Why Thinking Yourself Happy is Harder Than it Sounds

Ever wondered why it’s so hard to remember the bright side of life when you’re feeling blue? Or maybe why those memories of darker days are so difficult to recount when you’re out of that funk? Turns out, our mood has a big impact on the memories we create and how easy it is to access them. It’s not just accessing memories either; how well we consolidate an event and store it to look over later is also affected by our mood. In fact, our mood proves to be far more influential on what and how we remember things than you might think.

Creating lasting memories

How we create long term memories has been studied for decades and pondered for even longer. Several areas of our brain are involved in creating and recalling long-term memories. The amygdala — known to be responsible for sensing emotion, the pre-frontal cortex which plays a role in planning and personality development, and the hippocampus which is part of the limbic system and tasked with regulating motivation, emotion, learning and memory, all work in concert to successfully create and store long term memories. Other parts of our brain sometimes get involved too, but these three areas appear to be the most influential when it comes to making and accessing memories.

Considering the emotional nature of almost any experience — not just happy, sad, depressed or ecstatic, but also frustrated, bored, anxious and so on — understanding how our mood helps us to create memories, recall them and consequently learn new things could have far a reaching impact — from study and managing depression, to feedback sessions and understanding our family stories.

Studies have found that emotional motivations can affect where we place our attention and prioritise the processing of events that match an emotion being felt. For example, this might mean that someone in a sad or frustrated mood who’s attending a wedding will have a strong memory of the baby crying throughout the ceremony. Someone at the same wedding who’s feeling happy and joyful may have no recollection of the crying baby, but a strong mental image of the soul-felt wedding vows and the kiss that seals the deal. It doesn’t matter too much that these people were at the same wedding, more so what they were feeling inside at the nuptials.

This bent towards turning attention to events or information that matches our internal feelings and then compounding that by prioritizing the processing of memories for those events goes some way toward answering the question of happy and sad memories and recalling them when in an opposite mood. But not all the way, for that we need to look at a different study.

Recalling memories that conflict with our emotional state

If you’ve ever tried to think of happier times to pull yourself out of a depressive state, you’ll likely be familiar with how hard it is. It’s much harder to do than it is to say. But it’s not your fault; it’s a neural quirk we all share.

Our brain and recall of certain personal events work in a way that supports how we are feeling in the present moment. Some think that this is to help us successfully navigate our environment when we’re feeling a particular way.

For instance, if you’re feeling afraid, you’ll easily recall other times you felt afraid. You’ll be on high alert and quicker to spot dangerous situations that support the way you’re feeling. The fearful memories will be accompanied by information about how you dealt with fear last time. This is likely to influence how you protect yourself and keep you safe now you’re feeling scared again.

It seems pretty straightforward and it would definitely have been a useful mechanism when we were hunter/foragers. These days, it’s less helpful as there are fewer things out there that are going to cut our lives short. The fear we feel at the beginning of the dental examination isn’t necessarily going to help us when we go for our next check-up, and recalling other similar fearful events, like the time we climbed to the top of a tower and looked down, isn’t that helpful either. In some cases, sure, it might be useful, but generally speaking, probably not so much in modern-day life. Instead, it can build anxiety and make a situation scarier than it needs to be.

Similarly, if someone is in a happy frame of mind, lighter joyful memories are more likely to be recalled. A great thing to know if you’re asking for feedback; you can prompt good feelings within the group you’re asking for feedback from and tip the scores in your favour.

Prompting happy memories when you’re feeling down

Despite our brain’s tendency to serve us memories and thoughts that match how we’re feeling, it is possible to buck the trend and work your way to a happier frame of mind and those thoughts and memories of great times. Instead of dwelling in the depths of your despair, try a few of these tricks to get your brain looking on the bright side of life.

Use outside stimulus to generate a happier state. It can be difficult to maintain a sad or angry frame of mind when there’s joyful, buoyant music playing. Switch the radio to a station that’s playing something celebratory or choose a CD that reminds you of fun times. Get outside and literally smell the roses (or other flowers). Our senses are a great way to connect with memories and mood — particularly our sense of smell and hearing.

Move a little at a time. Try mentally moving a little in the direction of more positive emotion. No big leaps here, just small incremental steps. This works best as a written exercise, but you can do it with your thoughts too. Think about where you are now — for example:

“I’m feeling really low; things are always going wrong.”

Your mind is probably serving you memories that support the statement. Try a slightly more positive statement next, like…

“Even when I’m feeling low and things are going wrong, my cat loves me.”

And then another step, “When I’m feeling low, it feels good to be gentle and kind to myself,” onto “I feel happier when I take time for myself.”

As you move towards more positive emotions with these statements, your mind will begin to support them with memories that match what you’re thinking to help make happier feelings your reality. A little at a time is far easier and more sustainable than trying to make a massive leap from ‘I feel so down’ to ‘I love my life and everything around me.’

Change your perspective. When we’re down, we tend to get absorbed by our own thoughts and drama and our brain (unhelpfully) keeps serving up memories that support the feelings. Shifting our attention to those around us gives our minds a break from the negative thought cycle and helps to put things into perspective — everyone has ups and downs; we are not alone in our depression, anxiety or stress.

Take this a step further and help someone out. It will benefit you in a number of ways — you’ll be able to feel good about the kind thing you’ve done and you’ll have moved your thoughts away from the negative aspects of your own life. Your brain will (helpfully) serve you memories of other times you felt good about helping someone else and this can lift your mood further.

So, while our mood affects our memory, and the recall of personal events, we can use this to move from feeling blue to be a little lighter. Outside simulation, focusing on others and consciously making small steps toward happier thoughts can all help. Understanding why our mood and memory are so intertwined can help us to take positive action towards better mental health.

Freelance writer using Medium to explore ideas that interest me. Get in touch: vicwomersley@gmail.com

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