Learning about your ancestors’ full lifetime helps you better know and appreciate them—and yourself. It’s one of the (many) psychological benefits of family history!
Did you know that people underestimate how much they will change? Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist who studies happiness, asked a group of 18 year-olds if they thought they would be much different at age 28. Then he asked 28 year olds if they had changed in the past 10 years. Not hard for anyone over 18 to predict the outcome of that study! (Can someone please convince my 17 year-old he will think differently about pretty much everything in 10 years?!).
But here’s where the study gets more interesting: when Dr. Gilbert’s team asked people ages 58 and 68 the same question, their answers were nearly the same as the 18 and 28 year olds. Apparently, we as humans are fantastically terrible at predicting that we will change, even though we can all look back and see that we have. The best way to predict how you will feel in 10 years, says Dr. Gilbert, is not imagining what you will be like, but asking someone 10 years older what they feel like.
Dr. Gilbert gives two reasons for our horrible predictive ability:
- “We don’t imagine events correctly. We don’t imagine them as they will unfold.”
- “We don’t know who we will be when we are experiencing those events.”
So how does this apply to our discovery of family history?
Maybe you think you “know” a relative or an ancestor, like your parents or grandparents as older people, or your third-great grandfather from his description in a court case or newspaper article. It’s important to acknowledge that this wasn’t (or isn’t) the whole “them.”
I talk to so many of you who have learned that your parents or grandparents made choices that you can’t imagine them making now. Well, of course not. You’re thinking of them as grown, older people who have changed a lot since they were younger.
Psychological benefits of family history
DNA testing, and the way it has expanded our view of family, helps us to recognize that our ancestors were once young people and made choices (or found themselves in situations) that we don’t always glimpse in their older lives. Like, if they gave birth to or fathered a child that nobody knew about later on. Finding out secrets about our ancestors—whether from DNA or genealogical research—allows us to expand our view of who they were across their lifespan.
I think that taking this wider view of our ancestors can actually help us navigate our own lives in important ways. Learning about our ancestors and from them can help us better determine what steps we need to take (or not take) to arrive at the future selves we want to be.
As Dr. Gilbert says, human beings are the only animal that thinks about the future—and the only one that learns from experiences they’ve never had. That’s us, learning from our ancestors’ life experiences.
A more expansive view of our family members helps us be more generous with our judgments of them—and hopefully more generous with ourselves, too.
I surely hope I am different in 10 years than I am right now! I hope I can learn to be more patient, more kind, more settled in myself. Knowing that I can be all those things helps me to be a little more patient with the mistakes I still make, knowing that I am certainly wiser than I was ten years ago. In 10 years, I also know I will be different in ways I can’t currently predict (not necessarily better, but simply different)—perhaps in my politics, my routines, my goals. Realizing this relaxes any sort of internal instinct I have to judge myself or others.
Why family history is for everyone
The psychological benefits of exploring family history apply to everyone—across the lifespan! Here’s how children benefit (and probably everyone else!) from learning about their roots.
Find out what else your DNA can tell you about your ancestors with our free guide, 3 Things DNA Can Tell You About Your Birth Roots.