The purposeful life review

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Professor William Damon is one of the world’s leading researchers on the development of purpose in life. In this article, he considers how his explorations of purpose have extended from youth to mid- and late-adulthood – and how his own sense of purpose was shaken by the discovery of a long-held family secret.

Summary points

  • Our purposes establish continuities between our past, present and future selves, which is why purposes are so integral to our sense of identity.
  • At any time in life, including older age, it is important to continue to develop a positive sense of identity. Psychiatrist Robert Butler developed the origins of an approach for promoting positive identity by telling life stories structured around purposes that one has pursued throughout one’s life.
  • The goal of such a ‘life review’ is to help people develop a conviction that their lives have been worthwhile, even in the face of difficulties and wrong turns.

My work in psychology has examined how people find purpose in life. Purpose is a long-term intention to accomplish something that is both meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self. Purpose is a key component of personal identity: it tells us who we are and what we stand for. My early research on purpose, published in The Path to Purpose, showed how young people become purposeful by developing interests and talents that enable them to add to the world in a meaningful way, often with the help of purposeful mentors whom young people observe and learn from.

Insightful writings about purpose predated my work. In the 1940s, while imprisoned in a concentration camp, psychiatrist Victor Frankl conceived a psychological theory that identified purpose as a powerful antidote to life’s misfortunes that otherwise would be destabilizing. Frankl wrote that commitment to a purposeful goal provides resilience against psychological hazards such as anxiety and depression. Frankl later founded a counselling approach (‘logotherapy’) based on the idea that purpose should be a primary objective of human life – not, as most theories of psychology had assumed, second in line after satisfying biological drives or material desires.

Purpose is forward-looking, because it focuses on our aspirations for what we would like to accomplish in the future. But purpose looks to the past and present as well. It draws upon our past interests, because we choose purposes that we have found reason to believe in; and it draws on our present abilities, because we stick with purposes that we can achieve. Thus, our purposes establish continuities between our past, present and future selves. That’s why purposes are so integral to our sense of identity – and, ultimately, to what Erik Erikson called ‘ego integrity’, the crowning achievement in the development of our personal identities.

Erikson wrote that ego integrity, the most fulfilling form of personal identity, requires a positive sense of where we’ve been, who we’ve now become, what purposes we are seeking to accomplish, and where we hope to be heading. Success in developing ego integrity can bring the belief that one’s life has been well-lived under the circumstances one has been given. Failure can mean resentments over one’s lot in life, regrets over missed opportunities, feelings that one’s life has been misspent, and abiding despair.

As my explorations of purpose have extended from youth to mid- and late-adulthood, I’ve become interested in the connections between purpose and life fulfilment which Frankl and Erikson wrote about. When I read into the psychological literature on later-life development, I discovered a promising approach to promoting positive identity by telling life stories structured around purposes that one has pursued throughout one’s life. The origins of this approach were suggested by the legendary psychiatrist Robert Butler, who named his approach a ‘life review’. In my use of Butler’s approach, I think of it as a ‘purposeful life review’.

Butler was concerned with a spike in depression that he observed in his ageing patients. Butler believed that their depression was aggravated by the aimless way in which they remembered their past. To address this problem, Butler devised a procedure that had patients conduct ‘life reviews’, which highlighted purposes they had pursued successfully earlier in their lives.

Before he was able to develop this method fully, Butler moved on to a celebrated career in gerontology, writing a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on successful ageing (he coined the term ‘ageism’). Butler never found the time to return to his life review method before his death in 2007, although near the end of his life he wrote that he still thought the idea could prove useful for people in their attempts to lead positive and meaningful lives. Butler wrote that he believed life reviews promote ‘serenity, pride in accomplishment, a feeling of having done one’s best’, a ‘capacity to enjoy present pleasures such as humour, love, nature, and contemplation’, and ‘a comfortable acceptance of the life cycle, the universe, and the generations.’

The goal of a life review approach is to help people to develop a sense that their lives have been worthwhile, even in the face of difficulties and wrong turns. The idea is that reminiscing about one’s past in ways that balance negative events with one’s positive achievements can lead to feelings of gratitude and tranquillity. Life satisfaction does not mean avoiding all misfortunes (which is impossible); nor does it mean always avoiding mistakes (also impossible). Rather, we aim to do the best we can, learn from our past experiences, and remain hopeful for the future. In this way, our past, present and future selves become integrated into a positive identity that can provide the fulfilling sense of ego integrity that Erikson described.

In clinical and other settings, some positive results have been reported from attempts at using Butler’s life review method. But the approach has never become widely used or known in the field of psychology. In my view, there are various reasons for this, including the fact that the approach has been used mostly to address clinical conditions such as depression and dementia, rather than addressing more general issues of purpose, positive identity and life meaning for a broader population. Additionally, the approach has focused mainly on helping the elderly adapt to the last part of their lives, rather than helping people at all ages find meaning in their lives, which has restricted its audience. Finally, the approach has relied on personal memory alone, which is always an uncertain source, rather than also using information available from other sources, such as testimonials of friends and family, existing records and historical documents.

Intrigued by the possibilities of a life review, I decided to try it out on one case that was readily available to me – myself. This idea matched my longstanding fondness for the case study (or ‘idiographic’) methodology as a way of trying out new ideas in psychological study. It also matched my personal need to make sense of new information about my past that I had discovered unexpectedly. In trying this out on my own case, I would be using it to address general issues of life meaning and identity; I would be doing it prior to (as far as I know) my last phase of life; and I would be using, in addition to my memories, testimonials from others and historical documents that I retrieved. Thus, I would be addressing the limitations I noted in earlier uses of the method.

An indelible part of my life story was the loss of a father whom I never met and whom I knew absolutely nothing about during the years when I was growing up. My father did not return home after serving on the German front during World War II. The only thing my mother told me about him was that he was ‘missing in the war’. She uttered no other word about him. No traces of him existed in my childhood home. Only when I reached adulthood did my mother reveal to me that my father did not die in the war. But she offered no further information, and I never had the nerve, or the interest, to pursue the matter while she was alive. Until ten years ago, I never saw a picture of my father or knew anything about what he was like.

Then, shortly after I turned sixty, I received a stunning call from my older daughter, who had become interested in her missing grandfather. In our digital age, my daughter’s curiosity was not hard to satisfy. The internet opened up a rich trove of information about my father that led to an entirely different account of his fate from the one I had assumed. I followed up the leads my daughter had given me and went about finding out everything I could about my father’s life after he failed to come home. He had died in 1991, but he left a personal history that was possible to reconstruct, a second family whom I could meet and become familiar with, and old friends who could provide me with recollections and photos that filled in my mental picture of the man who fathered me.

Robert Butler had made comments about the power of such an inquiry that struck home: ‘Emotional events in a family, such as the loss of a loved one through war, can leave a profound mark. Such events may be concealed as family secrets but then resurface unexpectedly through the process of life review.’ I had lost a father in a war; his absence did leave a mark on my life; and other facts of his existence had played a pivotal role in shaping my own destiny. I realised that I needed to understand this new information about key circumstances that I had never known (in fact, much of what I thought I knew was wrong). As Butler predicted, the ‘resurfacing of family secrets’ in my life created for me a need for an intentional process of self-discovery, in the form of a ‘purposeful life review’.

In the second part of Professor Damon’s article, he describes some of the new personal insights that resulted from his own personal review.

Further information

  • Birren, J. E. and Birren, B. (2004) Autobiography: Exploring the self and encouraging development. In: J. E. Birren et al, eds, Aging and Biography. New York: Springer.
  • Butler, R. N. (1963) The Life Review: An Interpretation of Reminiscence in the Aged. Psychiatry, 26, pp. 65–76.
  • Butler, R. N. (1995) Foreword: The Life Review. In B. K. Haight and J. D. Webster, eds, The art and science of reminiscing: Theory, Research, Methods, and Applications. Washington D.C.: Taylor and Francis, pp. 20–21.
  • Butler, R.N. (1975) Why Survive? Being Old in America. New York: Harper & Row.
  • Damon, W. (2008) The Path to Purpose: How young people find their calling in life. New York, NY: The Free Press.
  • Erikson, E. and Erikson, J. (1997) The Life Cycle Completed. New York: W.W. Norton.
  • Frankl, V. E. (1959) Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logo-therapy. Boston, MA: Beacon.

Part two of this article can be found here: https://psychology-in-practice-magazine.co.uk/the-purposeful-life-review-part-two/.

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About Author

William Damon

William Damon is Professor at Stanford University and Director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence. Damon’s books include Some Do Care (with Anne Colby); Good Work (with Howard Gardner and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi); and The Path to Purpose. Damon is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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