The Art and Science of Reminiscing
A useful technique to amplify the benefit of fun.
Posted November 26, 2022 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Reminiscing is an important yet often underutilized method to help us manifest a state of pleasantness.
- Activating positive memories can help suppress depression and build enduring intellectual, social, and psychological resources.
- Scheduling prompts for short bursts of reflection can be an effective strategy for developing a reminiscing practice.
- Creating a personal “treasure chest” is a great technique for reminiscing once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
A lot has been written about the art of living in the present and for good reason. The act of savoring and being mindful, especially when enjoying ourselves, is beneficial for our well-being in many ways.
However, there is an important, yet an often underutilized, component of the practice of savoring that is a powerful method in helping us manifest a state of pleasantness: relishing enjoyment from the past through reminiscing. Reminiscing is a simple practice anyone can use to extend the benefit of life’s joys—the fun you had yesterday, last year, or last decade—that few have adopted as a deliberate practice.
One of the compelling aspects of reminiscing is that the practice extends the benefits of having fun. Mindfulness and savoring are now well-established techniques for getting the most out of every moment, in the moment. Reminiscing is (almost) the opposite: a tool for getting the most out of your moments after the moment, ensuring your good times contribute as much as possible to your well-being even years after the fun. There are a variety of techniques one can use to reminisce. Below are a few examples. Pick one you think would be fun to try, and experiment with it to make the practice work for you.
The Treasure Chest
The biggest, most fun moments in your life are often just a matter of hours. Honoring this reality can ensure you make an effort to effectively hold on to important memories. Temporal awareness in the moment can help—reminding yourself how quickly things pass to ensure you enjoy your moments while they last. (Do be careful with this one, though, because reminding yourself how quickly moments pass can easily turn into negative rumination that dampens the moment’s fun.) The idea here is not to undermine the importance of mindfully enjoying our peak experiences in the moment; it’s that we all too often undervalue relishing our fond memories afterward.
For life’s big events—things like weddings, vacations, and other once-in-a-lifetime experiences—creating a personal “treasure chest” is a great technique for reminiscing. Your treasure chest can be for tangible things or—for the space-deprived—digital assets (or a combination of both). Either way, it should be filled with memorabilia that takes you back to that fond moment. Your chest might include old plane or train tickets, leaflets of places you visited, refrigerator magnets, photographs, small objects—or whatever you decide is meaningful. Like fun, it’s up to you to decide the best way to relive your fun memories. Instead of a prescription, here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Create a holiday jar. When you go somewhere fun, collect a few items during the journey (e.g., stones, seashells, pieces of fabric, postcards, drawings). Arrange them all in a glass jar and keep them as decoration on a shelf.
- Instead of keeping a formal journal, write short stories or vignettes describing your favorite moments and keep them in a folder, adding new ones as you go along.
- Organize a themed photo album. Wedding albums are great, but any meaningful event can be worthy of an album. There are so many affordable options now for printing that you don’t need to worry if the book takes on some wear and tear from frequent use. You can always reprint. You could also make an expensive archival copy of a really important event that stays on the shelf alongside a cheaper version that is more appropriate for heavy use (e.g., a coffee table book or a keepsake for children).
The Memory Garden
Relishing fun memories comes with a host of psychological benefits, and documenting our positive emotions have long-term adaptive benefits. Researchers from MIT found that activating positive memories can help suppress depression as well as help us build enduring intellectual, social, and psychological resources. When life is not so fun, access to these fond memories also offers us emotional resilience.
Creating a “Memory Garden” by maintaining a journal is an extremely efficient and effective way to store memories and process our experiences, synthesizing events and activities into a coherent narrative. It gives us the power to own our personal stories. In the pages of a journal, we can curate, prune, celebrate, and lament as we see fit.
Whether you write your entries in bulleted lists or descriptive narratives, try to include memorable details about the experience you are describing. Why was it fun? How did you feel? Who were you with? Where was the setting, and when did things take place?
If you’re not into writing, being prescribed a set word count or length of time you need to write can discourage you from the practice. Nonetheless, it is important to at least quickly get down enough details that when you return to the entry, you’ll be able to recall the event. Too much brevity and you risk looking back at an entry and not having it jog any recall of what happened. Don’t let this happen to you. If you enjoy writing, have at it—another great way to have fun.
In your journal entry, if you can, include an anchoring artifact. Something that reminds you of the event (a photo, song lyrics, a video clip if you’re using an online or electronic journal). By including an artifact in this way, the memory exists in both your subjective mind and in a tangible form in objective reality. This type of anchor improves our recall and helps ensure we will remember the event in the future.
After documenting your memory, try sharing the retelling with others in some form. Either by quite literally sharing the entry with the people involved or with others you think would enjoy it, or recounting the entry some other way, like sharing it verbally in some fashion or posting a version of it on social media and tagging those involved.
To ensure we benefit from reminiscing and relishing, scheduling prompts within our day for short bursts of reflection can be an effective strategy. Next time you do your weekly calendar, include a few small blocks of time for acts of reminiscence. For example, making time to look through some old photos, reaching out to friends to let them know you’re thinking of a good time you all once had, or simply scheduling a short break to relish a fun thing you did over the weekend.
On a more commercial level, Facebook’s Year in Review and Look Back features encourage us to remember past events, too. There is also an application called Timehop that collects old photos and posts from social media and redistributes them to you so you can connect with the past. The “problem” with some of these applications is that somebody else chooses which memories to include in your personal biography.
Lisa Thomas and Pam Briggs from the psychology department at Northumbria University in the U.K. suggest using something like My Social Book as an alternative. This website allows you to transform social media content into a tangible book you can save for moments of reminiscence.
Thomas and Briggs found that scrapbooks were a good way to share your moments with others as well (e.g., partners, family, and friends). For example, after the participants in the study made their books, they planned to show the collections to others for discussion. In contrast, mindlessly consuming social media content is generally not a prosocial behavior. Thomas and Briggs also pointed out the benefits of reminiscence for all ages (since previously, it has often been associated with older age).
Reminiscing’s Expansive Power
As you evolve your practice of reminiscing, each memory helps inform you about what makes you feel connected. With practice, through reminiscing, fun becomes your guide forward. Of course, there will still be times you look outside yourself for inspiration—novelty, curiosity, and discovery are certainly key ingredients for having fun. However, the risk of subconsciously getting misguided by a deluge of inauthentic ideas that are not your own—advertising, social media, the “Joneses”—diminishes, and you become much more deliberate about how you choose to spend your time.
When we honestly, openly relish our fond memories through the act of reminiscing, we discover clues about what truly lights us up, brings us joy, and makes us feel connected to something outside ourselves—and when this magic begins to happen, it’s when our fun flywheel really starts spinning in a positive direction.
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