The Meaningful And Mysterious Mental Health Effects Of Life Storytelling

Michael Humphrey
Mar 14, 2016 · 5 min read

When I tell people my PhD research is in life storytelling, one word can summarize a common reaction: “Nice.” As in, I’ll remind the grandparents to do that.

If meditation and reading fiction are the yoga and ultra marathons of mental development, life storytelling is the daily walk. A nice thing to do, but not exactly exercise the way you mean it. (Yes, I take long daily walks. Ugh.)

But here’s a secret for you brain-muscle types. If your grandparents are writing or otherwise deeply engaging in the stories of their lives, they might be the real badasses in the room.

I taught life story writing classes in the public library systems across the Kansas City metro area for 10 years. One class of 35 students, ages 60 to 95, predominantly women, met weekly for six of those years. Over time I became intrigued by how healthy and active they remained as they reached into their 80s and 90s.

Surely most of these students were the go-getters to start with, but several mentioned to me that their short-term memory, clarity of thinking and general outlook on life improved when they started to regularly write stories of their lives. Not exactly science, but we’ll get to that.

So why do we relegate life storytelling to older adults? What if you learned life storytelling could do powerful and good things to your mind, regardless of your age? Like help you overcome traumatic experiences, improve your memory and give you a greater sense of well-being?

Like any research findings, a healthy skepticism is, well, healthy. But below are three rich and varied research fields that suggest life storytelling deserves its own exercise metaphor, even if the outcomes can be mysterious at times. Walking is fine, but life storytelling’s better metaphor could be rock-climbing, which takes patience, flexibility and a good sense of where you’ve been and are going.

A Coherent Life Story Is Related To Well-Being

Northwestern researcher Dan McAdams (who will be featured here soon) has studied the role of life story not as an advocate of its feel-good potential but as identity itself. Whether life storytelling is harmful or helpful is not the primary point for McAdams and his colleagues. So when Dana Royce Baerger and McAdams found in 1999 that mental well-being, “is related to, if not the result of, a well-integrated and coherent life story” it was not a prescription, but an important observation.

Whether expressing that life narrative, either in private or public, is a way to develop coherence and well-being is another question, one taken up by a large number of researchers.

Expressive Writing About Negative Experiences Could Help You Heal Emotionally

According to the research of Dr. James Pennebaker, Expressive Writing about an emotional upheaval for 15 to 20 minutes per day for four consecutive days can help people recover from a traumatic event. The technique, which is internally-focused, emotional and free-form, led not just to reports of “feeling better,” but improved sleep, short-term memory and social connections.

Now, wait before you grab that pen or keyboard, because there are important caveats. How you write that story is a key predictor of whether it helps your state of mind. By how, I mean the language you choose. According to Pennebaker, using words that show causation (because, effect, hence) and insight words (think, know, consider) tends to mean the writing is “working through” the experience and this can be positive. But writers who tend to focus on an overly personal perspective (a lot of first-person usage) may be exhibiting rumination, a passive poring over of a loss or failure in life. (Note: I am not suggesting that you examine your own word use in this way. If you are feeling very down about a negative life experience, the best step is to seek counseling). Researchers believe the act of meaning-making helps people move in a positive direction. Expressive Writing appears to help those who are ready to seek meaning, but not those stuck in rumination.

And then there is this twist. A recent study by David A. Sbarra and colleagues found that two different kinds of Expressive Writing did not improve emotional recovery among those in the midst of marital separation over a 9-month period. In fact, writing accurately and objectively rather than emotionally, performed better.

So if this kind of internal writing might vary in effectiveness across how, why and when we do it, what are the prospects of sharing public life stories? That’s a question especially important to The History Project and one field where that question has been broadly examined is in health forums online.

Stories Play A Powerful Role In Health Care

In a 2010 review of recent research, Gerben J. Westerhof, Ernst Bohlmeijer and Jeffrey Dean Webster found that are three different types of reminiscence employed in mental and medical health areas: simple reminiscence, life-review and life-review therapy. Simple reminiscence, which occurs naturally in human beings, increases bonding among people and promotes positive feelings. Life-review, also naturally occurring according to researchers is a “return to consciousness of past experience, and particularly, the resurgence of unresolved conflicts.” It can also be highly productive, especially in life-review therapy, which guides the reviewer through specific moments in life to come to peace with decisions she or he made.

What is most telling about life review is the fact that it is not for everyone … and especially why that is the case. “If the reviewer could not work through the events and transcend the negative feelings,” writes two nursing doctoral students in Hong Kong, “negative effects may result.”

This gets back to the points earlier about a well-integrated life is related to well-being. Examining events in an open and honest way, but ultimately coming to peace with life’s outcomes, can be a powerful step toward mental health.

That brings us to the many studies looking at how we share our deepest problems on the Internet. Researchers are fascinated with peer-to-peer connections among those seeking health information, advice and consolation. As one Julian Rappaport argues, these communities remove the central focus from health professionals in favor of patient communities. From weight loss, to dementia to cancer, and basically any other issue people might share, telling out stories online is an important new phenomenon. Sue Ziebland and Sally Wyke found that sharing experiences online is now a “primary route to health information and support.” But storytelling has its own place, they argue, one in which a positive or negative outcome is possible.

“We … see ‘learning to tell the story’ as distinct from other aspects of the exchange of information and support because it focuses on the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’ of the accounts that we are able to relate.”

Telling a story well, in other words, becomes a skill that, when developed, can help both the storyteller and the audience. For that matter, the willingness and ability to listen to stories is another key skill. They are muscles, like any other, that strengthen with use. But then, your storytelling grandmother could have told you that.

The History Project Collection

Stories at the intersection of memories, life and family…

The History Project Collection

Stories at the intersection of memories, life and family history, life reflection, social media, technology, history, and storytelling. Preserve the moments that matter at

Michael Humphrey

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Writer, teacher, researcher. Colorado State University at Fort Collins.

The History Project Collection

Stories at the intersection of memories, life and family history, life reflection, social media, technology, history, and storytelling. Preserve the moments that matter at