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  • Peter Weisz

Harvard says writing memoirs is healthy

Updated: Dec 23, 2022

No less an authority than the Harvard University has endorsed the health benefits of writing your life story. The findings arise from Hebrew SeniorLife, a Harvard-affiliated facility in Boston. Hebrew SeniorLife is an integrated center for health care, research and teaching aimed at expanding choices for adults as they age and improving their quality of life.

A recent study has demonstrated that engaging your brain to write your memoirs can leave a recorded history for your descendants as it helps to improve your cognitive fitness.

"You would be surprised at how interested your peers and family members are in your stories and personal history," says Brendan Kearney, at Harvard-affiliated Hebrew SeniorLife. "You have a unique firsthand account of your culture and history that others don't, and leaving a recorded history of your life can be an important gift to both you and your descendants."

Leaving some kind of legacy can be a driving force for many senior men and women. How do you want people to remember you? Sure, you'd like to leave behind money or personal items to your grandchildren, family, and friends, but the gift that literally can last forever is your personal history.

"When people pass away, so often their stories die with them," says Kearney. "Think about how, as you get older, you wish you knew more about your grandparents or great-grandparents and how they lived."

Besides sharing your stories, your memoirs can be an opportunity to pass along specific wisdom and life lessons. "Even if you write about parts of your life that you have never told anyone because they were unhappy or painful, revisiting them can show others the strength it takes to overcome life barriers when they face their own," says Kearney.

Writing your personal history also can be a therapeutic tool as you explore issues that may still trouble you. A study published online Jan. 17, 2018, by JAMA Psychiatry found that a type of writing therapy, called written exposed therapy, was just as effective as traditional cognitive processing therapy in treating adults with post-traumatic stress disorder.

In written exposed therapy, you write about a specific upsetting memory. By writing about their experiences, people often can process feelings that they tend to avoid thinking about or sharing, according to the researchers.

You don't have to follow a straight year-by-year account when writing your story. Instead, Kearney recommends creating a timeline of your life based on the places you have lived.

"Begin with writing about your homes," he says. "Think about the house you grew up in, or the first house you owned. What memories come to mind? The places you've lived often invoke a wealth of visual memories and long-forgotten stories that are tied to those places."

Other sources of inspiration are early jobs, or hobbies or sports you enjoyed. "For instance, if you were once an avid tennis player but are no longer able to play, you could share your knowledge, insight, and love of the game with future players like your grandkids," says Kearney.

Another way to trigger ideas is to look through photo albums. Focus on a single picture and write about the story behind it. Or use writing prompts, by asking yourself questions, such as "One of my fondest memories of my best friend was..." or "The time I was happiest or most scared was..."

"Once you get going, you will be surprised at the memories that will bubble to the surface and motivate you to write them down," says Kearney. "You'll discover that your life and your stories are still quite relevant."

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