Optimism and Autobiography

What’s your life story?

Apparently, how you answer that question is related to how optimistic you are about the future. The way we interpret the past is closely tied up with our expectations for what’s to come.

In a new study, researchers asked people to relate autobiographical memories, then analyzed the themes these people emphasized in presenting their memories. The researchers were especially interested in two kinds of themes: those that stressed people’s communal experiences and those that centered on people’s individual agency.

They found that both themes were related to optimism, but in different ways.

People who emphasized communal themes when recounting their autobiographical memories were more prone to experience nostalgia. This tendency toward nostalgia was related to higher self-esteem, which in term predicted higher optimism. That is, the degree to which people focused on communal themes in their autobiographical memories was related to how optimistic those people were by way of nostalgia and self-esteem.

On the other hand, the extent to which people brought out themes having to do with agency in their autobiographical memories wasn’t associated with nostalgia – people who framed their memories in terms of agency weren’t any more inclined toward nostalgia. However, these people did tend to have higher self-esteem, which again predicted higher optimism.

In other words, interpreting autobiographical memories in terms of either communal and agentic themes is related to self-esteem and optimism. For communal memories, though, nostalgia is a factor in the link between memory and self-esteem, while in the case of agentic memories, it’s apparently not.

The big picture here is that there’s a complex relationship between how we think about the past and how we approach the future. From a mental health perspective, the past doesn’t stay in the past – how we make sense of our prior experiences informs how we go through life.

That’s why researchers have even proposed “reminiscence therapy” as a treatment for depression. One study found that engaging in certain kinds of reflection on the past can reduce depressive symptoms, including by increasing self-esteem, optimism and sense of meaning in life.

There’s a lot that remains to be understood about how our memories contribute to our mental health, but one thing is increasingly clear: the lens we put on the past colors our worldview, and this fact could be the starting point for mental health interventions that increase people’s quality of life.

Image: Flickr/Andi Jetaime