How Memory Can Make Life Pleasant — And Less Stressful
studies on autobiographical memory and happiness have determined that
human memory is biased toward happiness and that mild depression can
disrupt this bias for good over bad.
There are two
causes for recollections of the past to be positively biased, according
to a research team headed by W. Richard Walker, Ph.D., of Winston-Salem
State University. The first cause is that pleasant events outnumber
unpleasant events because people seek out positive experiences and try
to avoid negative encounters, the researchers found.
studies conducted by five different research teams found that people of
different racial and ethnic backgrounds and participants ranging in age
from their late teens to early fifties consistently reported that
positive events outnumbered the negative experiences in their lives,
process involves a memory system that treats pleasant emotions
differently from unpleasant feelings. Seven studies reviewed by the
team supported a "fading affect" for negative emotions.
emotions have been found to fade more slowly from our memory that
unpleasant emotions," the researchers said. "One mechanism for this
uneven fading may involve a process known as minimization. In order to
return to our normal level of happiness, we try to minimize the impact
of life events."
minimization process, which occurs biologically, cognitively and
socially, is usually stronger for negative events than for positive
events, the team noted.
there is a tendency to deaden the emotional impact of negative events
relative tothe impact of positive events," Walker said. "Such deadening
occurs directly because people are motivated to view their life events
in a relatively positive light."
should be viewed as "evidence of healthy coping processes operating in
memory and suggests that although people do remember negative events,
they just remember them less negatively," according to the team. These
"healthy coping processes" also help reduce stressors and ensuing
stress levels, team members added.
life is not pleasant for everyone; some study respondents reported more
unpleasant than pleasant events, which indicates that the fading affect
does not work for everybody, the research team found. In addition,
unpleasant and pleasant emotions tend to fade evenly among those with
mild depression, according to the findings.
those not suffering from depression, the bias suggests that
autobiographical memory represents an important exception to the
theoretical claim that bad is stronger than good and allows people to
cope with tragedies, celebrate joyful moments and look forward to
tomorrow," Walker concluded.