How to hit record on your happiest memories

Our lives are full of random, joyful experiences, but how can we make sure we remember them?
Woman on deck chair stares out to horizon

Before bed, I always open my bedroom window for a moment, close my eyes and take a few deep breaths.

In winter, the crisp, cold night air filling my lungs brings back fond memories of skiing holidays. I’ve always loved snow, and was an avid skier – but now I suffer from multiple sclerosis so I can’t even walk on snow without falling.

But while my skiing days are long gone, just breathing in the cold air conjures up vivid images of mountains, ski jumps and rustic cabins. These images make me happy, and cast light on my darkest moments.

“Anyone who doesn’t remember the good things has no hope,” said German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and I couldn’t agree more.

The power of happy memories is wonderful, and I wish I could fill my head with them so I’d never have reason to despair. It also makes me ponder, how much influence and control do we actually have over our memory?

The power of happy memories is wonderful – they can transport you right back to that time and place. (Source: Getty)

The memory as a theatre

The memory is something that has fascinated philosophers, artists and scientists since time immemorial.

Ancient Greek philosopher Plato, for example, compared memory to a wax tablet engraved with our experiences.

One idea from the Renaissance period suggests that we think of the memory as a theatre. The past is re-enacted in our mind, and we are the screenwriters who continually reinvent our own life story.

Modern science backs up this idea of a “theatre in the mind”.

In his new book We Are Memory, memory researcher Martin Korte writes that “at no point in our life can the memory store information precisely, flawlessly or completely, nor can it create an accurate picture of our past. That is in fact not its job.

“We instead store feelings and meanings we attribute to situations, and these memories change each time new ones are stored, to the effect that we are constantly working on the script of our own life.”

Martin adds that, while our memory doesn’t go so far as to make up events, our memories are easily influenced by the way we recall them. So it is up to us to fill the photo album in our mind with lots of happy, colourful pictures.

This finding particularly gives me hope during difficult times when I tend to want my old life back – an attitude which, I’ve come to realise, is completely ridiculous.

After all, my ‘old life’ is always there – I carry it around with me in my head. To lead a largely positive life, we need only fill our mind with lovely memories.

The memory as a living room

While surfing the net, I come across a scientific article that talks about the concept of the memory as a living room.

Apparently, our brain doesn’t hoard memories, but rather keeps processing them, shunting them back and forth – as if we’re constantly arranging or refurbishing the house in our mind. Just as when we’re decorating our homes, choosing colours, shapes and materials that foster a sense of wellbeing, we can do the same to the room in our head.

Brain researcher Hans Joachim Markowitsch explains, “The more an event affects us, the more intensively it will be stored in the brain. Feelings are the guardians of our memory.”

Our ability to remember is determined by the limbic system, which is home to our feelings. If this “feelings centre” considers a stimulus to be particularly positive or negative, it releases more chemical messengers like dopamine, serotonin and noradrenalin.

“A detailed snapshot of a situation is taken and stored in the memory,” says Hans. “Just like a particularly vibrant picture, these events are later more easily retrieved from the vast archive of memories.”

Why we can feel memories vividly

We need our senses in order to retrieve our vibrant archive of experiences. They’re our memory-carriers, so to speak.

We see a certain image, a face, a landscape – and we remember. We listen to a certain melody, notice a certain smell, touch a certain surface or taste a certain taste – and we remember.

Conversely, this means that intense memory experiences are impossible without keen sensory perception –

that process in which an uplifting associative chain is triggered by an extremely effective sensory cue in a single moment.

And the whole thing doesn’t just play out in our heads; it is a full-body experience. At that moment, we are able to vividly and directly feel those old emotions again.

Just as, over the winter, I was uplifted by the memory of skiing down snow-covered slopes simply because I felt

the cold air.

Or how now, in summer, I am once again experiencing the joy of running along the beach, simply as a result of sitting on a bench by the sea and looking out over the water.

Our brain does not distinguish between reality and imagination – the happiness hormones are released in roughly the same way in both cases.

“The experience is formed at the time of the memory, with various parts of the brain working together,” writes Martin.

“Certain areas store fragments of images, smells or tastes, while others can combine these sensory experiences, and others in turn can link them to our factual and empirical knowledge.”

How do we remember small details?

Armed with knowledge about the power of memories, I start furnishing the living room in my head with treasured memories.

I begin with my best memories of being active and sporty – skiing in winter, running and playing tennis, swimming in the sea in summer. It’s almost as if the main pieces of furniture – the couch, the armchair, the cupboard – have been put in their places but the room still isn’t cosy.

Sure, my son and daughter come in and out, my husband, my friends, my dog.

The main events in my life story also hang framed on the walls: my graduation, my wedding, the birth of my children, them at kindergarten, them starting school, them finishing school. But I’m still missing vases, a nice lamp. Where do I find these ‘missing accessories’? Have I even stored them?

Probably not, is the answer from brain research, where studies have concluded that we lack the trained cognitive ability we need in order to recognise the happiness in small things and store this as a memory.

In Peter Wiesejahn’s blog, Projekt David, I come across a perception exercise that I put to the test: I grab a cup of coffee and focus only on this cup.

I feel its temperature in my hands, and feel where it’s warmer and where it’s cooler. I examine the cup closely. What colour(s) is it? What’s its surface like? I take in its aroma.

What does coffee smell like to me? I take my first sip and feel the liquid spreading around my mouth. Do I notice different tastes in different areas? And as I swallow, can I feel the coffee going down my throat and into my stomach? What does it feel like?

“Studies have concluded that we lack the trained cognitive ability we need in order to recognise the happiness in small things and store this as a memory.” (Source: Getty)

How mindfulness helps memory

As I start to make this mindfulness exercise part of my daily ritual, I soon notice that it teaches me to focus my attention more often on supposedly mundane pleasures – such as queuing at the bakery and breathing in the aroma of freshly baked bread.

As I train my perception in the little things, I remember a project carried out by Canadian Neil Pasricha. I head to his website 1000 Awesome Things to remind me of more hidden moments of happiness.

As I repeatedly refer back to Neil’s phrases, I’m aware of two things:

1) When I experience these simple pleasures in my everyday life, I notice them more intensively, and instantly feel good, and

2) These positive emotions mean my “memory living room” is increasingly filled with pretty accessories. Now, I barely need to keep the door to the comfy room in my head ajar and I can feel both the big and small joys of my past making me happy. And, in turn, when I’m content, I’m able to find something beautiful in each new day.

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