WHAT IS GUIDED AUTOBIOGRAPHY?
(with excerpts from Lindy's dissertation)

Guided Autobiography (GAB) was developed by Dr. James Birren in the mid ‘70s at the University of Southern California. It has been used widely over the past forty years to help people document their life stories, through a series of priming questions, turning points and life themes.

Research has found that people of all ages benefit from GAB. Listening to one another's stories in a supportive environment can trigger forgotten memories, allowing for new reflections and insights. Benefits include increased self-acceptance, positive views of others and sense of connectedness, as well as decreased anxiety. 

I was extremely fortunate to have crossed paths with GAB pioneers, Dr. Cheryl Svensson and Dr. James Thornton, who generously shared their wisdom with me. They also provided me with access to research papers I would otherwise probably never have found. Without them, it would have been almost impossible to complete my own research study, where the findings were startling: just 6-8 GAB sessions saw a significant increase in participants' life satisfaction scores.

Working with autobiographical stories has many benefits for our psychological and physical well-being, including improved self-esteem and sense of belonging (Routledge et al., 2013). It activates transcendence and transformation (Reker et al., 2012) and can enhance or restore life satisfaction, purpose and meaning (Cook, 1998; Lai, Igarashi, Yu, & Chin, 2018; Reker et al., 2012; Routledge et al., 2013).Each time we restory, old meanings are transformed, providing deeper understanding, new perspectives and a path “toward self-transcendence and ordinary wisdom” (Reker et al., 2012, p. 388). Working with our life stories – even if they are contradictory – provides access to new meaning and purpose. Birren and Svensson (2013) suggest that the central function of autobiographical memories is, in fact, to give our lives meaning. 

Physical, emotional and psychological benefits of GAB have been documented across the entire adult lifespan (DeVries et al., 1990) In one early GAB study (Birren & Hedlund, 1987), 90% of participants reported positive effects that persisted two years later. Participants described their experiences as “overwhelmingly positive” (Vota & de Vries, 2001, p. 331) and transformative (Birren & Svensson, 2013). GAB participants reported greater sense of purpose (McAdams & McLean, 2013; Birren & Svensson, 2013; Thornton & Collins, 2010) increased self-worth (Thornton & Collins, 2010) and decreased depression and anxiety (Birren & Svensson, 2013; Bohlmeijer et al., 2005).

It is the developmental exchange that distinguishes GAB from other life review processes. Sharing emotional material creates strong affective bonds between group members (Reker et al., 2014) and a change in attitudes toward self and others (Reker et al., 2012; Thornton & Collins, 2007). When deep sharing is combined with positive, non-judgemental feedback, participants are assisted in their search for meaning (DeVries, Birren, & Deutchman, 1990).  GAB themes are carefully sequenced and scaffolded (Thornton et al., 2011) to facilitate the developmental exchange, enabling participants’ stories to connect with “the evolving stories of others, our community, and our world” (Randall et al., 2015, p. 156.). Shared autobiographical stories are viewed as social acts that increase awareness of self and others, “with the general intention of sharing their legacy with family and community” (Thornton et al., 2011, p. 229).

Consciously recalling one’s past provides the opportunity for integration and self-awareness, and ultimately healthy functioning and wellbeing (Bluck et al, 2014). GAB facilitates looking back on our lives, to recognise that we have a place in the larger universe – that we have a purpose – and this is when we experience our lives as meaningful (Halusic & King, 2013).  We can’t change past experiences, but by writing about them, and sharing our memories in the safety of a GAB group, we gain new insights into where we have come from, where we can go, who we have been and who we can still become. It was Socrates who said ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ but perhaps it is only by examining our lives that we come to understand how much worth they truly have. 

To access the dissertation, click here.

To see what GAB participants say, click here.

© 2021  Lindy Hughes Pfeil

I am grateful to live and work on the unceded traditional territories of the Coast Salish peoples.

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