Imagine returning to the home where you grew up, opening the door, and walking right back into your childhood or youth? What would you learn about yourself and your life story? How would you live your life differently today?
When we reach adulthood—and especially middle age—we have the opportunity to look back over our lives, review our triumphs and regrets, and contemplate the story that we want to tell. Such stories or “life narratives”—both the content and the telling—are important. For the past several decades, psychological scientists have been exploring how the stories that we write about our lives shape the way we think about ourselves, influence our day-to-day behaviors, and impact our happiness. Having a coherent autobiography makes us feel more accepting about our past and less fearful about the future. In other words, we are better off if we are able to construct a life narrative of how we became who we are today and how our future will unfold—for example, by imbuing our life history with a sense of orderliness and significance. For example, instead of regretting that we didn’t spend more time with our mother when she was very ill, we come to understand how her battle with cancer propelled us to devote the second half of our career to helping others. We experience greater happiness and life purpose when we are able to construe our lives as more than just a collection of isolated, fleeting moments and can transform those moments into critical pieces of a significant journey. We are better adjusted when we have the capacity to convert an uncertain future into a series of predictable events.
In the 1957 Ingmar Bergman film Wild Strawberries, the protagonist, a seemingly benevolent elderly Swedish physician, is haunted by past regrets and images of his own impending death. Forced to reevaluate his life, he undertakes a literal and metaphorical 400-mile journey, during which he visits people and places that remind him of all the key turning points in his life—his admired but actually mean-spirited mother, his childhood on the seaside, the sweetheart he loved who married his brother instead of him, and his bitterly quarrelsome marriage. Recognizing himself in these memories and in the people in his life, the doctor gradually gains a sense of self-acceptance and is able to instill in his life a coherence and significance that it didn’t have before.
The Swedish physician achieves something that we should all aim for; researchers call it “autobiographical coherence.” Achieving it may require mental time travel—to moments of our earliest youth, for example, finding there the seeds of our present failures and successes as partner, grandparent, worker, and friend. Bergman reportedly got the idea for Wild Strawberries during a long car trip across Sweden. After stopping in Uppsala, the town of his birth and childhood, and driving past his grandmother’s old home, he imagined what it would be like to open the door and walk back into his childhood. What if we could do that with different periods of our lives? Research shows that by simply writing about the past, people are able to gain a sense of meaning and order about their significant life events, thus affording them the chance to come to terms with these events and reconcile themselves to their regrets. Such writing can help us reconnect to the people, places, and activities from our pasts and give us a sense of autobiographical coherence. Such writing involves not only describing our biographical facts (“I was mistreated,” “I lived in Florida”), but going beyond the facts by selectively appropriating particular memories or aspects of our experiences (e.g., cherished memories or symbolic family traditions) in a way that makes sense to us. In doing so, instead of harping on all the ways we could have acted more virtuously or more wisely, we can make our past life experiences and events come alive and add meaning to our lives.