I recently read an article by William Damon, Ph.D., a Stanford professor, who wrote a book about the history of his father who he had never known. This book was:  A Round of Golf with My Father: The New Psychology of Exploring Your Past to Make Peace with Your Present.


His revelations about his father shook his understanding of his life’s trajectory to its foundations. He felt drawn into a reconsideration of where he came from and how he got to where he was now—a life review.



woman reflecting on life while staring into a puddle


The Life Review Method

A “life review” is a method of examining our past by searching memories, interviewing friends and relatives, and retrieving archival documents, such as school and ancestry records. Robert Butler, a legendary psychiatrist who wrote a Pulitzer-prize-winning book on aging and became the National Institute on Aging’s first director, developed this method.


Butler hypothesized that a life review can provide three personal benefits as we develop:


  1. Acceptance of the events and choices that have shaped our lives. This fosters gratitude for the life we’ve been given, in place of self-doubt, regret, and resentment.
  2. An authentic, and thus robust, understanding of who we are and how we got to be that way. This leads to a well-grounded, stable self-identity;
  3. Clarity in the directions we wish to take our lives going forward. This reflects what we have learned from the experiences and purposes that have given our lives meaning in the past.

Butler believed that life reviews promote “intellectual and personal growth, and wisdom” throughout the lifespan. Among the psychological benefits, he noted were the resolution of old conflicts; an optimistic view of one’s future; “a sense of serenity, pride in accomplishment”; a capacity to enjoy pleasures, such as humor, love, nature, and contemplation; and “an acceptance of the life cycle, the universe, and the generations.”



black stone among smaller white stones reading reflect


What Are the Benefits of a Life Review?

By finding positive benefits in earlier experiences—including experiences that we saw as negative—we can affirm our lives’ value and chart a hopeful path forward. As Butler wrote: “One’s life does not have to have been a ‘success’ in the popular sense of the word. People take pride in a feeling of having done their best . . . and sometimes from simply having survived against terrible odds.”


It is important to note that the life review process can be complex, and it may not be the same for everyone. The process can uncover a wealth of insights into how you developed your interests, skills, beliefs, and personal characteristics. It may expose mistakes you made on the journey. You may also find missed opportunities to explore things earlier or discover there were times when you avoided difficult conversations you should have partaken in.


Through these insights, you are then able to come to terms with these regrets. Over time, your life review promotes healthy healing and helps you deal with long-buried resentments arising from any family or relational matters. This puts to rest those old conflicts that still may hinder you, years later.



life review connecting past to future


Connecting past and future

Turning away from the past is not the best way to a purposeful future. We can’t learn lessons from past misfortunes until we openly recognize them. We can’t unburden ourselves from past regrets and resentments unless we confront them.


And, in a positive sense, our past accomplishments contain rich troves of ideas. They can teach us about what we’re capable of doing, what’s given us satisfaction, who we’ve become, and who we can aspire to be in the years to come.


In short, they tell us about our prospects for future life-fulfilling purposes.


Everyone has a past. The longer we live, the more past we have to think about; but even a young person has a history of accomplishments, satisfactions, regrets, misfortunes, and mistakes to mull over. 


Making sense of this history is essential for present stability and future guidance. Just as with world history, those who ignore personal history are doomed to repeat old errors. And there is no way to permanently erase what we have lived through.


You cannot separate past, present, and future like walled-off compartments on a moving train. The passages between them are best kept open, and the dynamic interactions among them can help us, as conductors, shape the direction of our own moving trains.

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