
Bob Emmons for his insights on an earlier draft of this paper. Portions of this paper
were presented at the 2003 Annual Convention of the American Psychological
Association in Toronto.
Correspondence concerning this article should be sent to Jack Bauer, Department
of Psychology, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, AZ 86011-5106. E-mail:
jack.bauer@nau.edu.
Journal of Personality 73:5, October 2005
rBlackwell Publishing 2005
DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2005.00346.x
Decisions to change one’s life, such as the decision to marry or to
change a career, are complex phenomena that guide the broad
trajectories of a life course. Common sense suggests that people
make life-changing decisions with the intentions of making their lives
happier, more meaningful, or otherwise better. But not all life
decisions turn out so well. We argue that people’s underlying reasons
for making a life decision are linked to the life path that follows, as
well as to broader facets of personality and well-being. Research has
shown that, especially during times of life review and decision
making, the manner in which one construes one’s life corresponds
to psychological health and well-being (Kling, Ryff, & Essex, 1997;
Stewart & Vandewater, 1999). Yet, research specifically on life-
changing decisions—let alone their underlying reasons and motiva-
tions—is harder to find.
In a stimulating proposal on how people initiate major changes in
their lives, Baumeister (1991, 1994) claimed that people arrive at life-
changing decisions by first experiencing a crystallization of discon-
tent. He portrayed the crystallization of discontent as part of a
subjective process in which the individual concludes that the negative
aspects of a certain life condition outweigh the positives. Until that
point, the individual engages in maintaining the view that the
positives outweigh the negatives (e.g., by contextualizing or other-
wise minimizing the importance of the negatives), thereby enabling
the person to keep a rosier big picture and to maintain the
current life condition. But when the person perceives bad days as
turning into bad years, the person is more likely to conclude that the
future will contain much of the same. At this point, the person
arrives at a crystallization of discontent and is motivated to make a
major life change. However, it seemed to us that this was an
expressly avoidance-oriented style of decision making—an effort
in fleeing or escape—and that many people would not interpret
their own decision-making processes that way. It seems that some
people arrive at a decision to change their lives by realizing what it
is that they want to do in the future rather than by realizing
what they do not want to do in the present or did not want to
do in the past. We called this style of decision making a crystal-
lization of desire.
1182 Bauer, McAdams, & Sakaeda
Crystallization of Desire Versus Discontent
Past Research on Crystallization of Discontent
One study, to our knowledge, has addressed the notion of a
crystallization of discontent (Heatherton & Nichols, 1994). The
study used narratives to capture the subjective dimension of the
crystallization process. However, the aims and the methods of that
study differed considerably from those of the present studies.
Heatherton and Nichols randomly assigned participants into two
groups, one to write a story about making a successful life change
and another to write a story about an inability to make a major life
change. The results showed that stories of successful attempts at life
change were more likely than stories of unsuccessful attempts to
involve a crystallization of discontent. Thus, it appeared that the
crystallization of discontent—or at least the retrospective interpreta-
tion of one—was associated with a motivation to commit to a major
life change. This question of whether one would make a change or
not was a primary concern in the idea of the crystallization of
discontent (Baumeister, 1991, 1994). In contrast, our concern in the
present studies lay not with whether the presence of crystallization
corresponded to making a change or not. Instead, our concern lay
with whether the quality of crystallization (i.e., desire or discontent)
corresponded to various qualities of personality and well-being.
Background: Approach Versus Avoidance
The distinction between the crystallization of desire and the crystal-
lization of discontent boiled down to the distinction between
approach and avoidance orientations, respectively. A person who
takes an approach orientation focuses on the movement toward a
desired outcome, such as pleasure or success, whereas one who takes
an avoidance orientation focuses on the movement away from an
undesired outcome, such as pain or failure (Carver & Scheier, 1999;
Elliot & Harackiewicz, 1996). The operational definitions for the
crystallization of desire and the crystallization of discontent in the
present studies were based on approach-versus-avoidance orienta-
tions as studied in personal goals. The tendency to have avoidance-
oriented goals (in the form of both personal strivings and personal
projects; Emmons, 1986; Little, 1989) has been linked to lower levels
of well-being, both psychologically and physically, as well as to
Crystallization of Desire 1183
higher levels of Neuroticism as a personality trait (Elliot & Sheldon,
1997, 1998; Elliot, Sheldon, & Church, 1997; King, Richards, &
Stemmerich, 1998). The tendency to have avoidance-oriented
goals has also been linked to higher frequencies of self-defining
memories involving the nonattainment of goals (Moffitt & Singer,
1994). Avoidance coping strategies have been inversely related to
Extraversion and optimism (Amirkhan, Risinger, & Swickert, 1995).
An avoidance orientation toward the task of revising self-identity
has been associated with procrastination and excuse making
(Berzonsky & Ferrari, 1996). The tendency to avoid problematic
situations has been related to less-rational decision-making stra-
tegies (Phillips, Pazienza, & Ferrin, 1984). Thus, generally speaking,
the approach orientation in thinking about one’s life seems to
correspond to the more desirable aspects of personality and
well-being, whereas the avoidance orientation seems to correspond
to the more undesirable aspects. (We emphasize ‘‘generally
speaking’’ as either approach or avoidance can be adaptive in
specific contexts.)
The Present Studies: Crystallization of Desire Versus Discontent
Any event can be interpreted in approach or avoidance terms. For
example, when walking through a door from one room to another, a
person can say that he or she is either ‘‘going into the next room’’
(approach) or ‘‘leaving the room’’ (avoidance). In making a life-
changing decision, the approach-versus-avoidance orientation is
similarly a matter of interpretation. Baumeister (1994) claimed
that the crystallization process is fundamentally subjective and
that personal narratives present the ideal format for data on crystal-
lization. Therefore, we studied the crystallization of desire versus
discontent via personal narratives of life-changing decisions. We
operationally defined crystallization of desire versus discontent by
drawing largely upon the research on approach-versus-avoidance
goals (mentioned earlier; e.g., Elliot & Sheldon, 1997), except that
with narratives we focused not on the type of decision but on the
primary reasons for making the decision (see Method section).
Briefly, the ‘‘crystallization of desire’’ variable compared narratives
whose reasons for a decision emphasized an approach orientation
(reflecting a crystallization of desire) with narratives whose reasons
for a decision emphasized an avoidance orientation (reflecting a
1184 Bauer, McAdams, & Sakaeda
crystallization of discontent).
1
One common distinction between
narratives emphasizing a crystallization of desire versus discontent
was the difference between knowing what one wanted to do (i.e., to
move toward) versus simply knowing what one did not want to do
(prompting a moving away; see methods). We expected that a
crystallization of desire versus discontent would correlate with
various measures of personality and well-being.
Crystallization of Desire, Personality, and Well-Being
Life-changing decisions are intended to guide broad paths in a life
course. Thus, one could expect that a person’s story of a life-
changing decision would in some way speak to his or her personality
and well-being. A growing body of research is showing the roles of
personal narratives in meaning making, identity, and personality
development (Singer, 2004). In the present studies, we inquired how
the crystallization of desire versus discontent—as a narrative con-
strual of a life-changing decision—fit within a broader context of
personality and well-being. To address such questions, we employed
McAdams’s (1995) three-domain model of personality.
Three Domains of Personality
McAdams’s (1995) model claims that personality can be studied in
three levels or domains: broad traits, characteristic adaptations, and
life stories. Domain I consists of broad traits or dispositions, such as
the Big Five traits of Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness, Con-
scientiousness, and Agreeableness ( John & Srivastava, 1999;
McCrae & Costa, 1999). Traits refer to the general (i.e., cross-
situational) ways in which an individual thinks, feels, and behaves.
Domain II consists of characteristic adaptations or personal
1. This variable may seem to simplify the complex process of decision making. A
pilot study revealed that only a handful of narratives involved exclusively
approach or avoidance orientations; the vast majority of involved both (see
Method section). Indeed, the usefulness of narratives for research lies in their
consideration and integration of competing motivations (McAdams, 1993; Singer
& Salovey, 1993). Still, despite the mix of approach and avoidance in these
narratives, one or the other was typically emphasized as primary in the
individual’s rationale for making the decision. Thus the ‘‘crystallization of desire’’
variable represented the individuals’ dominant reason—the one arrived at after
considering numerous, often competing reasons—for making a life decision.
Crystallization of Desire 1185
concerns. Domain II characteristics include phenomena such as
goals, motives, and ego defenses. Characteristic adaptations reveal
what a person subjectively wants or how a person relates or adapts
to specific contexts or circumstances in life. Domain III consists of
life stories, or personal narratives. Life stories reveal how the
individual makes sense of—creates meaning in—his or her life.
Life stories reveal how one integrates the myriad elements of one’s
life into a sense of unity and purpose via narrative themes in life and
narrative structure (McAdams, 1993).
The three domains can be compared in terms of their degrees of
subjectivity. Traits are the least subjective in that they can be
observed without having to ask how an individual thinks or feels
about his or her life. In contrast, life stories are the most subjective in
that they can only be understood by asking the individual to describe
his or her life—and then in sufficient length for the observer to detect
narrative patterns of tones, themes, coherence, etc. (McAdams,
1995). The degree of subjectivity of characteristic adaptations falls
somewhere between that of traits and stories. It is important to note
that characteristics in the three different domains may bear some
relation to each other (e.g., trait Neuroticism and negative narrative
tone; trait Openness and narrative complexity; McAdams et al.,
2004). Indeed, it may seem that traits and goals are basic or
foundational to narratives. However, McAdams (1995) claimed
that this was not necessarily the case: One cannot know a person’s
life story simply by knowing his or her traits or goals.
Narratives and Well-Being
Several studies have shown ties between memory narratives and well-
being or psychological health. The examples here focus on narratives
of major life changes. In one study, parents wrote stories about the
time they found out that their child had Down Syndrome. Stories
that exhibited foreshadowing and happy endings were related to
high levels of well-being over time (King, Scollon, Ramsey, &
Williams, 2000). A longitudinal project on conjugal bereavement
had participants write about various memories with their spouse
(Bauer & Bonanno, 2001a, 2001b). Three narrative patterns of self-
evaluation each predicted longitudinal adaptation to the loss: an
optimal balance of mostly positive yet some negative self-evalua-
tions, a higher ratio of behavioral to characterological self-evalua-
1186 Bauer, McAdams, & Sakaeda
tions, and expressions of self-efficacy. A study on career changes
showed that people who changed their environment to match their
preferences and values (i.e., finding a greater person–environment fit;
Holland, 1973) had greater job satisfaction (Oleski & Subich, 1996).
Another study from a project on voluntary life transitions (from
which the data for Study 2 came) found that transition stories
emphasizing different forms of personal growth corresponded dif-
ferentially to ego development, global well-being, and transition
satisfaction (Bauer & McAdams, 2004b). We expected that narra-
tives emphasizing a crystallization of desire would correspond to
higher levels of well-being compared to narratives emphasizing a
crystallization of discontent.
Narratives and Goals
Fewer studies have examined the relation between narratives and
goals. As mentioned earlier, avoidance strivings (a measure of
avoidance goals) correlated with narratives of not attaining one’s
goals (Moffitt & Singer, 1994). In another study, conflict among and
ambivalence toward one’s strivings corresponded to narratives
expressing negative affect and complaints of physical problems
(Emmons & King, 1988). In a study of caregivers of partners who
had died from AIDS, caregivers who made positive appraisals were
more likely to have personal goals and higher well-being than
caregivers who made more negative appraisals (Stein, Folkman,
Trabasso, & Richards, 1997). In another study, people whose
narratives of major life goals and everyday strivings were coherent
(i.e., related) had higher levels of ego development and well-being
than people without coherent goal hierarchies (Bauer & McAdams,
2004a). In the present studies, we expected that narratives emphasiz-
ing a crystallization of desire would correlate negatively with
avoidance-oriented goals (measured as avoidance strivings; Em-
mons, 1986). The comparison of these two variables would also
provide a measure of construct validity for the crystallization of
desire, as both variables were defined in terms of approach versus
avoidance. However, because strivings represent a more general (i.e.,
less contextualized) manner of thinking about one’s life than
narratives of a specific life decision, we questioned whether crystal-
lization of desire was merely a derivative of avoidance strivings. We
predicted that it was not and expected that crystallization of desire
Crystallization of Desire 1187
would hold its relation to well-being when controlling for avoidance
strivings. (We expected that avoidance strivings would correlate
negatively with well-being, as found in previous research; e.g., Elliot
et al., 1997.)
Narratives and Traits
The traits Neuroticism and Extraversion are especially important to
consider in studying the role of crystallization of desire in personality
and well-being. Neuroticism was found to correlate with a negative
emotional tone in personal narratives (McAdams et al., 2004). A
study of adults found that low Neuroticism and high Extraversion
correlated with narrative memories that emphasized intrinsic values
(Bauer, McAdams, & Sakaeda, 2005). Extraversion was found to
correlate with narratives expressing lower levels of sympathy for the
victims of one’s own teasing (Georgesen, Harris, Milich, & Young,
1999). Based on the findings cited earlier on approach-versus-
avoidance orientations (Amirkhan et al. 1995; Elliot & Sheldon,
1997, 1998; Elliot et al., 1997), we expected that narratives emphasiz-
ing a crystallization of desire would correlate with low Neuroticism
and high Extraversion. However, in addition to finding relations
between narratives and traits, we questioned whether Neuroticism or
Extraversion might explain more parsimoniously the role of narra-
tives in personality and well-being. Neuroticism is closely linked to
negative affectivity and low levels of well-being, whereas Extraver-
sion is linked to positive affectivity and high well-being (Schmutte &
Ryff, 1997; Watson & Clark, 1984, 1997)—both of which might
underlie the approach-or-avoidance orientation of a person’s deci-
sion narrative. (Narratives’ degree of subjectivity and methodologi-
cal complexity relative to traits make this an important question.)
However, in the studies cited above, we also found that narrative
memories were largely independent of traits in predicting well-being
(Bauer & McAdams, 2004b; Bauer et al., 2005), suggesting that
narratives conveyed information about people’s well-being that traits
did not. Therefore, we expected that crystallization of desire would
continue to correlate with well-being when controlling not only for
avoidance strivings but also for traits. In other words, we predicted
that people’s traits would not explain how people interpreted their
life-changing decisions. We were also interested in whether narrative,
goal, and trait measures would predict well-being independently.
1188 Bauer, McAdams, & Sakaeda
Crystallization of Desire and the Decision’s Outcome
We also examined the relationship between crystallization of desire
and the individual’s evaluation of how well the decision turned out.
Study 2 involved people who had made a major life change in recent
years. This life change could have been perceived as good or bad. It
stands to reason that a person who felt that the decision turned out
well would be more likely to perceive in retrospect that the decision
was based on a crystallization of desire (e.g., ‘‘I always knew what I
wanted to do in the future’’). Such a perception might reflect a self-
serving bias that allowed the individual to perceive more internal
control than might actually have been the case (Langer & Roth,
1975). Research has shown that perceptions of one’s life in the
present (such as current evaluations of a past decision’s outcome)
can influence retrospective perceptions of one’s thoughts and ex-
periences (Ross, 1989). Similarly, the perception that a decision
turned out well may be a source of positivity bias—much as the
general traits of Extraversion and Neuroticism can be a source of
positivity or negativity bias. Research has shown that people who
claimed in narratives that a decision turned out well had higher levels
of well-being (King et al., 2000). Whether such perceptions affect the
relationship between construals of decision-making processes and
well-being remained to be seen. In Study 2 we compared the
crystallization of desire with how well people perceived the decision
to turn out (using a scale measure). We expected that crystallization
of desire would correlate with positive evaluations of the decision’s
outcome. We also expected that positive outcome evaluations would
correlate with well-being. However, we expected that the crystal-
lization of desire would retain its relation to well-being when
controlling for perceptions of how well the decision turned out.
STUDY 1
In the first study we asked adults to write 1–2 pages about a life-
changing decision they had made in their lives and to complete a
variety of nonnarrative measures, e.g., well-being, strivings, and
traits. The following hypotheses addressed the questions raised
above. Hypothesis 1: Crystallization of desire would be part of a
constellation of personality characteristics that corresponds to well-
being. In particular, we predicted that participants whose decision
Crystallization of Desire 1189
narratives emphasized a crystallization of desire rather than dis-
content would have higher levels of well-being, fewer avoidance
strivings, lower Neuroticism, and higher Extraversion. In addition,
we predicted that the other personality measures—fewer avoidance
strivings, lower Neuroticism, and higher Extraversion—would cor-
relate with each other and with well-being. Hypothesis 2: Crystal-
lization of desire would continue to predict well-being when
controlling for strivings and traits. More broadly, we were interested
in whether variables from the three domains of personality would
predict well-being independently.
Method
Participants
The data from this study came from a larger project on adults’ life stories.
Fifty-one adults from the Chicago area who had participated in inter-
view-based studies previously (McAdams, Diamond, de St. Aubin, &
Mansfield, 1997; McAdams, Reynolds, Lewis, Patten, & Bowman, 2001)
were contacted to volunteer for a written study on life narratives. The
sample was 70% female and 20% minority in race and had a mean age of
51.7 years (SD 510; range 30–72), a median household income of
$55,000, and college degrees in 80% of the cases. Participants completed,
at their leisure, a booklet containing narrative and scale measures and
were paid $150. The life-story survey included a narrative segment on life
decisions, from which the narrative data came.
2
The Narrative Procedure
The instructions for the decision episode first led participants to think
about decisions that had had a significant impact on their lives. Partici-
pants in both studies were given up to two pages to write their responses.
The instructions then contrasted a few relatively benign decisions (e.g.,
what to wear in the morning) with decisions that are likely to change the
course of one’s life (e.g., choosing a spouse). The instructions then read:
2. Study 1 used data for life satisfaction that were published previously in two
empirical articles (Bauer & McAdams, 2004a; Bauer et al., 2005). The ‘‘approach
goals’’ variable in Study 1 came from the raw responses to the personal strivings
measure (Emmons, 1986), from which a ‘‘growth goals’’ variable—an entirely
distinct form of goal—were coded for Bauer & McAdams (2004a). Those studies
examined different narratives (not the narratives of life-changing decisions) and
addressed entirely distinct theoretical perspectives and hypotheses.
1190 Bauer, McAdams, & Sakaeda
Please consider the most important decisions or choices you have made
in your life. Describe in detail a particular event in your life in which
you made an important decision. Please tell us what the decision was
and why it was an important one. As usual, tell us what happened in
the event, when the event occurred, who was involved, what you were
thinking and feeling, and what the event says about you and your
personality.
Coding the Decision Narratives
Narratives were coded by two raters as emphasizing either a crystal-
lization of desire or a crystallization of discontent. Coders were directed
to follow a strict protocol. Coders first identified the type of decision
involved in the narrative. Most narratives focused on the decision to get
married, to get divorced, to change jobs, to relocate, and to stand up for
what one believes. These types of decisions were not the focus of coding
for crystallization of desire versus discontent. Any one type of decision
could be coded for crystallization of desire or discontent. The target
element of the narrative was the protagonist’s predominant reason for
making that type of decision.
3
The coder was to ask whether the
protagonist (i.e., the narrator, the self ) decided to make a life change
primarily for the purpose of wanting to move toward something desirable
in the future (approach) or primarily for the purpose of wanting to escape
a bad situation in the past (avoidance; from Elliot & Harackiewicz, 1996;
Elliot & Sheldon, 1997). Crystallization of desire or discontent was then
coded accordingly. The ‘‘crystallization of desire’’ variable was dichot-
omous and had values of 1 for crystallization of desire (i.e., approach
reasons) and 0 for crystallization of discontent (i.e., avoidance reasons).
As noted earlier, the dichotomous nature of this coding system may
seem at first to ignore the competing motivations and struggles that
typically come with life-changing decisions. For example, a person may
3. The first author ( Jack Bauer) also coded narratives for the type of decision as
approach or avoidance. For example, ‘‘starting a new career’’ and ‘‘getting
married’’ were approach, whereas ‘‘leaving a career’’ and ‘‘getting divorced’’
were avoidance. (We note that the approach or avoidance orientation of those
phrases is inherent. Alternative ways of phrasing ‘‘getting married’’ could be
‘‘leaving singlehood’’ [avoidance], whereas ‘‘getting divorced’’ could be ‘‘becom-
ing single’’ [approach], but such phrases are not the cultural standard.) We found
that crystallization of desire (which involved the primary reason for the decision)
correlated significantly with approach-oriented types of decisions, X
2
(49) 515.23,
po.001. However, approach types of decisions did not correlate significantly with
any other measure of personality and well-being.
Crystallization of Desire 1191
wish simultaneously to approach a desired future and escape an undesired
past. Indeed, most of the present decision narratives conveyed elements
not just of crystallization of desire or discontent but of both. Only 2 of the
35 narratives that were coded for crystallization of desire (see results)
portrayed exclusively approach-like thoughts; the rest addressed the
conflicting approach and avoidance orientations that could be expected
to accompany a life-changing decision in adulthood (Baumeister, 1991;
Stewart & Vandewater, 1999). However, research has demonstrated that
narratives tend to focus on or emphasize one value orientation or
another, with implications for personality and well-being (McAdams,
1993). So the crystallization of desire did not equate to a Pollyanna-ish
description of the life decision. As the term ‘‘crystallization’’ suggests, the
decision to change one’s life is likely to come from a relatively firm
evaluation about one’s life condition and its possible future (Baumeister,
1991, 1994). The ‘‘crystallization of desire’’ variable represented the
primary (i.e., crystallizing) reason at which the individual arrived only
after considering his or her various desires and discontents. Most of the
decision narratives conveyed these competing considerations as well as
the primary consideration. Coders were blind to other information about
the participants, such as well-being, goals, and traits. Coders used
photocopies of the original narratives that were part of the survey
booklet. Coders attained an overall agreement rate of 86%, kappa 5.65.
Since all narratives were coded as crystallization of either desire or
discontent, we expect that the most ambivalent of the narratives were
the source of most of the coders’ discrepancies. Discrepancies were then
resolved through discussion.
Narrative Examples
In order to provide a sense of what a crystallization of desire and
crystallization of discontent meant in this study, we present some
narrative excerpts. The first comes from a participant who decided to
change from a career in sales to a career in teaching:
My realization was a gradual process defined in negative terms. I
wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but as time passed, I knew more and
more precisely what I did not what to do . . . I hit a saturation point,
and I left . . . Then I received a job offer, which I accepted for lack of
anything better to do.
This person’s narrative focused almost entirely on not liking sales and
wanting to leave; the person used no overt words to convey even a liking
for teaching. The decision here was decidedly for the purpose of moving
1192 Bauer, McAdams, & Sakaeda
away from the current job, which reflects a crystallization of discontent.
In contrast, the next excerpt portrayed a strong desire to move toward
something desired, which reflects a crystallization of desire. This person
made a career change from being a paramedic (for 13 years) to attending
medical school and eventually practicing medicine:
My realization was that it is possible to have a career that I was
passionate about . . . I had always fantasized about one day becoming
a physician. Watching [physicians work together] in action catapulted me
to the decision to go for it—I knew my passion lay in doing healing work.
As mentioned earlier, most narratives involved elements of both a
crystallization of desire and a crystallization of discontent. To give such
an example, one participant wrote this decision, which was coded as
crystallization of desire:
I feel as though many of the paths in my life were results not of healthy
decision making but of feeling I had no options. However, the decision
to work for [company] almost 10 years ago has proved to be a major
one for me. I [emphasis in original] made the decision—did not involve
friends in this choice. I felt very connected to the woman who
interviewed me.
Even though this participant mentioned several difficulties, the reason she
decided to change careers was predominantly to move toward a specific
interpersonal environment that she found desirable, rather than merely
escape an unpleasant situation. Many of the narratives in these studies
conformed to what we called an ‘‘even though’’ script. That is, many
narratives seemed to say, ‘‘Even though there were several difficulties to
consider, I still chose to move toward what I really wanted to do.’’
On the other hand, some narratives involved competing motivations
but were coded as crystallization of discontent. For example, one
participant wrote: ‘‘Recently, I made the decision to get better (health)
fast because I couldn’t stand being so dependent on and disappointed by
others’’ (parentheses in original). In this case, the type of decision was ‘‘to
get better (health),’’ which is an approach-oriented phrase, but the reason
for the decision (tipped off by the word ‘‘because’’ is avoidance-oriented—
wanting to stop ‘‘being so dependent on and disappointed by others.’’
Nonnarrative Measures
Well-being. Participants completed a measure of subjective well-being,
the Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS; Diener, Emmons, Larson, &
Crystallization of Desire 1193
Griffen, 1985). The SWLS is a well-validated, simple, five-item measure of
overall life satisfaction. On a 1–7 Likert scale, participants rate statements
such as ‘‘In most ways my life is close to my ideal,’’ ‘‘I am satisfied with
the current state of affairs in my life,’’ and ‘‘If I could live my life over, I
would change almost nothing.’’
Strivings. Participants took Emmons’s (1986) measure of personal
strivings, which elicits 15–18 responses to the sentence stem, ‘‘I typically
try to . . . ,’’ Due to the time required for other measures, we asked for
only 10 strivings. Each striving was individually coded for an approach or
avoidance orientation (in a dichotomous fashion). Avoidance strivings
(which was the name of the dichotomous variable) gave evidence of
avoiding, leaving, not doing, or otherwise moving away from something
(Elliot, et al., 1997). Examples included: ‘‘avoid burdening others with my
problems,’’ ‘‘cut back on the things I say ‘yes’ to,’’ and ‘‘not get too down
or worried about matters.’’ In contrast, approach strivings gave evidence
of approaching, doing, or otherwise moving toward something. Examples
included: ‘‘exercise daily,’’ ‘‘do my best at work,’’ and ‘‘be a good
parent.’’ The total numbers of avoidance strivings were calculated for
each participant. As a measure of interrater reliability, two coders
attained a correlation of r5.93.
Traits. We used the Big Five Inventory (BFI; John & Srivastava, 1999),
a well-validated measure in which participants rate on a 5-point scale the
degree to which each of 44 items describes one’s own personality. The
prompt reads, ‘‘I see myself as someone who . . . ’’ Sample descriptions
include: ‘‘is talkative,’’ ‘‘can be tense,’’ and ‘‘does things efficiently.’’
Items converge on five personality traits: Neuroticism, Extraversion,
Openness, Conscientiousness, and Agreeableness. John and Srivastava
(1999) report alpha reliabilities for the independent scales of the BFI in
the 1.75 to 1.90 range. Validity evidence includes substantial convergent
and divergent relations with other Big Five instruments as well as with
peer ratings. Because Neuroticism and Extraversion have established
relations to affectivity, well-being, and approach-versus-avoidance or-
ientations, we focused on those two traits.
Results
Descriptive Statistics
Of the 51 decision narratives, 35 (69%) were coded as a crystal-
lization of desire (16 were coded as a crystallization of discontent).
Means (and SD) for variables were: SWLS 523.04 (7.36), avoidance
1194 Bauer, McAdams, & Sakaeda
strivings 51.38 (1.37), Neuroticism 521.10 (7.09), Extraver-
sion 527.86 (5.12). Due to the skewed distribution of avoidance
strivings (more than 8 of every 10 strivings were approach oriented),
we collapsed avoidance strivings into a dichotomous variable that
compared participants who could be considered particularly avoid-
ance oriented with those who were not. Moffitt & Singer (1994)
chose a cut-off of 40% avoidance strivings to represent high-
avoidance individuals, but only 12% (n57) of the present partici-
pants had four or more avoidance strivings. Therefore, we defined
‘‘avoidance-oriented’’ individuals as those who had three or more
avoidance strivings. The dichotomous ‘‘avoidance strivings’’ vari-
able that we used in all subsequent analyses compared these
participants (n513, or 25%) with the others, i.e., those with two,
one, or zero avoidance strivings (n538). No significant demo-
graphic differences were found for any of these variables, and
demographics did not significantly affect any of the relationships
reported below.
Bivariate Relationships: Hypothesis 1
Relationships with crystallization of desire. Participants who em-
phasized a crystallization of desire rather than discontent had higher
SWLS scores, fewer avoidance strivings, X
2
(49) 54.76, po.05,
lower levels of Neuroticism, but not higher levels of Extraversion
(see Table 1 for tvalues and means for continuous variables; also see
correlations among all variables in Table 2 for ease of comparison).
Thus, we found support for the first part of Hypothesis 1 (dealing
Table 1
T-Tests of Variables for Crystallization of Desire
Variable Crystallization Group Mean (SD) T value (df 549)
SWLS Desire 25.40 (5.82) 4.14
nnn
Discontent 17.20 (7.71)
Neuroticism Desire 18.87 (6.02) 4.32
nnn
Discontent 26.90 (6.00)
Extraversion Desire 27.57 (5.33) .31
Discontent 28.07 (4.54)
n
po.05.
nn
po.01.
nnn
po.001.
Crystallization of Desire 1195
with crystallization of desire), except that crystallization of desire did
not correlate with Extraversion. Furthermore, the relationship
between crystallization of desire and avoidance strivings provided
evidence of construct validity for crystallization of desire, which was
operationally defined in terms of approach-versus-avoidance orien-
tations.
Other relationships. Participants with larger numbers of avoidance
strivings had significantly lower SWLS scores, t(49) 53.94,
po.001, and higher Neuroticism scores, t(49) 52.97, po.01, but
not lower Extraversion scores, t(49) 5.89, p4.10. SWLS corre-
lated significantly with Neuroticism (inversely) and Extraversion (see
Table 2). Thus, we found support for the second prediction of
Hypothesis 1 in all cases except that avoidance strivings did not
correlate with Extraversion. Notably, we found that variables in all
three domains of personality (narratives, strivings, and traits)
showed relationships with one another.
Multiple Regression: Hypothesis 2
Hypothesis 2 predicted that crystallization of desire would continue
correlating with well-being when controlling for strivings and traits.
To test this, we ran a two-step regression model of SWLS, first on
narratives and strivings, then adding traits. More specifically, we
Table 2
Correlations
Variable CD SWLS AS N E
1. Crystallization of Desire
2. Satisfaction with Life Scale .51
nnn
3. Avoidance Strivings .31
n
.49
nnn
4. Neuroticism .53
nnn
.66
nnn
.39
nn
5. Extraversion .04 .33
n
.13 .31
n
n
po.05.
nn
po.01.
nnn
po.001.
Note. Spearman rho and point-biserial correlations for nonparametric variables
showed similar magnitudes and the same levels of significance as the Pearson
correlations reported above.
1196 Bauer, McAdams, & Sakaeda
entered crystallization of desire and avoidance strivings simulta-
neously in the first step and then added Neuroticism and Extraver-
sion simultaneously in the second step. We first found that
crystallization of desire, b5.40, po.01, and avoidance strivings,
b5.36, po.01, each predicted SWLS significantly and indepen-
dently. Thus, the tendency of participants with high scores on life
satisfaction to emphasize a crystallization of desire was not ex-
plained by their tendency to have avoidance strivings. When adding
traits to the equation, we found that crystallization of desire, b5.24,
po.05, avoidance strivings (inversely), b5.24, po.05, and Neu-
roticism (inversely), b5.38, po.01, each predicted SWLS sig-
nificantly and independently, while Extraversion was a marginally
significant predictor, b5.19, po.10. These findings further sup-
ported Hypothesis 2, noting that variables in all three domains of
personality (narratives, strivings, and traits) were independent in
predicting well-being.
Summary
Participants who emphasized a crystallization of desire rather than
discontent were more likely to have higher levels of life satisfaction,
fewer avoidance strivings, and lower levels of Neuroticism, but not
higher levels of Extraversion. Also, fewer avoidance strivings, lower
Neuroticism, and life satisfaction correlated with each other. Crys-
tallization of desire continued to predict well-being significantly
when controlling for avoidance strivings and traits. Notably, vari-
ables from the three domains of personality (McAdams, 1995)—
crystallization of desire, avoidance strivings, and Neuroticism—were
independent predictors of well-being. Further discussion of these
topics appears in the general discussion.
STUDY 2
For the second study we recruited adults who had recently changed
either careers or religions. Participants wrote about their decision to
make the change. In this study, we again tested Hypotheses 1 and 2
from Study 1. In Study 2, we added a scale measure of how well the
decision turned out, i.e., the degree to which the decision to make a
life change had a positive impact on one’s life (see Method section).
This measure enabled us to test Hypotheses 3 and 4. Hypothesis 3:
Crystallization of Desire 1197
Participants emphasizing a crystallization of desire rather than
discontent would be more likely to report that their decision turned
out well. Hypothesis 4: Crystallization of desire would be indepen-
dent of how well the decision turned out in predicting well-being.
Among other things, Hypothesis 4 served as another way to control
for a positivity/negativity bias, much as Hypothesis 2 did by
controlling for Extraversion and Neuroticism. The difference was
that the present measure of decision outcome dealt specifically with
the life-changing decision rather than with a personality disposition.
Method
Participants
The data for this study came from a larger project on adults’ life
transitions. The 67 participants in this study first responded to our
advertisement in a Chicago newspaper for a study of major changes in
careers and religions. The sample included 40 career changers and 27
religion changers. The overall sample was 64% female and 28% minority
in race and had a mean age of 41 years (SD 510; range 25–73), a median
household income between $30,000 and $40,000, and college degrees in
67% of the cases. Participants completed, at their leisure, a booklet
containing narrative and scale measures and were paid $50. Study 2 asked
participants to write specifically about their transition story, which
included a narrative segment on the decision to make the change, from
which the narrative data came.
4
Measures
Decision narratives. Participants wrote a 1–2-page narrative about their
decision to make a major life change in either careers or religions. In a
fashion similar to Study 1, participants were asked to think and write in
detail about the decision episode, complete with an account of what
happened, when it happened, who was involved, what the participant was
thinking and feeling, and what the event said about the participant’s sense
of self and personality. The same coding procedures as in Study 1 for
4. Study 2 used data for life satisfaction that were published previously in an
empirical article (a different one than those related to Study 1; Bauer &
McAdams, 2004b). However, Study 2 focused on a narrative that dealt specifically
with the decision to make the life transition, whereas the previous article focused
on all the episodes of the transition story in aggregate. The previous article also
addressed entirely distinct theoretical perspectives and hypotheses.
1198 Bauer, McAdams, & Sakaeda
crystallization of desire versus discontent were applied to the present
decision narratives.
Well-being, strivings, and traits. Participants in Study 2 took the same
measures as those in Study 1: Avoidance strivings (coded from personal
strivings; Emmons, 1986), SWLS (Diener et al., 1985), and the BFI ( John
& Srivastava, 1999).
Life impact from the transition. We adapted a scale measure originally
used to assess the impact of a religious conversion on various domains in
a person’s life (Zinnbauer & Pargament, 1998). We called this measure the
Life Impact from Transition scale (LIFT), which measured the degree to
which the life change (and therefore the life decision) had a positive
impact on the individual’s life. Participants were asked to rate on a 9-
point scale how much for the better (9) or how much for the worse (1) the
transition (either career or religion) had affected nine domains in life (one
item per domain). The prompt read, ‘‘To what degree do you feel your
transition has . . . .’’ The items were: ‘‘altered your general outlook on
life,’’ ‘‘provided a sense of meaning in your life,’’ ‘‘changed your goals in
life,’’ ‘‘affected your relationships with friends,’’ ‘‘affected your relation-
ships with your family,’’ ‘‘affected your life at work or school,’’ ‘‘affected
your religious or spiritual life,’’ ‘‘affected your day-to-day activities,’’
‘‘changed your life.’’ Scores for each item were added to create a total
LIFT score, such that higher LIFT scores indicated a greater sense that
the transition had a positive impact on one’s life.
Results
Descriptive Statistics
Of the 67 participants, 35 (52%) emphasized a crystallization of
desire (32 emphasized a crystallization of discontent). Means (and
SD) for variables were: SWLS 522.25 (7.57), avoidance striv-
ings 51.74 (1.50), Neuroticism 522.40 (7.14), Extraversion 527.99
(4.37), LIFT 566.15 (11.31; range 44–81). As in Study 1, we
collapsed the avoidance strivings into a dichotomous variable,
comparing 18 participants (27% of the sample) who had three or
more avoidance strivings with 49 participants who had two, one, or
zero avoidance strivings. The only demographic variable to distin-
guish these measures was race: African Americans and Asian
Americans scored significantly higher on LIFT, t(65) 52.79,
Crystallization of Desire 1199
po.01, than did European Americans. Demographic variables did
not significantly influence any of the results reported here.
Bivariate Relationships: Hypotheses 1 and 3
Hypothesis 1: Relationships with crystallization of desire. Partici-
pants who emphasized a crystallization of desire rather than dis-
content had significantly higher levels of SWLS (see Table 3 for t
values and means for continuous variables), and fewer avoidance
strivings, X
2
(65) 55.90, po.05 (see correlations of all variables in
Table 4 for ease of comparison). However, participants who em-
phasized a crystallization of desire did not have significantly lower
levels of Neuroticism or higher levels of Extraversion. Thus, we
found partial support for the first prediction of Hypothesis 1, the
notable exception being that crystallization of desire did not corre-
late with traits. The relationship between crystallization of desire and
avoidance strivings replicated evidence of construct validity for
crystallization of desire, which was operationally defined in terms
of approach-versus-avoidance orientations.
Hypothesis 1: Other relationships. Participants with larger numbers
of avoidance strivings had significantly lower SWLS scores,
t(65) 53.44, po.001, and significantly higher Neuroticism
scores, t(65) 52.26, po.05, but not lower Extraversion scores,
Table 3
T
-Tests of Variables for Crystallization of Desire
Variable
Crystallization
Group
Mean
(SD)
Tvalue
(df 565)
Satisfaction with Life Desire 25.34 (7.47) 3.84
nnn
Discontent 18.76 (6.16)
Neuroticism Desire 21.86 (7.88) .65
Discontent 23.00 (6.32)
Extraversion Desire 28.17 (3.72) .36
Discontent 27.78 (5.05)
Life Impact from Transition Desire 70.34 (11.16) 3.42
nnn
Discontent 61.56 (9.70)
n
po.05.
nn
po.01.
nnn
po.001.
1200 Bauer, McAdams, & Sakaeda
t(65) 51.12, p4.10. SWLS correlated significantly with Neuroti-
cism (inversely) and Extraversion. Thus, the second prediction of
Hypothesis 1 panned out, except for the relation between avoidance
strivings and Extraversion.
Hypothesis 3. Crystallization of desire corresponded to higher
levels of LIFT (see Table 3). Thus, we found support for our
prediction that participants who emphasized a crystallization of
desire rather than discontent would be more likely to claim that their
decision turned out well. LIFT also correlated significantly with
higher SWLS, lower Neuroticism, and higher Extraversion (see
Table 5). However, individuals with fewer avoidance strivings did
not show higher LIFT scores, t(65) 51.02, p4.10.
Multiple Regressions: Hypotheses 2 and 4
Hypothesis 2. As in Study 1, we regressed SWLS, first on crystal-
lization of desire and avoidance strivings and then on those variables
plus Neuroticism and Extraversion. We first found that crystal-
lization of desire, b5.34, po.01, and avoidance strivings, b5.29,
po.05, each predicted SWLS significantly and independently. Thus,
as in Study 1, the tendency of participants with high life satisfaction
to emphasize a crystallization of desire was not explained by their
Table 4
Correlations
Variable CD SWLS AS N E
1. Crystallization of Desire
2. Satisfaction with Life .43
nnn
3. Avoidance Strivings .30
n
.39
nnn
4. Neuroticism .08 .44
nnn
.27
n
5. Extraversion .05 .28
n
.14 .16
6. Life Impact from Transition .39
nnn
.26
n
.12 .25
n
.26
n
n
po.05.
nn
po.01.
nnn
po.001.
Note. Spearman rho and point-biserial correlations for nonparametric variables
showed similar magnitudes and the same levels of significance as the Pearson
correlations reported above.
Crystallization of Desire 1201
tendency to have avoidance strivings. When adding traits to the
equation, we found that crystallization of desire, b5.34, po.001,
and Neuroticism (inversely), b5.33, po.01, predicted SWLS
significantly and independently, while Extraversion, b5.18,
po.10, did so marginally significantly and avoidance strivings
did not do so significantly, b5.17, p5.10. Thus, we found
support for the first part of Hypothesis 2, that crystallization of
desire would be independent of strivings and traits in predicting
life satisfaction. But we did not find support for the independence
of variables from all three domains of personality: Avoid-
ance strivings no longer predicted life satisfaction when consi-
dering traits.
Hypothesis 4. We regressed SWLS simultaneously on crystal-
lization of desire and LIFT. We found that crystallization of desire,
b5.39, po.01, predicted SWLS significantly, but LIFT did not,
b5.10, p4.10. Thus, participants who felt the decision turned
out well were more likely to portray their decision as based on a
crystallization of desire, but this fact did not account for
the relationship between crystallization of desire and well-being.
In fact, we found just the opposite: Crystallization of desire
mediated the relationship between the decision outcome and
well-being.
Summary
Participants who emphasized a crystallization of desire rather than
discontent were more likely to have higher levels of life satisfaction
and fewer avoidance strivings but not lower Neuroticism or higher
Extraversion. Also, avoidance strivings, Neuroticism, and life satis-
faction correlated with each other. As in Study 1, crystallization of
desire continued to predict life satisfaction when controlling for
avoidance strivings and traits. Unlike Study 1, avoidance strivings
were not a significant predictor in that equation. Finally, crystal-
lization of desire correlated significantly with the perception that the
decision turned out well (which also correlated with life satisfaction),
but this fact did not significantly alter the relationship between
crystallization of desire and life satisfaction. In addition to largely
showing an independence of constructs, the findings for Hypotheses
2 and 4 provided tests of bias. The findings for Hypothesis 2 showed
1202 Bauer, McAdams, & Sakaeda
that Extraversion and Neuroticism, respectively, were not a source
of positivity and negativity bias for those participants who empha-
sized a crystallization of desire or discontent in their decision
narratives. The findings for Hypothesis 4 showed that a positive or
negative evaluation of the decision’s outcome did not play a
significant role in the relationship between crystallization of desire
and life satisfaction.
GENERAL DISCUSSION
These studies examined how perceived reasons for making life-
changing decisions related to personality and well-being. Partici-
pants who emphasized a crystallization of desire rather than
discontent had higher levels of well-being (measured as life satisfac-
tion), fewer avoidance strivings, and (in Study 1 only) lower levels of
Neuroticism, but not higher levels of Extraversion. Despite these
relationships, the relationship between crystallization of desire and
well-being was in large part not attributable to strivings or traits. In
addition, Study 2 showed that positive evaluations of the decision’s
outcome did not account for the high levels of well-being reported by
participants whose narratives emphasized a crystallization of desire.
These findings have implications for the roles of life-changing
decisions and personal narratives in research on personality, well-
being, and positive personal development.
Before discussing these findings, we first point out that many more
participants in Study 1 emphasized a crystallization of desire than
discontent, and slightly more participants in Study 2 did so. This
suggested that a crystallization of desire played a prominent role in
people’s recollection of a life-changing decision. Still, it is important
to restate that the vast majority of decision narratives in these studies
involved both desire and discontent (i.e., approach and avoidance)
and that our narrative variable addressed the most dominant one.
Thus, we found evidence that a sense of discontent—where the
negatives outweighed the positives—played a role in most life-
changing decisions, as suggested by Baumeister (1991, 1994). But it
seemed that the crystallization process—coming to a firm evaluation
of one’s life conditions—was based, at least as often, on the
evaluation that the positives of a possible future outweighed any
negative evaluations of the past.
Crystallization of Desire 1203
Crystallization of Desire and Well-Being
Both studies showed that people who emphasized a crystallization of
desire had higher levels of well-being (as life satisfaction) than
participants who emphasized a crystallization of discontent. In other
words, people who claimed to base their life decisions on moving
toward something they wanted seemed to be happier with their lives
than people who claimed to base their decisions on escaping some-
thing they couldn’t stand any longer. The approach-versus-avoid-
ance orientation in these life-changing decisions conveyed distinct
temporal qualities. When making a life-changing decision, a person
can place a primary interpretive emphasis on moving toward a
desirable future or on moving away from an undesirable past.
Like an approach orientation, future-oriented and growth-oriented
thinking—particularly when facing major life plans and transi-
tions, including the difficult ones—holds a strong relationship to
well-being and adjustment (Bauer & Bonanno, 2001b; Bauer &
McAdams, 2004a; King et al., 1998; Kling et al., 1997; Stein
et al., 1997).
The present findings extended the notion of a crystallization of
discontent (Baumeister, 1991, 1994). Previous research has shown
that a crystallization of discontent (vs. no crystallization) corre-
sponded to making (vs. not making) a major life change (Heatherton
& Nichols, 1994). In contrast, the present studies showed that the
quality or orientation of crystallization (i.e., approaching desire vs.
avoiding discontent) corresponded to well-being. We view the
present studies not in contrast to past research, but rather as an
extension of it. Together, the Heatherton and Nichols study and the
present studies suggest that a crystallization of discontent may help
influence the decision to make a major life change in the first place
(though a crystallization of desire might do the same thing), whereas
a crystallization of desire is more closely linked to a sense of well-
being, in terms of both satisfaction with life and satisfaction with the
decision’s outcome.
5
5. However, it is important to keep in mind that the present studies, as well as the
Heatherton & Nichols (1994) study, involved retrospective narratives. Thus, these
studies have not shown that certain kinds of decisions cause certain kinds of
outcomes.
1204 Bauer, McAdams, & Sakaeda
Crystallization of Desire, Personality, and Well-Being
We also found that a crystallization of desire versus discontent in
decision narratives was related to personal strivings and personality
traits. In both studies, crystallization of desire corresponded to fewer
avoidance strivings. In Study 1 only, crystallization of desire
corresponded to lower levels of Neuroticism. In neither study did
crystallization of desire correspond to Extraversion. Thus, the most
consistent findings suggested that people who perceived a crystal-
lization of desire rather than discontent as the primary reason for a
life-changing decision were likely to view their everyday strivings in
approach rather than avoidance terms. Such a claim raises the
question of whether the tendency to have approach-oriented striv-
ings is responsible for the tendency to describe one’s life decision as
rooted in a crystallization of desire (which was operationally defined
as approach oriented). However, both studies showed that avoidance
strivings did not explain the relationship between crystallization of
desire and well-being.
When adding Neuroticism and Extraversion to the equation,
crystallization of desire continued to be a significant predictor of
well-being in both studies. However, slightly different pictures
emerged between the two studies regarding (1) the strength of
crystallization of desire in predicting well-being and (2) the role of
avoidance strivings. In Study 1, even though crystallization of desire
retained its significant relation to well-being when considering
avoidance strivings and traits, crystallization of desire’s Beta
dropped from .51 as a single predictor of well-being to .40 when
considering avoidance strivings and to .24 when also considering
Neuroticism and Extraversion. So it appeared that crystallization of
desire alone had a quite strong relation to well-being, but a good
proportion of that relation was explained by the combination of
avoidance strivings and Neuroticism (given that Extraversion did
not correlate with crystallization of desire). However, it is important
to note that Neuroticism’s Beta also dropped from .53 to .38.
Furthermore, a significant portion of the relation between crystal-
lization of desire and well-being remained when considering strivings
and traits. In Study 2, contrary to expectations, crystallization of
desire did not correlate significantly with Neuroticism. One reason
for this could be that the two studies addressed life-changing
decisions in different ways: Participants in Study 1 took a survey
Crystallization of Desire 1205
dealing with life-story episodes across one’s lifetime and were asked
to choose any life-changing decision. In contrast, participants in
Study 2 took a survey dealing with a specific major life change, and
the decision dealt with that change. Perhaps participants in Study 1
chose a decision that conformed to the general sense of personality
they were portraying in the survey, whereas participants in Study 2
were not free to choose which decision to write about. (This could
also explain why the frequencies of crystallization of desire and
crystallization of discontent were more evenly emphasized in Study
2.) In any case, both studies revealed that crystallization of desire, a
Domain-III variable (McAdams, 1995), retained its relation to well-
being when controlling for avoidance strivings (Domain II) and
traits (Domain I), as predicted in Hypothesis 2.
We were similarly surprised to find in both studies that crystal-
lization of desire (and avoidance strivings) did not correlate sig-
nificantly with high levels of Extraversion, given Extraversion’s tie to
positive affect (Watson & Clark, 1997). Thus, crystallization of
desire had very little to do with—let alone appeared as a derivative
of—Extraversion. It appeared that the crystallization of desire
variable (which pitted desire vs. discontent) had more to do with
the absence of negativity than with the presence of positivity, as is
often the case in measures relating affectivity and self-views (Bauer &
Bonanno, 2001a; Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, & Vohs,
2001; Malle & Horowitz, 1995).
One important conclusion from these findings was that the
way people described and ultimately emphasized their various
desires and discontents in making a life decision was not simply
attributable to those people’s strivings and traits. The way people
thought about their life decisions was related to more general ways
of thinking about themselves but was not explained by those
ways. Looking at the three domains of personality (McAdams,
1995) in relation to well-being, measures of narratives, strivings,
and traits seemed to function as relatively unique domains in
Study 1, but not in Study 2, where avoidance strivings no longer
predicted well-being when controlling for crystallization of desire
and the traits Neuroticism and Extraversion. Neuroticism
appeared to be the primary force in that scenario, given that
avoidance strivings remained significant when controlling for crys-
tallization of desire. Overall, the two studies pointed to Neuroti-
cism’s strong tie to well-being, as well as the unique role
1206 Bauer, McAdams, & Sakaeda
that narratives of a single (albeit life-changing) event can play in
personality and well-being.
Life Decisions: Crystallization of Desire and Positive Outcomes
One of the most common arguments against narrative research is
that narratives of personal memories are perceptions, and percep-
tions of the past can be easily reconstructed to serve present
purposes, such as positive self-appraisal. We found in Study 2 that
happy people wrote stories of favorable decision outcomes (also see
King et al., 2000). It stands to reason that the perception that a
decision turned out well might lead participants to think that they
were in control of their decision and had always focused on the good
that lay ahead (i.e., a crystallization of desire). However, the
relationship between crystallization of desire and well-being held
when controlling for evaluations of the decision’s outcome. In other
words, the perception that a decision turned out well did not account
for the fact that happy people emphasized a crystallization of desire
in their retrospective accounts of a life-changing decision. People’s
current perceptions of how their lives have turned out have been
shown to skew their perceptions of how they thought about their
lives at earlier times in the past (Ross, 1989; Safer, Bonanno, &
Field, 2001). The present finding contributes to the notion that
people’s subjective decision-making processes have significant im-
plications for one’s life, even when considering factors (such as
outcome appraisals) that may appear to be more salient (Kahneman,
2003; Wirtz, Kruger, Scollon, & Diener, 2003). Narrative research is
ideally suited for the systematic examination of such subjective
perspectives (see Singer, 2004).
Crystallization of Desire: A Positive Approach to Personal Develop-
ment
We conceptualized the crystallization of desire as a forward-looking,
future-oriented alternative to the crystallization of discontent’s
escape-oriented perspective on making a life-changing decision. In
this sense, the crystallization of desire squares with the perspective of
positive psychology (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) and gen-
eral research on positive emotionality (e.g., Fredrickson, 1998; Isen,
1990). We see a basic similarity between the approach-versus-
Crystallization of Desire 1207
avoidance distinction and the distinction between positive psychol-
ogy and the more traditional perspective on psychological well-being
and adjustment. The kinds of questions asked by the more traditional
perspective are: What causes suffering, and how do we avoid or escape
it? The kinds of questions asked by positive psychology are: What
causes thriving, and how do we foster it? In this sense, the traditional
perspective tends toward an avoidance perspective toward health
(‘‘how to escape the bad’’), even when the health focus is on
‘‘prevention’’ (read, ‘‘how to avoid the bad’’). In contrast, positive
psychology (as well as humanistic psychology) tends toward an
approach-oriented perspective (‘‘how to create the good’’). Our find-
ings suggest that decisions based primarily on approach-oriented
reasons are more likely to foster well-being than decisions based
primarily on escaping, avoiding, or preventing undesirable conditions.
While these data were not longitudinal, these findings have
implications for personal growth—i.e., the intentional development
of one’s life course and personality (Bauer & McAdams, 2004a,
2004b; Brandtstadter, Wentura, & Rothermund, 1999). Attaining
happiness may be more difficult if one’s life-changing decisions are
focused primarily on escaping misery. But we also are not suggesting
that a happy-go-lucky attitude is the way to go about a life-changing
decision. Rather, it seems that a primary—but not exclusive—focus
on approach- and future-oriented thinking is likely to correspond to
well-being and other positive outcomes. Even where loss and trauma
are pervasive in one’s life, the subjective emphasis on positive
meaning is possible and adaptive, provided that it also acknowledges
difficulties (Bauer & Bonanno, 2001a; Calhoun & Tedeschi, 2001;
Frankl, 1946/1984). The vast majority of participants in the present
studies—happy and unhappy alike—wrote about the interpersonal
and intrapersonal conflicts that were part of the process of making
their life-changing decision. Despite such conflicts, these people did
eventually decide on a course of action. For those people who
appeared happy with life and with their decision, the primary reasons
for their decision seemed to be based on a crystallization of desire.
Limitations and Directions
Granting our earlier claim that retrospective narratives—with all
their biases—play an important role in personality and well-being,
the susceptibility to memory bias and state-dependent responses still
1208 Bauer, McAdams, & Sakaeda
leaves retrospective narratives open to criticism. An ideal study
would involve not only retrospective narratives but also real-time
and more objective measures (see Wirtz et al., 2003). Another
limitation was the study’s correlational nature. The language of
interpreting multiple regressions is such that causality often appears
to be implied. The variables of the present study are additionally
subject to such misinterpretation, as we compared narratives of
decisions in the past with well-being in the present. We attempted to
make clear that causality was in no way implied in these findings.
Certainly, it could be argued that high levels of well-being cause
people to tell stories that emphasize a crystallization of desire (as
well as to report that one is less neurotic, more outgoing, etc.). A
third variable (e.g., cognitive, emotional, social, or biological forces
that underlie both types of interpretations) is likely to be at work as
well. Of particular interest is the notion of intentional self-develop-
ment (Brandtstadter et al., 1999), where measures of people’s
intentions to shape their lives can be compared with what happens
to their lives later. For example, does the crystallization of desire
lead to actual increases in well-being down the road? Other limita-
tions include the facts that both studies used samples of limited size,
involved restricted socioeconomic ranges, and were predominantly
female. Finally, participants in narrative research self-select for their
personal level of comfort with writing about themselves, an inherent
concern for narrative research.
Conclusion
What did these data suggest about the people in these studies? The
happier people in this study construed their life-changing decisions
as efforts in primarily moving toward a future filled with what they
wanted, rather than efforts in escaping what they could not stand in
the past. In other words, these people claimed to have arrived at a
crystallization of desire rather than a crystallization of discontent.
The crystallization of desire also corresponded to less avoidance-
oriented thinking in personal strivings, lower Neuroticism (in Study
1 only), and positive appraisals of the decision’s outcome (in Study
2). Notably, the relationship between crystallization of desire and
well-being was not explained by avoidance strivings or by positivity/
negativity biases measured in Extraversion, Neuroticism, and the
decision’s outcome evaluation. These findings suggest independent
Crystallization of Desire 1209
and unique roles that life-changing decisions and narratives play for
personality, well-being, and positive personal development.
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"Who am I?" "How do I fit in the world around me?" This revealing and innovative book demonstrates that each of us discovers what is true and meaningful, in our lives and in ourselves, through the creation of personal myths. Challenging the traditional view that our personalities are formed by fixed, unchanging characteristics, or by predictable stages through which every individual travels, The Stories We Live By persuasively argues that we are the stories we tell. Informed by extensive scientific research--yet highly readable, engaging, and accessible--the book explores how understanding and revising our personal stories can open up new possibilities for our lives.
Chapter
Personal projects are extended sets of personally relevant action, which can range from the trivial pursuits of a typical Tuesday (e.g., “cleaning up my room”) to the magnificent obsessions of a lifetime (e.g., “liberate my people”). They may be self-initiated or thrust upon us. They may be solitary concerns or shared commitments. They may be isolated and peripheral aspects of our lives or may cut to our very core. Personal projects may sustain us through perplexity or serve as vehicles for our own obliteration. In short, personal projects are natural units of analysis for a personality psychology that chooses to deal with the serious business of how people muddle through complex lives (Little, 1987a).