Does reflecting on happy things make you happier in your day-to-day life? Memory psychology might just have the key to understanding this question and helping you determine whether it makes sense to incorporate regular reflection on the past into your daily life.
To understand the key components of this question and come to an educated conclusion, it’s a good idea to understand the basics of memory.
How Memory Works
Research into memory psychology has identified some of the key stages of memory, demonstrating how moments in time are eventually stored in the consciousness for retrieval. The first stage is called memory encoding. In this stage, the visual, acoustic, and semantic aspects of memory are stored.
Semantic references the meaning of the memory to the individual.1 Once the encoding has happened, the memory is either stored in the short-term memory or the long-term memory, during the memory storage stage of memory. Finally, memories are retrieved, depending on where they are stored. For instance, if something is stored in the long-term memory, it is likely to be retrieved through association.
Can Happy Memories Induce Happiness
The question of whether our happy memories can make people happier in everyday life is the subject of some debate in the scientific community, although the studies are leaning towards the idea that it does.2
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For one, people tend to seek out positive events in their lives and avoid negative ones. This means that inside of their long-term memories, there are more happy or positive events to draw on than there are negative ones.
Furthermore, there is a tendency in the mind to deaden or sublimate the emotional impact of negative events and pay more attention to positive events. In turn, positive memories fade more slowly than negative ones do.
In general, people are wired to put negative experiences in a broader context that lessens their impact on the present. This would point to the idea that it can be beneficial to spend time thinking about positive memories since the more often you consider a memory, the more ingrained in your long-term memory it becomes.
Considering that humans have the tendency to remember positive things more than negative ones, it is unsurprising that individuals who have better memories tend to be happier overall.3 First, if you have a good short-term memory, you can more efficiently complete tasks and tend to be a better listener. This can dramatically improve your relationships.
The flip side has also been shown to be true. If you don’t have a good working memory, you can tend to be more brooding about your situation and pessimistic in general. This may be because since you lack the ability to draw upon your past experiences, you find yourself only able to focus on the challenges bogging you down in the present.
This research points to why it can be beneficial to exercise and improve memory through self-reflection. Making space in your schedule to consider memories or sharpen your short-term memory can very well improve mood and overall level of satisfaction with life in general.
Think Happy Thoughts
More than anything else, simple exercises in nostalgia have been shown to increase optimism and general outlook. This is one of the most compelling pieces of evidence in memory psychology that suggests engaging with nostalgia can provide significant benefits.
In a recent study, individuals were simply asked to recall a nostalgic event and then an ordinary event from their past. When writing about the nostalgic event, levels of optimism and happiness were increased. The same was true when individuals were asked to select music from their past. Repeatedly, studies have shown that the simple act of reminiscing can have an overall positive effect on mood.4
All in all, remembering happy things from the past have been shown to improve mood and increase happiness according to memory psychology. The only caveats to this conclusion are in relation to those who are suffering from more intense forms of mental illness.
However, for the vast majority of people, reflecting on the good things that have happened in your life can increase happiness at the moment and help you make positive choices moving forward. By focusing on improving your memory and taking special care to remember the precious moments of your life, you can engage with the power of your memory and use it to transform your life for years to come.
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