WHAT IS GUIDED AUTOBIOGRAPHY?
“To be able to look back upon one’s life in satisfaction, is to live twice.
~ Kahlil Gibran
Guided Autobiography (GAB) was developed by Dr. James Birren in the mid ‘70s at the University of Southern California. It has been used widely to help people of all ages to document their life stories, through a series of priming questions, turning points and life themes which are carefully sequenced and scaffolded.
I was extremely fortunate to cross 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 to 8 GAB sessions resulted in a significant increase in participants' life satisfaction scores.
Writing our autobiographical stories has many benefits for our psychological and physical well-being, including improved self-esteem and sense of belonging (Routledge et al., 2013), 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). Working with our life stories – even if they are contradictory – provides access to new meaning and purpose.
It is the developmental exchange that distinguishes GAB from other life review processes. Listening to one another's stories in a supportive environment can trigger forgotten memories, allowing for new reflections and insights. 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).
GAB facilitates looking back on our lives, to recognise that we have a place in the larger universe – that we have a purpose. 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 research, click here.
To see what GAB participants say, click here.