Photo by Amy via Flickr.
Part of the reason I got into the personal history business was because I enjoyed creating family history videos and other gifts for my own family. I was always struck by the fact that my own joy at creating these gifts was equaled, and in many cases surpassed, by the enjoyment of my friends and relatives who were the subjects of my annual programs.
It turns out that the phenomenon I observed in my own life is pretty common among those who become family storycatchers. Earlier this year, I ran across a couple of research studies that validate how beneficial personal history projects can be – both for those who are telling the stories and those family and friends who form the storyteller’s appreciative audience.
The first study comes from Emory University, where in 2010 psychologists Robyn Fivush and Marshall Duke published a paper in the Journal of Family Life about the impact of knowing one’s family history upon adolescent identity and well being. In the study, researchers developed a “Do You Know” (DYK) scale to try to measure how much kids know about their family history and inter-generational family stories.
Researchers studied 66 middle-class, mixed-race, 14- to 16-year old adolescents from two-parent families. The teens completed the DYK scale, as well as multiple standardized measures of family functioning, identity development and well-being. Teens who knew more stories about their extended family showed “higher levels of emotional well-being, and also higher levels of identity achievement, even when controlling for general level of family functioning,” the study found.
Are the children who know their family’s history functioning well because they know that people before their generation have faced tough times an survived? Does it bolster their emerging identity and give them roots to grow upward and outward from? This one study can’t tell us that. But it does reinforce the idea that sharing family stories is extremely beneficial, especially for the younger readers/listeners/viewers in one’s audience.
And the benefits don’t stop with one’s audience. Family story-sharers – the people we tap to share their life histories with us – also get a lot out of the process. The second link I ran across this year was a paper written by Pat McNees, a former president of the Association of Personal Historians about the beneficial effects of life story activities for elderly narrators, or those with life-limiting conditions.
She notes that in the past 50 years, gerontologists have come to see reminiscence not as a sign of impending dementia, but a very important activity during the “summing up” phase of a person’s life. She quotes gerontologist John Kuntz as saying,
“Memories, reminiscence, and nostalgia all play a part in the (summing up) process. Far from living in the past or wandering, as was thought, older people were engaged in the important psychological task of coming to terms with the life they had lived. They sought to make amends for acts of omission and commission, resolve conflicts, and reconcile alienated relationships.”
The benefits were similar for hospice patients who were offered the opportunity to have a volunteer record an “ethical will,” a legacy letter, or some other form of life history memento. In the paper, McNees quotes Linda Blachman, author of “Another Morning: Voices of Truth and Hope from Mothers with Cancer,” as saying …
“Ideally we should see life stories as ‘works in progress’ and record them long before hospice is needed, but critically ill people can summon remarkable focus and energy to complete what is considered an important developmental task of dying: reviewing one’s life, harvesting it for meaning, and passing on nuggets of wisdom and messages of love.”