The Unexpected Joy of Memories

21 Oct 2021By ShriyaScience

Have you ever found an old shoe box and spent hours poring over old letters, ticket stubs, photographs, and memories of the good old days?

These kinds of time capsules have been around for centuries – from the Hindu tradition of sharing memories at funerals to Instagram timelines littered with travel diaries, humans love to document their lives. But can these time capsules be more than just a rear view mirror we build for our future selves? Can they offer any benefits in the present as well?

We conducted three studies using “memory jars” – virtual and physical glass jars filled with memories, moments, and experiences – to find out.

Writing memories makes us happy

In our first two studies, college students and people who lived in old age homes (senior citizen homes) wrote 7 memories and filled them in physical glass jars. In our third study, random participants we recruited online typed in 7 memories to create “digital memory jars”. Across our studies, we found that people were happier, less lonely, and more psychologically well-off after writing their memories.

Reading memories works too

As part of a supplemental memory jars initiative, we had helped some assisted living residents with Alzheimer’s create memory jars. That’s when we heard some amazing stories. A man who had only 32 memories left – the faces of 32 people he’d killed when he fought for Nazi Germany in World War II. A woman who juggled 3 husbands in the 1940s. Another 105-year-old woman who had been sold as slave in Alabama. The list went on.

That's why we became curious about whether revisting memories later, even if they belonged to someone else, could have psychological benefits too. A few days after our study participants had created their memory jars, they either read their own memories or the memories of another random participant in the study. We found that reading memories had the same benefits as writing them – regardless of whether participants read their own or someone else’s memories!

Creating and revisiting “memory jars” has more benefits than you expect

We underappreciate the power of memories

Previous research has already shown that people do not accurately predict how they will feel about events like breakups, career difficulties, professional defeat, and personal rejection. In line with this research, we found that people aren’t great at predicting how they would feel about revisiting their memory jars – participants were much happier to read their memories than they predicted they would be. Furthermore, they especially underestimated how happy reading others’ memories, and more “mundane” every day memories, would make them.

This underappreciation of the benefits of reading memories could explain why people prefer watching funny YouTube videos over writing memories in the present, even though they prefer reading memories over watching funny videos in the future.

Our memories – past experiences, emotions, observations – have always shaped our sense of identity, future thoughts, and actions. But by documenting these memories meaningfully, like in a memory jar, maybe we can gain feelings of joy and social connection in the present as well.

Read The Original Journal Article

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