Friday, 29 April 2016

Looking back on your past can make you less likely to suffer depression in the future

Is spending time looking back on our lives good for our mental health? A lot of research suggests it is, but these studies have been cross-sectional, making it hard to form a clear causal story – for example, perhaps being happier makes it more likely that people will reminisce. On the other hand, there are therapeutic trials that show purposeful reminiscence can bring about clinically meaningful decreases in depression. Now, a longitudinal investigation in Applied Cognitive Psychology provides further evidence for the benefits of the right kind of looking back, and it shows that reminiscence has this effect by building up our psychological resources.

The work, from Deakin University’s David Hallford and David Mellor, recruited 171 adult US participants (average age 26) using Amazon's Mechanical Turk survey website. At two time points a week apart, the participants rated their levels of depression symptoms and they reflected on the past week, reporting how much they had thought or talked about their personal history during that time, and whether they had done it to achieve either of two specific goals: to help define who they are today – the identity function of reminiscence – or to remind themselves that they have the skills or character to deal with present challenges, which is the problem-solving function. Past research suggests these adaptive uses of reminiscence are what seem to have the clinical effects over time. The current study clarified that these kinds of reminiscence were not associated with lower levels of depression in the same week that the reminiscence took place, but were associated with less depression one week later. So, you’re not necessarily in a better state during periods when you are being reflective, but reminiscing now is likely to protect you against depression in the future.

Note, the effects of reminiscence on next week’s depression symptoms were not direct. Rather, reminiscence affected a set of positive psychological resources: self esteem, confidence in own ability, optimism and meaning in life. And where these resources were enhanced, depression dropped.

Although the participants in this study reported a range of depression symptoms, they were not diagnosed with clinical depression. Nonetheless, the results do suggest a cognitive explanation for how reminiscence-based therapy is effective for people with more serious depression. Rather than reminiscence activating brain pathways that somehow flush out depression, it provides sense, meaning and ways of thinking to free the individual from feelings of joylessness or despair. Prior evidence (albeit cross-sectional) has suggested that reminiscence can cut both ways – dwelling on bitter experiences can increase our psychological distress, and I should emphasise that this new research focused on adaptive reminiscence. Casting your mind back through the past to reflect on the person you are, or are constantly becoming; treating your experience as a testimonial to what you are capable of. By these activities, we can nourish the psyche and protect our wellbeing.


Hallford, D., & Mellor, D. (2016). Autobiographical Memory and Depression: Identity-continuity and Problem-solving Functions Indirectly Predict Symptoms over Time through Psychological Well-being Applied Cognitive Psychology, 30 (2), 152-159 DOI: 10.1002/acp.3169

--further reading--
Do you remember the time? How collective nostalgia inspires group loyalty
Feeling chilly? Indulge in some nostalgia

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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