As people get older, they spend more time thinking about the past. It’s only natural when there’s more past to look back on.

The tendency to reminisce in old age was for a long time seen in a negative way, as a type of unhealthy dysfunction, or at the very least, annoying to others. Then, in a 1963 paper, psychiatrist Robert Butler introduced the idea that it was not only universal and natural, but could also be positive. The practice of spending time looking back on life “participates in the evolution of such characteristics as candor, serenity, and wisdom among certain of the aged.” 

The practice of spending time looking back on life “participates in the evolution of such characteristics as candor, serenity, and wisdom.”

Since then, there has been a huge growth in the study of reminiscence and its functions. Interventions like “life review therapy” or “reminiscence therapy” have been created to address the treatment of depression, dementia, trauma, and end-of-life care.

Training is required to administer these treatments, because not all reminiscing is the same. Just remembering and telling stories doesn’t necessarily confer any benefits, and in some cases can even do harm. Quality reminiscing involves some kind of effort at evaluation and finding meaning.

In the 1990s, psychologists Lisa Watt and Paul Wong developed a taxonomy of reminiscing that has been useful in research on how people relate to their life stories. Here are their six types of reminiscing.

1. Obsessive: Everything was awful

Obsessive reminiscence is focused on negative events from the past and feelings of guilt and bitterness. There is a failure to reframe or restructure the thinking about mistakes or missed opportunities in order to incorporate them into a meaningful view of life, where even the bad has played an important role.

2. Escapist: Those were the days

The opposite side of obsessive reminiscence is escapist reminiscence. Instead of a tendency to dwell on the negative, there is focus on the good old days, and how wonderful they were in comparison to the present. It is marked by boasting and exaggeration. It can serve as a coping mechanism for difficult events but is generally unhealthy.

3. Narrative: A series of events

Where obsessive and escapist types of reminiscence put a negative or positive interpretation on life events, narrative reminiscence is neutral and straightforwardly descriptive. It relays biographical information and anecdotes, but doesn’t lead to greater understanding of self or others.

4. Transmissive: When I was your age…

Transmissive reminiscence is done in the service of passing on values, lessons, and traditions, usually from older to younger generations. It is usually a constructive way of looking at the past, in that it looks for meaningful things to pass along.

Engaging in transmissive reminiscing can lead to improvements in feelings of well-being.

5. Instrumental: You take the good, you take the bad

In instrumental reminiscence there is a focus on goals, plans, and methods for overcoming problems. It doesn’t downplay the fact that life can have failures, problems, and tragedy, but treats them from the viewpoint of what was done in reaction to bad events. It enhances feelings of strength and competence.

Engaging in this type of reminiscing can help with the challenges of aging by bringing up coping strategies that may be helpful in the present.

6. Integrative: A worthwhile story

In psychologist Erik Erikson’s theory of the developmental stages of life, the final stage, starting about age 65, is characterized by the tension of integrity vs. despair. While the central question of early childhood is “Is it okay to be me?,” the central question of the final stage is “Is it okay to have been me?”

Despair comes from a sense that life has been wasted or lived the wrong way. Integrity is a sense of peace and wisdom that life has meaning and coherence, whatever choices have been made. Integrative reminiscence fosters this feeling of acceptance.

The type of statements made in integrative reminiscence show an ability to come to terms with the difference between reality and ideals, a willingness to acknowledge negative events and conflicts and find ways to accept them, and a view of a life as a worthwhile story, not just one thing after another.

In studies of aging, the most successful outcomes are associated with instrumental and integrative reminiscence. We may not be able to go back and change what has already happened, but we can engage with our memories in a productive way.