There is a lot going on in our lives and our poor little brains are just not big enough to remember every detail of all the things that we experience. So they engage in a bit of reductionism. We remember our birthday party last year as being ‘fun’ or ‘debauched’, we remember the botanical garden at Kew as being ‘lovely’ or ‘green’ and we remember banoffee pie as being ‘yummy’ or ‘sickly’. We might go a bit deeper than this for vivid memories, we might remember (or imagine we remember) particular scenes or words, but most people do not have a photographic memory.
So you might imagine that we are more or less at the mercy of the experience itself as to whether it is a happy memory or a sad memory; an exciting memory or a disappointing memory. If the film was an excruciatingly tedious series of over-blown monologues then you are inevitably going to have a memory filled with disappointment. But you would be wrong.
An experiment was done in 1990 by cognitive psychologists concerning memory and the effect of ‘verbal overshadowing’. A group of volunteers were shown a particular shade of yellow for five seconds. Half the volunteers were then asked to describe the colour they saw verbally for a further thirty seconds; the other half just sat and waited for thirty seconds. Everyone was then asked to pick out the particular colour from a line-up of yellows. 73 percent of the non-describers successfully picked out the correct shade of yellow they had studied just thirty seconds earlier from this line-up. That is quite shocking in itself, but incredibly only 33 percent of the people who had described the shade of yellow successfully picked it out. Their description had interfered with their memory, overwriting what they had experienced and replacing it with something else.
This has fascinating implications for happiness and memory. Imagine if, by a simple process of reprogramming, we could remember that monotonous film as a great occasion, one that made us ecstatically happy, rather than bitterly disappointed. All it would take would be a chat over a glass of wine afterwards with a friend, describing all the good bits, all the bits you enjoyed – even if it was just the fact that you had a good nap during the tedious monologues.
But there is also another implication contained in my first sentence: there is a lot going on in our lives and our brains are not suited to remembering fine details of our experiences. They want to reduce things down to simple ‘good/bad’ adjectives. But if we take time over our experiences, being careful to process them in a ‘happy’ way rather than just experiencing them and automatically assigning ‘good’ or ‘bad’ then we will be more able to generate happy memories. This explains why some people just seem to be happy all the time and others just seem to be permanently annoyed by everything: these people might just have got into the habit of assigning ‘good’ or ‘bad’ more often.
So perhaps the solution is to try and do less and concentrate more on the things that we do experience. Slow down and think about your experience for happiness. Instead of going to Kew Gardens and rushing around trying to see everything, go to just one of the greenhouses and spend all day studying a particular species of plant. By doing things slowly you will remember more and be able to draw more happiness out of each experience. You would have a surfeit of adjectives for that plant, not just ‘pretty’ or ‘withered’ and thus you would be more involved in your own experience.
This need not be the Zen advice that it appears to be. I recently took a long distance bicycle ride to Bordeaux and find that the memories of it are still incredibly vivid and a constant well-spring of happiness. It’s not as though I was picking a blade of grass and contemplating it for hours on end, but just by progressing through France at a leisurely 10 mph I was more deeply involved in my own experience.
How to make happy memories:
1) Self-modify your experiences by discussing them and framing them in a positive light.
2) Broaden your memory’s record of an event by spending longer over it, relishing the moment.
Give it a try today, after all: what price happiness?
This was originally published in 2009 on the (now defunct) How to be Human site. I hope it finds a new audience here.