a young lady smiling

Have you ever wondered why remembering a negative memory is so easy? You can be on your bed or in the middle of doing something and suddenly have a cringe and nerve-wracking flashback. You take a trip back to an uncomfortable past and can’t help diving into all the different details and angles even when it makes you feel miserable. If that sounds familiar, you’re not alone.

Great memories pop up too, but there is some sinister allure to sad memories. It’s almost like they’re addictive in a sense. Maybe it’s the brain trying to protect us from repeating those uncomfortable outcomes.

Since negative memories seem to rear their ugly heads with no problem, we need a conscious and consistent reminder of the great things we’ve experienced. And, that’s what this article is about - reinforcing good memories (and hopefully blurring out the cringe).

What's a Memory?

A memory is a mental recollection of a past event or occurrence. Scientists say each time we recall a memory, we alter it a little. We do so by subtracting from the event or updating certain elements in the story. Our perspective and interpretation of the memory can also change with time. Despite the distortion of our memories, we can still recall the main elements or core happenings in past events.

Positive, Negative, and Neutral Memories

The brain stores emotional and neutral memories. Emotional memories are either positive or negative based on the emotions they elicit. According to recent research by neuroscientists, positive and negative memories differ in composition and structure. We’re wired to remember emotional memories much more than neutral memories. You may not remember exactly when you learned to tie your shoelaces, but you can easily recall an ecstatic or heartbreaking moment in college.

More interestingly, negative memories seem stronger and more detailed than positive memories. Those whose team loses a sports game are more likely to recall more specific details surrounding the event than the winners. An experiment was performed by Elizabeth Kensinger and Daniel Schacter in 2006 on this subject.

I believe the winners in a game don’t care about small details like how the referee behaved, but losers try to cope or find reasons for the loss. Either way, we can see that negative memories and the emotions surrounding them seem to be more potent.

Why Do Negative Memories Linger for Longer?

Some believe we hold onto negative memories to protect ourselves and prevent them from reoccurring. We don’t want to be caught unawares so we keep as many details of an unfortunate event as our brain allows. However, the brain may take a little joy in tormenting us. It gets used to revisiting the upsetting memories and just continues to do so randomly.

War veterans who aren’t at war anymore certainly don’t need to protect themselves. Negative memories held onto over time can become a cage that limits your freedom and restricts your happiness. In clinical terms, PTSD is a severe case of someone being haunted by a past traumatic event.

While the event is real and its effect valid, its influence over you can be edited or manipulated since there’s no essential value associated with being stuck in the past that doesn’t serve to protect or at least edify you in the present.

Train Your Brain to Recall Good Memories

Being stuck in the tragedies of life can sell you a lie or two. One, you don’t have good memories. Two, you’re never going to have great memories. The thing about lies is that if you believe them long enough, they become as strong as the truth in your mind and prevent you from seeing things differently. Memories can be manipulated and narratives can be redescribed. Similarly, you can cherish good memories while accepting and learning from negative events.

Have you ever felt like the good memories in your life are buried so deep in your brain and all you can see around you are stressors and triggers? Life can get overwhelming, but you can train your brain to see the bright side. Was there ever a time you did something you were proud of? Did you overcome a difficult situation? Do you have some special memories with those you love? Did you receive support from someone when you needed it the most?

It’s easy to dwell on the unfortunate events that you encounter. Yes, maybe it’s your brain looking out for you. But, you can intentionally set your heart on memories that warm, inspire, and bring genuine smiles to your face and hope to your heart.

Reinforcing Good Memories

Short-term memories become long-term memories when we recall and relive the event. The more we recall a memory, the stronger it becomes. Using this data, here are some ways we can reinforce good memories:

Go down memory lane (the good one)

Have you nothing else to do? Think of the time when you had an amazing experience. Relive the moments and emotions. Recall the details. Let your mind feast on all the goodies your brain buries trying to protect you. Was there a time you talked with a friend and felt encouraged afterward? Or, you suddenly crossed a milestone? Even thinking of things you overcame in the past and situations you came out of can trigger happy feelings.

Embrace nostalgia

My biggest nostalgia trigger right now is Avatar: The Last Airbender. After watching the live-action, I had to see the original animation again. Of course, it’s great but it also reinforces the good feelings and experiences from my younger days. I also shared these feelings with my siblings because when I talk about certain scenes, they’re equally nostalgic and excited to engage in the conversation. Embrace nostalgia and all its sweet triggers.

Share pleasant experiences

Share your positive experience with friends. Whether it’s a way to entertain or encourage, don’t miss a chance to feel and share joy and hope with others. It’s also a way to strengthen positive memories in your brain. You can also discuss shared positive experiences with your friends and loved ones to get their perspective which further expands the memory (they may remember some details you’re forgetting) while strengthening it.

Create visuals

Consider visual elements that remind you of great memories. They could be pictures, cards, souvenirs, gifts, old tickets, appreciative texts, poetry, or items. Put together a collection of visual pieces online and offline to remind you of the goodness you’ve experienced.

Recreate Good Memories

What’s better than reliving good memories from your past? Creating them in the present for your future self to draw smiles, strength, and hope from. You have ideas of good and wholesome things to do that you’ll probably want to remember for years. Explore them as much as you can. Repeat and refine the actions and behaviour from the past that are currently your favorite memories. Stay joyful!