Shortly before my father died, I recorded his memoirs and made them into a book. Difficult though the process was, it ignited something in me. I went on to volunteer in the Biography Program at the Calvary Hospital, recording the stories of people in palliative care.
I have seen the value people get from reviewing their life in this way – how they light up as they relate their stories. The process seems to offer a chance to make sense of one’s life – was a it a good one? Did I do it well? Did I live it fully? Was it worth something, in the end?
My father jotted his stories down in spidery handwriting on the back of a towering pile of used envelopes. Having lived on his own for the last years of his life, recording his memories gave him a reason to get up in the morning.
A purpose for living
Telling our stories can give people a sense that they are making a contribution. People want to feel part of something that extends beyond themselves. Passing one’s memories or experiences on can encourage a sense of purpose.
Purpose has in fact been found to be a defining feature in mental health. Researchers from the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago tracked 1000 people over seven years, with the average age of around 80. They found that people who had a high level of purpose were more than twice as likely to remain free from Alzheimers, had 30% less cognitive decline and half the mortality rate. They also found a strong sense of purpose created more satisfaction and happiness, better physical functioning, and better sleep.
More on the health benefits
There are other health benefits to telling your story, according to biographers who work in the area. Paul English is a videographer of life stories, and president of Life Stories Australia.
“Telling your story can help validate your life, career and achievements,” says Paul. “Not only can it be tremendously cathartic and help to lift mood, but it can also serve as a wonderful way of connecting the generations, acting as a sort of conversation starter between grandparent and grandchild.
“Even documenting a person’s career as they come to retirement can be tremendously worthwhile and provide a transition into the next stage of their life. We’ve done life story videos for people as young as 50 and 60 and all the way into their 90s.”
Appreciating our lives more
We may just think we’re leading an ordinary life, because to us it’s just ‘normal’ – but sharing a story and having it witnessed gives us the chance to see it through another’s eyes – and in this way, we can see how we are unique. We may even see that some of the events of our lives were quite unusual, possibly even extraordinary. The process can also bring ‘aha’ moments – where we see the events of our lives with hindsight and perhaps more wisdom.
It’s also a chance pat ourselves on the back for a life well lived, or for the way we handled a difficult situation, and for what we learned along the way.
Self-reflection as therapy
Reviewing the past can be cathartic and healing; it can lift mood. Older people often struggle with depression and anxiety, and they might have a fear of death. Telling your life story is a powerful way of helping to ease that.
Reviewing the past can give us a chance to reset the future as well. We can look back and see the difficulties we have overcome, and how we transcended them. And in sharing our stories, others might benefit from seeing how we managed to handle these big issues in our lives as well – and how they might too.
Connecting more with the people around us
Storytelling engages and connects people. It is, in fact, one of our most basic and effective forms of communication. Through story, we can find aspects of ourselves in others, and of others in ourselves.
As Michelle Obama said, “When we share our stories, we are reminded of the humanity in each other. And when we take the time to understand each other’s stories, we become more forgiving, more empathetic, and more inclusive.”
Why we need to know where we came from
When people pass away, often their stories die with them. The older I become, the more I want to know about my ancestors and how they lived.
In another study, a team of psychologists from Emory University in Atlanta, USA, measured children’s resilience and found that those who knew the most about their family history were best able to handle stress, had a stronger sense of control over their lives and higher self-esteem. The reason: these children had a stronger sense of ‘intergenerational self’ – ie, they understood that they belonged to something bigger than themselves.
I have spent the last few years researching my family tree. I have learned about ancestors I barely knew existed, and I have learned their stories – because someone wrote them down. I have learned about the boy from Scotland – my great-great grandfather – who was sent to Australia as an ‘apprentice’ – a term they used for the youngest convict boys. I learned about the 13 children he had, and how he and had his sons were some of the original South Australian foresters. I also learned about the line of newspaper-men I am descended from that I hadn’t previously known existed.
Their stories make me understand myself more. I feel connected to something greater … to their stories, and to my own ancestral line. The truth is … I feel less alone in the world, knowing where I come from.