At one of my yoga classes, our teacher always begins with a short talk about something she’s been thinking of or feeling and today it was about happiness. She asked, “why can’t we hold on to happiness? Why is it that we’ll always remember the worst part of our days but never the best?” And this really struck a chord with me. When something wonderful happens to us, we experience a surge of happiness but that excitement dies down over time. However, when something terrible happens, it almost feels like it gets bigger or worse over time.
There are times every single day, when I have to push myself not to think back to some of the worst moments in my life. Not that terrible things have happened to me, but things that I’ve done and am ashamed of. If you asked me to think back to all the happy times in my life, I may pick out a few memories here and there but it would be much harder for me to create a list to rival the extensively dissected list of failures. I started reading about this human tendency and discovered that it’s something all of us face.
We all remember negative events more strongly because there is much more thinking that goes in in negative situations. You are more focused and often debating multiple outcomes. This makes the memory more deeply rooted in our minds and we then ruminate over them longer and more often than positive memories. Our brains actually process negative and positive experiences in different ways, in different hemispheres of the brain. We also feel much sadder about things than we do happy. For example, based on one study, it was found that participants were much sadder to have lost $50 than to have found $50.
Apart from feeling worse about negative events, we also seem to carry them with us for longer than we do the positive. I could probably tell you the last two or three great things that happened to me, but if I think back to last year for example, my first flood of memories will all be negative ones. In this same study quoted above, it was found that it took many more happy memories to make a lasting impression than it did sad ones with a ratio of five is to one.
As natural as it us for us to focus on the bad things that have happened in our lives, there has to be a way for us to remember the good. And if our brains won’t let us then we should find a way to physically do so. This is one reason why people who keep gratitude journals or write down what they’re grateful for, experience less stress and anxiety. It is up to us to create moments of happiness and find ways to focus on them; to spend time thinking about and fully experiencing these moments so that they stay with us for longer. There is also an argument here for us to be kinder to those around us, to help people experience more happiness. There will always be a surplus of negativity in the world and it’s really up to us to find ways to balance that out!