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Jacqueline Woolley, Chair The University of Texas at Austin, SEA 4.212, Austin, TX 78712 • (512) 475-7596

2014 Commencement Address, by Dr. Pennebaker

Posted: July 3, 2014
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Department of Psychology Commencement 2014

James W. Pennebaker

 

There are only a handful of events that occur in our lives where we are able to stand back and reflect on the past with an eye towards the future. This happens at weddings, births, funerals, and graduation. Today, I’d like you to stop for a minute and think where you are in life and where you are going.

For the last 30 years, I’ve studied what happens when we face upheavals in our lives – both positive and negative: marriages and divorce; having children and seeing them leave home; getting jobs and losing them; from death and traumas to winning the lottery. All of these experiences share a number of features with the graduation from college. They are associated with profound changes in how we identify who we are; how we relate to other people; even, the friends we have. At every upheaval, we are also placed at increased risk for heart attacks, cancer, ulcers, colds and flu, depression and episodes of schizophrenia. (Your parents are sitting there thinking, “why didn’t my kid become a business major – we wouldn’t have to be listening to this stuff”).

But good news. Today’s graduation or future life upheavals do not guarantee disease and pestilence. Negative effects don’t always follow upheavals. It depends on how we deal with them. Keeping emotional upheavals secret is particularly toxic. However, research conducted at UT and elsewhere is showing that one of the most powerful ways of preventing the negative sides of a trauma is by putting the experiences into words. Talking about or writing about emotional upheavals has a profound effect on people’s physical health, mental health, and even their memory. In hundreds of studies, having people write or talk about an upheaval for 3-4 days for only 15 minutes a day can bring about remarkable biological and cognitive change.

Why is this? By telling people our thoughts and feelings about a personal experience, it changes the way the experience is organized or structured. Putting something into words creates a story or narrative that gives it meaning. Talking to others about our feelings also has important social benefits – it bonds us together. It allows us to get past the experience and to become better listeners and talkers with others. It allows others to see us as who we really are.

Talking about important emotional events also bonds people together and, in fact, serves as the very basis of history. Shared emotional upheavals are part of what we call autobiographical memory or collective memory. Indeed, certain memories are particularly likely to bond an entire cohort of people together. Some fascinating work has found that the experiences we have between the ages of 13 and 25 are the ones that stay with us forever and define who we are. You have seen this with your parents. Did you notice growing up that they always wanted to listen to music and talk about events that were popular when they were teenagers?

And your cohort is now sharing experiences that will be with you the rest of your lives. Since you were 13, you have witnessed the election of an African American as president, experienced the Fort Hood shootings and Boston Marathon bombings, wikileaks and Miley Cyrus’s twerking. These events will define your group forever. And 50 or 60 years from now, you and your best friend from UT will be rocking on the porch somewhere and you’ll say, “Ashley,” or maybe, “Brandon.” “Let’s put on some of that great music. Let’s hear some Soulja Boy. ‘Watch me crank it; watch me roll; watch me crank that soulja boy.”

Today is part of the memory construction process. The experiences today and from the last few years in Austin will be the basis of the movies and books you write, maybe the studies you will conduct, and the stories you will tell. Right now, I want you to turn to a person next to you and briefly mention two or three powerful memories you have had since coming to UT.

Seriously, for the next minute or two, talk to one another.

Now stop talking and reflect about your UT memories. Smell the smells of today. Pay attention to your feelings. As you leave today’s graduation, take one more look at our campus, the trees, the buildings, the way the shadows linger.

Now go forth and talk about these thoughts and feelings. I hereby pronounce these memories cemented in forever.

Congratulations. And let’s get this show on the road.

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