Some 40 years ago, the pioneering gerontologist James E. Birren, PhD, developed guided autobiography, a method for helping people shape their memories, thoughts and feelings into essays.
In guided autobiography classes, which are taught in person and online, a trained instructor draws out students’ recollections with priming questions designed to think about your life and who or what influenced you in a major way. Small groups of students read their two-page stories to each other throughout the eight or ten weekly sessions.
“Guided autobiography isn’t therapy, but it’s extremely therapeutic,” says Cheryl Svensson, PhD, director of the Birren Center for Autobiographical Studies. Svensson notes that people develop an enhanced appreciation for their life experiences, new perspectives and new insights. She adds that they come out of the experience with more energy and greater self-esteem,they may be able to move past regret and grief and many begin taking on new projects, or doing things like traveling on their own for the first time.1
(The Bernard Osher Foundation underwrites various writing classes through its support of Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes at universities and colleges throughout the country. You can find a list of institutes on their website.)
You don’t need to commit to penning a memoir to write your way to a happier life. Here are three shorter exercises to try:
- Write a “joy” letter about someone important in your past or current life. Describe wonderful experiences you shared. “Recall how you felt, what you thought, what you said and where you were,” says John Evans, EdD, a health coach who leads writing and wellness workshops.
- Imagine your best possible self. Picture a future in which everything has gone as well as it possibly could. Now, suggests Timothy Wilson, PhD, author of Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By, write down what you’ve envisioned. Be sure to include how you achieved your goals, say, by going back to school to study Spanish before spending a month in Mexico. By focusing your story on the practical steps you took, “you might become more optimistic about your future and cope better with any obstacles you encounter,” Wilson says.
- Write about something that’s troubling you from the third-person. By switching from the “I” voice to he or she, you may gain distance and objectivity. In the case of an argument with a friend, spouse or child, that can lead you to feel empathy for someone else’s point of view. Adopting the voice of an impartial narrator, Evans says, can also help you achieve detachment from highly charged, emotional events from your past.
1. Guided Autobiography: Stimulate Your Brain, Enhance Well-Being, Develop Community, and Create a Legacy. The California Psychologist, November/December 2013, Volume 46, Number Six, pp 15-18. Cheryl M. Svensson, MSG, PhD & Bonnie L. Bernell, EdD