Are you having a hard day? If so, focusing on a pleasant memory is a great way to perk up.
One of my favorite memories is a trip with my wife down the California coast. We stopped at many isolated and deserted beaches along the way, and I was overjoyed by the magnificence of this amazing region.
But what’s the best way for me to treasure this memory?
I could write an account of this trip, recording as many details as I can remember. I could talk more frequently about the trip with my wife and other people. Or I could simply sit and think about the memory, remembering the smell of salt in the air and the joy I felt at seeing the majestic crashing waves.
One of these options—thinking quietly about a memory—is the best at helping you savor it.
In a 2006 study, participants wrote, talked aloud, or thought privately about one of the best or happiest experiences of their lives. Out of all the participants, those who thought privately were the happiest at the end of the study1.
Consider this: if you talk or write about a great memory, you are organizing and analyzing it. This may lead you to wonder why you got your dream job or how your surprise party came together. Unfortunately, such questions will interfere with feeling satisfied and content with your favorite memories.
In contrast, thinking is less organized and more repetitive, so it’s better suited for reminiscing about the details of a special day. Indeed, it’s best to savor your best memories as they are and avoid overanalyzing them. In fact, one study1 found that people felt more satisfied with their lives when they mentally “replayed” their fondest memory without thinking about how or why it happened.
Thinking about our favorite memories may begin with seeing an old photograph or hearing a particular song, but don’t let the nostalgia end there. Mementos don’t always help us feel happier.
Interestingly, one experiment found that people felt the best about a fond memory when they just thought about it, compared to others who focused on a piece of memorabilia associated with their favorite memory2.
There is nothing inherently wrong with using a family picture to help you think of a great experience; to be sure, my wife and I frequently enjoy looking at our wedding pictures together. However, if you rely on memorabilia too heavily, your thoughts will be limited to what you associate with that particular object. It’s important to also think about great memories without the aid of a souvenir—to remember all the details the photo or object doesn’t capture.
Here’s how to best replay these great times:
Sit in a quiet place and pretend as if you are rewinding a video of your favorite memory. Now play it back. Remember exactly what happened in this memory in as much detail as you can. Also, consider the answers to the following questions1:
On a day full of stressful errands and negative people, savoring a positive memory can really help us get back on track. But the way we choose to remember this event is important.
Replay that great vacation or unforgettable party again and again. Resist the temptation to analyze these events or ask why they happened; indeed, sometimes the best things in life need no explanation.
1Lyubomirsky, S., Sousa, L., Dickerhoof, R. (2006). The costs and benefits of writing, talking, and thinking about life's triumphs and defeats. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 692-708.
2Bryant, F. B., Smart, C. M., & King, S. P. (2005). Using the past to enhance the present: Boosting happiness through positive reminiscence. Journal of Happiness Studies, 6, 227-260.
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