If you’re looking for ways to boost your happiness in the present, try reflecting on happy memories from your past.
Recent findings on nostalgia suggest it can help us become happier. While “nostalgia” is, by definition, a blend of positive and negative emotion, the positive tends to outweigh the negative.
Reflecting on happy memories can help us to:
- feel a greater sense of well-being
- feel less lonely
- give us a sense of continuity in our lives
- make us more optimistic about relationships and more eager to connect
- feel more connected to the past
Often, however, we may have a happy memory—but we forget that we have it! Because we don’t try to dredge up the memory of our grandparents’ kitchen, or our favorite college class, we don’t access those memories.
A quick, easy way to evoke memories is to tap in to our five senses.
When writer Marcel Proust ate a tea-soaked madeleine cookie, he was famously flooded by memories of the past, and today the “Proust effect” refers to an intense, emotional memory sparked by the senses.
Our five senses link us to our past, tie us to the present, and help us create memories for the future. They even help us conjure up memories that we’ve forgotten that we possessed—and to recall a pleasure is to experience it twice.
Asking people about their sensory memories is a great way to get to know them better. Even a question as simple as “Growing up, what was your favorite candy?” helps me feel closer to other people.
Get out a photo album and look at each photo closely. Don’t just look at the faces, but also look at the clothes, the decoration of the room or the outdoor scene. Note how dated (or not) things look. Try to recall the memory of the moment when the picture was taken.
Try to recall your childhood bedroom
Review old photographs, home movies, yearbooks, and other souvenirs
Look online to find photos of places you’ve lived in the past
Walk through a neighborhood where you used to live to see how it has changed
Go on a “memory visit.” So relax in a quiet place, choose a place from your childhood, and imagine yourself walking through it. Really open the front door, step in, and look around. Take your time.
Recall some auditory memories. In grade school, what was the sound of the bell that announced the end of class (was there a bell)? What was the theme song of your favorite TV show?
Make a list of sounds or songs you associate with different periods of your life
To listen to the most popular music of different years, check out The Nostalgia Machine, thenostalgiamachine.com
Reminisce with others about the smells of grade school, high school, etc
Are there any smells that instantly evoke strong memories for you?
Have you or someone close to you ever had a signature perfume or cologne?
Make a list of smells associated with your favorite holidays
Try to recall the smell of your grandparents’ kitchen?
As a child, did you have a favorite junk food that your parents refused to buy?
Invite friends or family to share their experiences and memories around food, and sample those tastes together
Write a Tastes Timeline of your life–of the flavors you most associate with different periods
Fix an old family recipe
What did you eat for breakfast as a child?
Is there a specialty food that you eat only when you visit your hometown?
Identify one of your favorite foods from childhood and make a plan to eat it again
As a child, did you have a favorite soft stuffed animal or blanket?
Are there any touch sensations you remember especially vividly–sanded wallpaper, cold floor, favorite T-shirt from college?
Sharing these sense-memories with other people is a great way to connect, so you might reminisce with family or friends. You might also want to experience again sensations from your past—to walk through an old neighborhood, buy a favorite snack from grade school. If you’re writing or presenting information, think about including information about the five senses to make your work more concrete.
During an experience—a birthday party, a museum visit, a day with family members—try to identify the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures you’re experiencing. This exercise will make the experience far more vivid—and so it will be easier to recall the memory later.
By tapping in to our five senses, we can connect more easily with happy memories from our past—and in that way, become happier in the present.