How to make and use good memories to be a happier person

The author of The Art of Making Memories on harnessing attention to keep our positive moments at hand.

The author of The Art of Making Memories on harnessing attention to keep our positive moments at hand

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Nostalgia has never had the best reputation. The word was invented by a Swiss doctor to describe the symptoms (weeping, anxiety, insomnia, et al.) suffered by soldiers fighting far from home. Though no longer considered an illness, it's often seen as a kind of self-indulgent escapism.

Meik Wiking disagrees. In 2018, he and his team at the Happiness Research Institute conducted a global study of happy memories called the Happy Memory Study, which is the basis of his new book, The Art of Making Memories. To him, nostalgia is a form of self-care, and our memories are a "reservoir of happiness". In our interview he told us that, "By travelling back to happier times, we can counteract negative feelings like anxiety and loneliness and meaninglessness." He says his research shows that having a reservoir of happy memories is significantly correlated with present happiness. 

So how do we fill this reservoir? According to Wiking, making happy memories takes more than just having happy experiences and hoping they stick. He says that memories follow patterns, and that we can use those patterns "to become memory architects and control what we and those around are, and are not, going to remember." Here are his top tips for making and keeping positive memories.

1. Pay attention

"The easiest and most inexpensive trick is to be mindful when you are feeling happy," Wiking says. Sometimes we're so busy enjoying a good experience that we forget to really pay attention to it. "Attention is the very foundation of how memories are made," he says, and recommends trying to develop an awareness of experiences that you'd like to hold onto. If you find yourself having one, he suggests: "Try to take a mental snapshot about what's going on right now to carry that forward with you."

He also says you can use that technique to help others create memories. One of his readers told him about a particularly happy dinner with her family. What made it so memorable? Her mother stopped in the middle of the fun and laughter and said to her two daughters: "I hope you remember this." Wiking warns that you can't use this method too much though, because "the spell loses its power."

2. Build "episodic" memories that include all five senses

When taking mental snapshots, Wiking says we must, "Pay attention not only to what things look like, but sound like and smell like." This is important because not all long-term memories are the same. "Semantic memory," he explains, "is knowing that Paris is the capital of France. Episodic memory is your memory of your trip to Paris." It's not just a snapshot of the Eiffel tower, it's the feeling of the grass on the Champs de Mars, the smell of the cheese you brought for a picnic, the tang of diesel in the air. Semantic memory is useful, but not something we can really return to. Episodic memories are richer and more vivid, and they're the ones that "allow us to travel back in time and relive that moment."

3. Do something new

Choosing the tried, tested and true has its upsides, but memorability is not one of them. According to Wiking, "We have a tendency to remember first time experiences much better than things we've done over and over again. So seeking out new experiences is a good way to create strong memories." This doesn't necessarily mean that we need to visit exotic new locations or take on completely new activities every time we want to create a memory. Wiking says you can achieve the same effect simply by "cooking with a new ingredient or tasting a food you've never tried."

4. Build memory triggers into your environment, and your calendar

"Your memory works from association. You see something, you smell something, you hear something… and that reminds you of some things," Wiking says. He suggests you build anchors and memory triggers into your life.

One example of how to do this is to turn everyday objects into mementos. Wiking waited until the publication of his first book before he bought the chair he'd been saving for. Now he's reminded of that accomplishment every time he sits down. Renaming places after personal stories that happened there or making your own celebrations around famous events can all help knit mnemonics into the fabric of your life. For example, Wiking suggests planning an "Apollo picnic" on July 20th, so that you're then reminded of your own good experience every time anyone mentions the moon landing.

5. Use the "emotional highlighter"

"We remember emotional stuff," said Wiking. It's not just happiness that makes things memorable, but all the emotions. And, Wiking said, "we can use [this fact of human psychology] by doing stuff that is out of our comfort zone, so that it is more likely to be memorable." Although most people tend to avoid frightening or embarrassing situations, Wiking believes that seasoning our experiences with a little discomfort can make them more memorable. Are you intimidated by public speaking? Forcing yourself to do it anyway will virtually guarantee you'll remember the experience. You want someone to remember what you told them? Tell them at the top of a rollercoaster.

6. Reminisce often

Once stored, memories don't remain in perfect condition in some invisible brain locker. Like physical souvenirs, they need to be dusted off every so often.

According to Wiking, reliving experiences can help refresh a memory and keep it from fading. "The memory is a bit like a muscle: the more you think of something, the more likely you are to store that in your long term memory." So don't worry about indulging in nostalgia, you're just doing maintenance work on your reservoir of happy memories. By creating and maintaining a bank of happy memories, you can ensure they're there when you need them. "When we are sad, when we feel lonely," Wiking says, "when we have a sense of meaninglessness, we are more likely to engage in nostalgic activity. We use it as a countermeasure to feeling blue." If this is you, look at one of your memory triggers, recall a first kiss or exciting holiday. Try to remember how it smelled, sounded, and felt. You'll feel better and, says Wiking, this may even help you remember "how to recreate something you're missing right now." 

Clifton Mark writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and other life-related topics. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.