Wellness Through Reflection: Recalling the Past and Envisioning the Future

By Loriene Roy

Humans react to growth in many ways. Some welcome change and uncertainty. Others feel overwhelmed, isolated, and passed-by. Yet change often promotes growth. We library and information specialists can use the many changes before us to grow professionally and personally. One of the most intimate and rewarding paths to inner development is life term review, a process that begins with personal reflection that can be extended to a communal search for meaning in our careers. As such, life term review is tied to wellness.

What is Life Term Review?

According to Psychological Abstracts, life review is “the reflection on and return to past life experiences in order to think about and reintegrate them into present life circumstances” (Walker 1994, 121). Life review is the intersection of the past and future. It is a form of reminiscence like guided or assisted autobiography, oral history, storytelling and even day dreaming (Merriam 1990, 43).

Dr. Robert N. Butler, former Director of the National Institute on Aging, was the first to observe and describe life term review in the early 1960s (Butler 1980/81). Life review was first observed to be in the domain of the elderly. It has since been used by historians, clinicians and health care workers as an approach in the study and treatment of a variety of community groups: people with AIDS, dying children, American Indian elders, widows/widowers, Holocaust survivors, homebound elderly, people with depression, gay and lesbian elders, men with Alzheimer’s disease and their spouses, elderly Catholic nuns, incest survivors, Cambodian women who survived torture, fathers at mid-life, people with dementia, substance abusers, families with disabled adult children, individuals with learning differences, people with chronic mental illness, people in bereavement and couples in counseling.

There are numerous studies of life review. They have variously found that life review helps us to cope with present tension, reduce stress, increase mental acuity and achieve self-acceptance. Life review can assist us to envision our future: in one study, centenarians who verbally recalled their past were also more apt to indicate ambitions for the future (Merriam 1990). Life review, therefore, could be seen as a necessary stage of professional development, especially as a discipline struggles to redefine itself. 

Life review is not an experience reserved for the aged. Some researchers of life span theory believe that we experience life review throughout our lives. Certain events may propel us into a premature state of life term review. These events include surviving near-death experiences, the coming-out process, childbirth, loss events or even high school reunions. We integrate events and their significance, understand their relevance and use this understanding to redefine ourselves. We are then ripe to interact with others to pass on what we have learned. Through single or successive iterations of life review we can gain wisdom. That is, we can possess facts, understand life’s phases and cycles, evaluate value systems, manage uncertainty and learn to appreciate the every day (Staudinger, Smith, and Baltes 1992).

Stages of Life Term Review 

While life review may be highly individualistic, Dr. Butler in Why Survive? Being Old In America, described a series of psychological stages that enable the elderly to reassess their life-cycle (Butler 1975). We might adapt these stages, which overlap to some degree to accommodate the needs of professional life review.

The first, and foremost, stage is the awareness of death. An analogous state in our professional life review might be awareness of imminent change. This prescience can cause anxiety if there is a perceived gap between professional preparation and work demands. An example from the librarian’s world might be the loss of the familiar as e-reference replaces face-to-face question answering.

Life review can be valuable not only to ourselves but also to others. Butler’s second stage is that of an unfolding process of change. In this stage we view our role in the chronology of history. We sense our connection to events past and present. A librarian might assess his or her role in the development of libraries and library service. And at this stage we seek to pass on our knowledge and influence others. These contributions can take the form of mentoring, writing memoirs, or establishing endowments. 

Butler’s third stage of the life cycle is sensing the passage of time. Another researcher in fact labeled subjects reminiscers if at least 40 percent of the verbalizations of their thoughts concerned events occurring five or more years previously (Merriam 1990). Our perception of time is not static. We sometimes perceive that time is accelerating or that matters are becoming urgent (Fourez 1992). We move from dwelling on episodic memories to a more unified view of time-bound events. Life’s metaphoric file structure evolves into a sequence of chapters from single events. We move from defining ourselves by particular historical moments to the connections between those moments. 

The fourth stage contributing to life review is the accumulation of factual knowledge. At this stage we wish to know more to build on prior knowledge. Reminiscence is recalling facts. People of all adult age groups indicated that the top three types of events they frequently reminisced about were events in which they were successful, events associated with a trip and events connected to some exciting experience. These events were more highly rated overall than experiences with the opposite sex, events associated with embarrassment, and tragic events. (Merriam 1990, 46) There is a positive relationship between how frequently a person engages in reminiscing and how satisfied they are with their lives. High reminiscers had greater life satisfaction.

The fifth and final stage is the perception of life as a series of stages or phases. Here we can view the librarian’s current flood of high-technology as but one stage in the profession’s evolution. This is a stage that we will successfully pass through as we have navigated other stages in the past. We will achieve certain goals and then move onto the next stage.

Life Term Review: A Bridge from the Past to the Present and Future 

Over a century ago, as librarianship was acquiring its professional boundaries, librarians felt a sense of destiny distilled in the phrase “library spirit.” Library spirit was “the idealism, the enthusiasm and the unshakable belief in the far reaching mission of libraries” (Kildal 1937). These “high ideas . . . [and] almost divine inspiration” produced a collegiality that bound librarians toward common goals and helped them to maintain their dedication to their career. (Vann 1961, 5) Library spirit provided motivation and incentive, confidence, and high standards. We can gain perspective by realizing that those who preceded us in the profession of librarianship also met with struggles. They also encountered innovations: open stacks, electric lighting, typewriters, book mobiles and the expansion of services to new clientele.

Professional life review allows us to reflect on the past while preparing us for the future. This is not a call to abandon the present to revel in nostalgia. This is not a call to resist progress. Instead this is a sound and benevolent acknowledgment of our common memory, a pause that allows us to embrace our inheritance and legacy. Without professional life review we run the risk of obscuring context and neglecting reflection. We might fail to resolve conflicts and fears and instead close our careers with feelings of unfulfillment, antagonism or exclusion. Life term review helps us meet present challenges more successfully as we look to the past and see, with satisfaction, our accomplishments.

Acknowledging the past should bring us courage and encouragement. The feeling of predestination may come to the forefront in this period of self-discovery. We may feel that professionally we are predestined to play a special role in the changes that affect others. This onus seems to mark us as a chosen people. 

Librarianship is in the midst of a creative period: an end to some ways of operating and the beginning of many new journeys and opportunities. Today, faced with conflict and opportunity, and the choice to grow or succumb to the onset of change, we have the right to:

  1. be in control of our present and future;
  2. reminisce and revel in our collective past;
  3. find humor and laugh together;
  4. feel that we are indeed one family united by some common beliefs;
  5. have a vision or sense of being; and
  6. feel personal achievement, in an intellectual or even spiritual sense (Smith 1994).

Professional life review is not an aimless pursuit but rather it is the formalized summary of our contributions to our workplaces locally and globally. Looking back can help us envision the future. Life review opens a door through which we can enter together, a door to the past that leads us to meet the future. So let us celebrate ourselves and our professional culture and transform dialogue into shared wisdom through life review.

Loriene Roy is a Professor at the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin.


Butler, Robert N. 1980/81. The Life Review: An Unrecognized Bonanza. International Journal of Aging and Human Development. 12 (1): 35-38.

Butler, Robert N. 1975. Why Survive? Being Old in America. New York: Harper & Row.

Fourez, Bernard. 1992. When Time Accelerates. Therapie Familiale. 13 (6): 233-238.

Kildal, Arne. 1937. American Influence on European Librarianship. Library Quarterly 7: 196-210.

Merriam, Sharan B. 1990. Reminiscence and Life Review: The Potential for Educational

Intervention. In Herron, Ronald H. and Lumsden, D. Barry, eds. Introduction to Educational Gerontology. New York: Hemisphere Publishing Corporation. 

Smith, Douglas C. 1994. A `Last Rights’ Group for People with AIDS. Journal of Specialists in Group Work. 19 (1): 17-21.

Staudinger, U. M., J. Smith, and P. B. Baltes. 1992. Wisdom-Related Knowledge in a Life Review Task: Age Differences and the Role of Professional Specialization. Psychology & Aging 7 (2): 271-281.

Vann, Sarah K. 1961. Training for Librarianship Before 1923: Educational for Librarianship Prior to the Publication of Williamson’s Report on Training for Library Service. Chicago: American Library Association.

Walker, Alvin, Jr., ed. 1994. Psychological Index Terms. 7th ed. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.