happy memories

The Science Behind Making Happy Memories

A massive global study dove into the topic of memories. And as part of the findings, turns out the key to happiness might just be happy memories!

Dr. Liz Hale shares the science behind memory making, and how to make and keep happy ones.

5 Ways to Make Happy Memories

A massive global study around happy memories was conducted at the Happiness Research Institute: The Happy Memory Study. What one question was asked? “Please describe one of your happy memories.” People were asked to simply write down the memory that came to mind. And the responses were overwhelming….over 1,000 of them. The Happy Memory Study is the largest global collection of happy memories to date. Responses came from 75 different countries, from Belgium and Brazil, to Norway and Nepal.

Happy memories came from different corners of the planet, different generations, different genders, and from people who were sad, to people who were high on life. What was surprising was to see how many common denominators there were across so many different cultures. Even from different nationalities, we are first and foremost human.

Research was printed in the brand-new release, “The Art of Making Memories,” by Meik Wiking.

When the researchers took a closer look at the happy memories, patterns started to emerge in the stories. People remembered experiences that were novel, meaningful, emotional, and engaged the senses.

Memories don’t have to be random or coincidental – there’s a lot we can do to influence what we remember. We can become memory architects creating happy, life-defining moments we’ll want to look back on.

1. Take a Ten Years’ Time Test

Whenever you find yourself choosing between various activities or travel opportunities stop and ask yourself, “Which adventure am I more likely to remember in 10 years?”

So occasionally, when planning your day off, make sure you put the options through the ‘Ten Years’ Time Test’ and ask yourself, “What am I more apt to remember a decade from now?”

And if you do something that scares you a bit, even better! Try something new that you’re afraid of because this emotional highlighter pen of sorts helps solidify memories.

2. Curate the Happy 100

Most of us have thousands of photos on our devices that we hardly ever scroll through. Once a year, gather your family and friends and curate the 100 happiest moments, print the pictures and put them in a photo album. (Remember those?)

Memory is like a muscle. Use it. Retell stories. Ask loved ones, “Do you remember when we _____?” Scribe, photograph, record or collect.

One of Liz’s clients lost her young husband recently. They have 3 adopted sons; all small still and each with special needs. Through this tremendous loss she has taught so many about the importance of capturing tender moments, even date night. Each time she and her husband stole some time for themselves, it was captured in a photo. She and her boys have a treasure trove of memories.

Contrast that with a friend of Liz’s who was called over to his neighbor’s home last week in a sheer panic. Their teenage daughter had left what appeared to be a suicide note and then disappeared. When the police came, the mother was asked to provide pictures of her daughter. She looked through her phone frantically only to find hundreds of pictures of…the family dog; but none of her daughter. This led Liz’s friend to publish pictures of his beloved family on his Facebook account saying, “I just had a wake up call. I want everyone to know who I love and who has my heart.”

A private account can also be set up for you to store special photos and detail memories so that you have a safe place to journal and capture your life stories. Not everything has to go public in order to be captured and kept.

3. End an Experience on a High Note

Memory is heavily influenced by the peak and the ending. Nearly a quarter of the 1,000 memories in the study involved a peak or a struggle. Sometimes the struggle was the main part of the story. Overcoming a struggle is why we celebrate. The peak is the peak because of the climb. Take the long way. Delay your arrival. If you spend five hours hiking to the peak it will make the experience more memorable than if you take the fifteen-minute cable car to the top. Make the journey part of the experience.

Save the best for last. Across different studies, it has been demonstrated that our memory of an event is heavily influenced by the peak and the end. So, if you’re planning on giving several gifts for Christmas or a birthday, save the best for last. Also, since utility is an important influence on our future choices, if you want your kids to participate in something again be sure to end on a high note.

4. Go Somewhere You Haven’t Been Before

I love going to places I’ve been to before. The familiarity breeds comfort and ease. It’s wonderful to know how to get around, where to buy your favorite foods or see your favorite sites.

Consider, however, going someplace you’ve never been before to create new memories. Once a year make plans to visit new places – be it an exotic location or the park across town.

New experiences or extraordinary days are more likely to stick to our memory banks. Of the 1,000 memories collected throughout the world 23% were new experiences like going to a new place for the first time or starting up a new hobby.

This is especially helpful advice for those of us middle-aged or over. In many studies, researchers found the “Reminiscent Effect.” When people between the ages of 80 to 100-years-old were asked to tell about their life narrative, a large bump of memories between the ages of 15-30 are revealed.

The reason we have a lot of memories from that time period in contrast to later in life is that we live through a lot of ‘firsts’ during those years. We move away from home, go to college, fall in love, get our first apartment. As we age new experiences are harder to come by. It takes a lot more effort later in life to design those memories, but the payoff of life satisfaction is worth it.

In our daily routines, consider turning the ordinary into extraordinary in order to stretch the river of time. It’s the little things. If you always eat in front of the television, it might make the day a little more extraordinary if you gather for a family dinner around a candlelit table. And if you are always eating candlelit dinners around a table consider eating dinner during a movie marathon in the family room. Add in small, simple changes that are novel.

5. Use Your Senses to Impress

The more senses we utilize – sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch – the more vividly we can remember an experience and the longer we can retain and retrieve it. So, the next time you’re happy and want to capture the moment take notice of all your senses. Is there a unique sound or scent in the air? What textures do you notice slipping through your hands? Work that into your long-term memory.

Bottom line: Happy memories are good for your well-being

Because of Liz’s work, she often speak with people who are depressed. One of the common factors among them is that when they are at their lowest, they are not only unable to feel any level of joy but are also unable to remember any point in time where they had experienced joy. In addition to being unable to retrieve happy memories, people with depression also tend to ruminate on negative events.

Fortunately, research is being done to help people struggling with depression by employing the method of loci, which uses visualization and spatial memory to help summon happy memories more easily. Therapists help clients flesh out memories to make their memories more vivid, with richer sensory details, colors and sounds, placing the memories in familiar homes and locations.

Being able to retrieve happy memories is a mark of progress, and today nostalgia is considered a useful psychological mechanism which counteracts loneliness and anxiety, making people feel happier.

Take ownership of all your memories; don’t allow the bad memories to take over your thoughts. We must have the good with the bad when it comes to strolling down memory lane. Just own them all. They are part of your rich story line that have made you who you are today.

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