The Power of Positive Memories
Remembering happy times may offer protection for mental health
When the going gets tough, the tough get nostalgic. That’s the take-home lesson from a recent spate of research papers that suggests recalling happier times may be an effective bulwark against stress and depression.
For a 2017 study in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, people were observed by an expressionless white-coated scientist while attempting to keep a hand submerged in ice water — an ordeal that reliably (and understandably) produced stress. Immediately afterward, the people were instructed to recall either happy memories or “neutral” memories, all of which they’d come up with ahead of time in preparation for the study. While levels of the stress hormone cortisol rose steadily following the unsettling ice water experience among the people who recalled neutral memories, cortisol levels barely budged among those asked to recall happier times.
The research team repeated the experiment in a second group, only this time they conducted brain scans during the memory-recall portion of the experiment. They found that several areas of the brain’s prefrontal cortex — areas involved in emotion regulation and “cognitive control” — became more active when people recalled positive memories. Acute stress “lessens our ability to use cognitive emotion regulation” and often triggers periods of anxiety or depression, the authors of that study wrote. But thinking about happier times seems to interrupt this cascade of negative thoughts and feelings.
This study’s findings dovetail with newer research linking depression to a hampered ability to recall positive memories. A 2019 study from the University of Cambridge in England found that the ability to remember pleasant events in detail is associated with lower cortisol levels and fewer negative self-appraisals in young people at risk for depression due to early life stress. “We were interested in resilience, or why certain people do not develop depressive symptoms after stressful life events,” says Adrian Askelund, the first author of the study, who is now a doctoral student in clinical psychology at the University of Oslo in Norway. “We found that those who recalled more specific positive events from their past…