- "Remembering when" with others can instantly make you happier.
- Recalling happy memories is a powerful way to interrupt negative thoughts.
- A bedtime practice of remembering joyful experiences that have enriched your life can boost life satisfaction.
"Moments big as years," a phrase coined by the poet John Keats, suggests that some brief experiences are so vivid and powerful that they remain with us for all of our life. These moments tend to reflect experiences that are emotionally resonant. In them, we can find both meaning and joy, and they can serve us long after they occurred, contributing to our overall happiness and resilience. They are a gift that keeps on giving.
Since childhood, I've had a bedtime ritual that continues to this day. Every night, as my head hits the pillow, I take a moment to retrieve a positive memory, experience, or interaction from my past. This simple practice never fails to relax me and make me happy. Over the years, I never thought much about this youthful practice because long ago it became a sheer reflex, an unconscious habit.
So imagine how startled I was when, while scanning research news at my desk at Harvard Medical School a few years ago, I stumbled upon a study showing how past events can be used to boost present emotions. It was a fascinating find. Somehow, decades earlier, I had accidentally embedded into my life a practice that was acting as a mood enhancer by triggering both greater life satisfaction and joy.
This research showed that those who intentionally recall and savor positive memories experience a greater enjoyment of life. Those who reminisced and actively engaged in reliving happy experiences reported greater happiness and higher levels of satisfaction than those who did not have an intentional practice. Nostalgia, sentimental affection for past events that have happy personal associations, was proving to be a dynamic happiness booster. Nostalgia, it turns out, has the power to boost self-esteem, amplify positive emotions, and even act as a buffer against negative thoughts.
In addition to trumpeting the benefits of reminiscing, the study also explored techniques to inspire reflection. The participants were divided into three groups, with one group being instructed to spend 10 minutes twice a day reflecting deeply on a positive personal memory. Another group was asked to focus on mementos such as photographs or personal objects that held sentimental value, while a third group was instructed to relax while contemplating current concerns.
The results showed that the two groups that focused on positive memories and valued mementos reported greater feelings of positivity than the group that ruminated on problems. This suggests that intentional reflection on positive life experiences and meaningful objects can be an effective way to cultivate feelings of greater happiness and positivity.
The health benefits of revisiting positive memories extend far beyond temporary jolts of happiness. Studies have shown that intentionally recalling happy experiences can help to disrupt negative thought patterns, alleviate anxiety, and even lower cortisol levels. This practice has been particularly effective in young people who are at risk of depression due to stress, as it promotes a more positive self-image. Adrian Askelund, who led one study, suggests that recalling happy events from the past can enhance mental health even in the face of significant stressors. As a result, positive memories can be a powerful antidote to stress by promoting buoyance and resilience.
Here’s the takeaway—we can savor life twice: once in the moment and again by recalling the memory. We routinely make a choice to either focus on positive thoughts that evoke pleasant emotions or to focus on negative thoughts that prompt negative emotions. The choice we make can have a profound impact on our overall happiness and even on our ability to bounce back from life's inevitable setbacks and disappointments.
If you are not in the habit of calling upon your happy memories, here are techniques to get you started.
- Count happy memories rather than sheep. Begin a nightly practice that ends each day by culling from your library of memories those joyful experiences that have enriched your life. You'll find this practice will spark both relaxation and joy.
- “Remember when” with your friends. The next time you're with family and friends, engage in a practice of "remembering when," by revisiting fun experiences that have strengthened your connections. My girlfriends and I routinely rehash our old stories and the inevitable laughter creates fresh happy memories.
- Commit your happy times to paper. The value of a gratitude practice is well established. Consider keeping a journal and every day jot down a few memories that make you happy. Recall your child's first Valentine, first hearing about a well-deserved promotion, or an afternoon sitting on a porch swing as it rained. Even during the most challenging times, you can count on reflections of happier times to lighten your mood.
- Delve into old photographs. Think about it—most photographs are taken when you and others are smiling, commemorating an occasion, or just celebrating your friendship. Pull out your photos as a way to trigger happy moments that have sparked joy in the past.
- Send a note to someone who makes your life better. Take a minute to tell an acquaintance, colleague, or friend “my life is better for knowing you.” It's an act of generosity that enriches both the recipient and the sender.
- Use prompts. Harness the power of sensory triggers, such as music or scent, to transport yourself to happy moments from your past. A favorite song from your youth has the power to catapult you right back into a sweet time of life. The smell of baking bread can rekindle thoughts of home and family. Use these sensory prompts to instantly transport yourself back to a happy time. I often rely on a bottle of my late mother's perfume to instantly return me to a treasured, long-gone time of my life.
In short, put your memories to work! Hold your “moments big as years" close to your mind and heart and then reach for them whenever you want to infuse your life with greater joy.
Bryant, F. B., Smart, C. M., & King, S. P. (2011). Using the past to enhance the present: Boosting happiness through positive reminiscence. Emotion, 11(4), 861–867.
Hunter, J. F., Ligon, J., & Wasielewski, N. (2016). Emotions and mindfulness as predictors of mood state fluctuations: A daily diary study. Journal of Positive Psychology, 11(1), 74–85.