How to Remember the Good Times Better
It is commonly understood that the process by which memories are formed is affected by the emotions we are feeling at the time. However, it appears traumatic events create a more vivid memory that happy ones. As we look back over our lives, we may consider it to be happy but there will still be some unpleasant memories which stand out starkly in our minds. For instance, most people remember where they were on September 11th 2001. A more recent example of this is how clearly I remember the moment a certain person became President of the United States last November. I’ve looked up some memory studies to see if I can work out how we can make happy events stand our more clearly in our minds and therefore fill our lives with more positive memories.
In 2003, a team of psychologist researchers at Winston-Salem University discovered that pleasant emotions fade more slowly than unpleasant emotions. A process called minimisation is attributed to the way in which our bodies actively try to minimise the impact of negative life events in order to return our minds to a happy state. This study also pointed out that most people’s lives contain more positive experiences than negative because we actively seek out pleasure and avoid pain. Both these findings suggest that our innate human desire to be happy has a powerful psychological impact over our memories.
Part of how we remember the past depends on our personality. Optimistic people are more likely to be able to recall happier moments than pessimistic people. A study in 2011 at the San Francisco State University actually identified five personality traits: extrovert, neurotic, open, conscientious and agreeable. Extroverts find the positives in life easily while neurotics see the past as if the opposite had happened. If, when you think back over your life and shared events, you remember things differently to the way others who experienced the same things as you, it could be down to your personality and the way in which your memories are formed as a result.
Our memories, or at least how we remember, changes as we age. It seems that older adults generally have a more positive outlook on life and remember events in a better light. This has been linked to combatting health problems, boosting the immune and maintaining happiness as people get older, contrary to popular belief, by a study in 2014.
People suffering from depression often recall more unpleasant memories than happy ones. This mental health problem has also been linked to memory loss and studies in 2013 and 2015 presented proof that the short term memory is impacted by depression. Scientifically, the hippocampus of someone suffering from depression is often smaller than average and this part of the brain is closely linked to memory.
The way we remember is really interesting and, of course, unique for each person. We still understand relatively little about how the brain and memories work but they do appear to be malleable. Indeed, memories change over time; become embellished as we tell stories and share our experiences with other people as well as losing detail as time passes. They do, as I said above, fade. But we can reinforce them too. Memory champions have incredible techniques for remembering long sequences. However, that’s not what we’re trying to do. We want to remember the good times in our lives. One of the ways to do this is to talk about the experiences. Share your stories with others and savour those happy times. You’ll not only enjoy reliving the memory but also trigger other people around you to share their happy stories. This is called re-experiencing and was studied in 2016 alongside a technique called Broad Minded Affective Coping. This intervention to improve positive memories encourages you to try and remember using all your senses: sight, smell, sounds, touch and taste, to get the fullest, most powerful memory possible.
I also believe healthy living to be very important for maintaining a positive, strong memory capacity. Exercise is commonly cited as a way to improve our memory capacity. If our bodies and brains are healthy, we’re more likely to be happy and this will translate not only into how we experience the world but how we remember events and recall the past. So get out and go for a walk in the park, take in the fresh air and enjoy being around nature. You never know what opportunities there might be for a good deed somewhere along the way as well. Let’s hope you remember it long enough to log it in the More Good Deeds app!
Go, do, experience. More Good Deeds.