Memories are powerful. Far from being the passive remnants of our history, our memories actively shape our experiences, our relationships and our life stories that we are yet to create. Now, exciting new research has found that our positive memories can also be used to increase positive emotions.
We are wired to remember the things that bring us pain. This is our ancient, highly effective, sometimes annoying, warning system, designed and finely tuned by evolution to keep us safe. By remembering the things that have caused us trouble, we’re more likely to avoid them and keep ourselves alive. This is a great thing for our survival, but not such a great thing for our feel-goods. (Evolution can be a pity sometimes.)
Our capacity for remembering the positive isn’t as easily triggered as the negative, but research has found that with deliberate effort, we can change this and use positive memories to work hard for us. Our positive memories can give us access to a remarkable repertoire of resources that can shape our experiences in positive ways, and strengthen our mental health.
Research has found that by savoring our positive memories we can increase positive emotions. It also has the capacity to reduce anxiety by reducing the way we attend to and experience threat, and it can ease the symptoms of depression by letting the world be seen less through a more optimistic, happier filter.
The study was published in the journal Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice. As part of the study, participants were asked to remember a recent positive memory of being with another person. The memory was then expanded through a technique called the Social Broad Minded Affective Coping (BMAC) technique.
The research found that by savouring a positive memory, there was a kind of ‘re-experiencing’ of the event contained in the memory. Senses were re-engaged and the emotions associated with the memory were re-experienced. As well as this, the meaning contained in the positive memory helped to push against any negative beliefs that tried to push their way through and cause trouble. Feelings of warmth, social safeness (how connected you feel to others) and calm were increased, while negative feelings were decreased.
How do I use my positive memories to feel happier?
To nurture positive feelings through positive memories, think of a recent positive memory and expand it by remembering it through each of your senses. Here’s how:
- Think of a recent positive memory of being with another person.
- Move around the memory, engaging all senses as you do. Let it broaden in your mind.
- Where are you?
- What do you see?
- Turn your focus on the other person.
- Focus on his or her face. What do you see?
- Try to get a sense of the positive feelings the other person was experiencing.
- What are they wearing?
- What are they doing?
- How does the other person in the memory feel?
- What is that like for you – that other people think or feel this way about you?
- What do you hear?
- From the other person?
- In the environment?
- What can you smell?
- Does your memory involve any tastes?
- Can you touch anything in your memory? How does it feel to do that?
- What is the strongest and most positive part of the memory? Let the feeling expand in you. Sit with the feeling and enjoy it for a few moments.
(The full social broad minded Affective Coping Script that was used in the study can be found the Appendix at the end of the study here.)
Building a beautiful brain through experience.
Research over the last decade has shown us that we have an enormous and ongoing capacity to change our brains. Positive memories activate positive emotion. The more you do this, the more your brain will change to accommodate this. It’s called experience-dependent neuroplasticity. Over time, it will become easier to access positive emotion by expanding positive memories, and to nurture the positive experience that comes from that.
And finally …
Healthy living is about more than avoiding trouble. It is about the way we perceive and respond to the world around us, and how we interpret the things that happen. Our emotions provide a filter for everything we experience. We are hardwired for that filter to be a negative one, but by deliberately accessing our positive memories and letting them we can also make sure that our positive filter has a heavy hand in the way we live our lives.