Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Thinking About Yesterday to Feel Better Today

New research shows the value of guided reminiscence on your mental health.

Key points

  • Everyone reminisces about their past, but some memories can lead you to wish your life had been different.
  • New research shows how thinking about your past can be an activity that stimulates your psychological growth.
  • Building a coherent narrative of your life story can help you look toward the future with more joy.

It is natural to think back on your past, whether you reminisce about major life events or random everyday occurrences. Anniversaries are often associated with a flood of memories of the original date of the event, especially if it had great personal meaning to you. However, you might also find yourself wandering back in your mind to the first time you ate at a particular restaurant—not for any special occasion, but just with some friends you haven’t seen in a while.

Old memories, like an argument you had with a now-ex-partner, may also come back to you for no particular reason at all—and often, it’s not just the details but also the emotions that come rushing back. If the emotions triggered by those memories are troubling—anger about the argument, for instance—it would be nice to be able to figure out how to keep them contained and not become dragged down again into the original set of unpleasant feelings.

The Value of Cognitive Reminiscence

According to Deakin University’s David Hallford and colleagues (2024), reminiscence can have a positive effect on your well-being if you are able to reflect on the “specific events, life periods, and one’s life in general… in ways that foster healthy and adaptive beliefs and attitudes” (p. 1).

The trick to this adaptive type of reminiscence is to be able to interpret your past events in ways that strengthen your view of yourself as someone who can get things done, or what’s called “self-efficacy.” Ideally, you can also feel that you have personal worth, are valued by others, and feel that your life has purpose and meaning. Although not every memory will come with a set of sunny interpretations, adaptive reminiscence allows you to integrate disappointment and loss into coherent “narratives about one’s life and self” (p. 1).

In what is called “cognitive reminiscence therapy” (CRT), individuals are helped to rewrite past events with a more positive spin, but not just by trying to sugarcoat their outcomes. Like cognitive therapy more generally, CRT is based on the concept of reframing.

You may, for example, recall that evening out with friends as one in which you inadvertently insulted a member of the group whom you didn’t know that well. In your memory, this was a horrible faux pas showing how socially incompetent you are.

Through CRT, you could be helped to relive that event—but rather than come to the same unhappy conclusion, begin to understand alternative possibilities. Maybe the comment wasn’t really that bad, or even if it was, perhaps it gave you greater sensitivity so that in the future, you were more careful before potentially hurting someone else’s feelings. Recognizing that you learned from it and that it reshaped the rest of your life could allow you to neutralize some of that negative affect.

Testing CRT’s Benefits on Mental Health

The Deakin U. research team tested CRT’s effectiveness through a randomized controlled trial in which one group (34 adults) received treatment and the other (41 adults) were placed in a waiting list control condition. The CRT took place over three sessions. The measures of CRT’s effectiveness included standard questionnaires of self-esteem, self-efficacy (personal competence in coping with stress), meaning in life, optimism, depression, anxiety, and stress.

One particular measure was intended to be especially sensitive to CRT, a questionnaire known as the “Awareness of Narrative Identity” Scale. This included items such as “When I think over my lifetime, I can observe how there is a story that tells me who I am.”

Participants also rated their tendency to engage in “negative automatic thoughts,” rating their frequency in the past week of thinking “I’m no good,” or “I’m so disappointed in myself.” They also rated the extent to which they anticipated future events with pleasure.

In addition to showing positive effects of therapy on depression, fewer negative automatic thoughts, greater self-esteem, self-efficacy, and optimism, CRT also boosted anticipated pleasure in the future and narrative identity. However, therapy did not benefit levels of stress or anxiety, nor were there effects on meaning in life.

Reflecting on these results, the authors noted that “this study is the first to show that a reminiscence-based intervention can increase anticipated pleasure” (p. 7). If thinking about the past can help provide more joy as you think about the future, that is a reasonably powerful endorsement of this novel approach to cognitive treatment.

Furthermore, increases in narrative identity were related to increases in anticipated pleasure, again showing that going backward in time can help propel your forward movement as you go through life.

Using Cognitive Reminiscence to Benefit Your Mental Health

Although the CRT provided by the Hallford et al. team was administered in a professional setting, there remain important takeaways that you may be able to use in your own guided thoughts about the past.

The authors note that “potentially, self-defining events from the past that are salient may help with imagining similarly themed self-defining events in the future” (p. 8). Rather than run away from past events that challenged your sense of self-worth, putting them back under the microscope—but with a more adaptive lens—can help you see them as part of your life’s coherent story.

Indeed, the authors found that in their original testing of participants, it was those individuals with a higher narrative identity who had stronger psychological resources in terms of the original baseline measures. Constructing and re-constructing a life story that fits with your own sense of identity means that your memories of past events don’t have to scare you or make you feel like a failure.

To sum up, thinking about the past can be an activity that promotes your psychological health, especially if you are able to portray your role in those past events in an adaptive light. These events, and your role in them, may not have been perfect, but they are what makes you the person you are today, and will be in the future.


Hallford, D., Woolfit, M., Follett, A., Jones, E., Harrison, O., & Austin, D. (2024). Guided recall of positive autobiographical memories increases anticipated pleasure and psychological resources, and reduces depressive symptoms: A replication and extension of a randomised controlled trial of brief positive cognitive-reminiscence therapy. Memory.

More from Susan Krauss Whitbourne PhD, ABPP
More from Psychology Today