Last year I passed the epic milestone of 40, and realised I’d probably lived half my life — 480 months or 14,610 days. That got me thinking: Which of those 14,610 days do I remember? And why? Some days pass us by without leaving a trace, and some moments stick with us for ever.
I remember every first kiss, but have trouble remembering anything that happened in March 2007. I remember the first time I tasted a mango, but have no recollection of any meal I had when I was ten years old. I remember the smell of grass in the field we kids would play in, but I struggle to remember the children’s names.
What are memories made of? Why is it that a piece of music, a smell, a taste, can take us back to something we had forgotten? And how can we learn to create happy memories and be better at holding on to them?
I’m unusual in that my day job is to research happiness at the think tank I founded in 2011 — the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen — where we study well-being and quality of life.
Meik Wiking (pictured) who is best known for The Little Book Of Hygge, has completed a global study to identify the best ways of keeping memories alive
A journalist once described me as ‘the world’s happiest man’, and in 2016 I published The Little Book Of Hygge, about the Danish art of creating a cosy atmosphere and living well, which became a phenomenon.
Last year, my think tank conducted a massive global project to analyse people’s happy memories.
Case studies came flooding in, more than a thousand of them, from 75 countries, from Belgium, Brazil and Botswana to Norway, Nepal and New Zealand.
Despite the diversity in sources, I could relate to every one. I understood why each moment was a happy memory for that person. We might be Danish, British, or South African, but we are, first and foremost, human.
It’s now recognised that being able to retrieve happy memories keeps you healthy. Nostalgia is considered a useful psychological mechanism, which counteracts loneliness and anxiety. All of which makes it more important than ever to find out how we create happy memories and how we hold onto them.
As we get older, we need to give our brains a regular workout and learning how to remember and retrieve happy moments is one way of keeping our memories fighting fit.
Our global study helped us identify the very best ways to do it . . .
BOOST YOUR NUMBER OF ‘FIRST’ MEMORIES
Ask any older person to recall some of their memories and there’s a good chance they’ll tell you stories from a period in their life when they were between the ages of 15 and 30. This is known as the reminiscence effect, or reminiscence bump.
One theory behind the reminiscence bump is that our teens and early adulthood years are our defining, or formative, years. Another theory is that the period involves a lot of firsts. First dates, first kisses, first jobs, first dance performances, and so on.
Novelty ensures durability when it comes to memory. Extraordinary and novel experiences are subject to greater elaborative cognitive processing, which leads to better encoding of these memories.
Meik suggests wearing a new perfume that you will only use once when attending a special occasion, the scent will help to conjure specific details in the future (file image)
It might also be the reason why life seems to speed up as we get older; firsts are much rarer at 50 than they are at 16.
If you want life to slow down, and make moments memorable, one way is to turn the ordinary into something more extraordinary. Step out of your routine. If you always eat dinner in front of the TV, gather the family around a candlelit table. And if you are always eating candlelit dinners, it might be nice to host a movie marathon.
MAKE A MEMORY: Once a year, go somewhere that you’ve never been before. You might choose an exotic destination or it could simply be the park across town.
MATCH YOUR PERFUME TO THE OCCASION
Our senses can trigger and retrieve memories. You taste the limoncello and instantly you are transported back to that summer in Italy and can sense the warm evening air on your skin. It is the feeling when past happiness is momentarily restored.
We have all experienced tastes, sounds, smells, sights or a touch that sends us back there, a sensation that reminds you that you were once loved, that you were happy.
This is sometimes referred to as the ‘Proust phenomenon’ after the passage in Proust’s epic novel In Search Of Lost Time, where the character Marcel tastes a madeleine dipped in tea and memories from his childhood flood back to him.
Personally, I think Winnie the Pooh does it just as well. When discussing with Piglet the first thing they think of in the morning, Pooh says his first thought is ‘What’s for breakfast?’, while Piglet thinks of what exciting things are going to happen that day.
To which Winnie-the-Pooh replies: ‘That’s the same thing!’ He understands that our experiences, our memories, are shaped by our senses.
Meik recommends harvesting memorable details during happy moments by paying full attention (file image)
Whether Proust or Pooh is your prophet, the lesson is to use all your senses to your advantage. Be aware of what you see, smell, hear and feel when you are happy, and work that into your long-term memory.
MAKE A MEMORY: Create a memory dish. At the end of a happy day, eat something you’ll link in your memory to the pleasure you feel. Or choose a new perfume for a special day and wear it just once so that the scent will for ever conjure the specific detail of that joyful time.
IGNORE THE DIGITAL CANDY THAT DOMINATES LIFE
It can be surprising how much of the world we see, but don’t take in. How many steps are there in your flight of stairs at home? You’ve been up and down them hundreds of time, but have you ever noticed? How does the rain smell on a hot summer’s day? What does your soup really taste of?
It may be a cliché to say you should stop and smell the roses, but research suggests it’s good advice to increase your satisfaction with life. Paying close attention is the absolute foundation of making memory.
But our attention is finite, and everyone wants a bit of it. Adverts bombard us at every turn. Your phone pings emails and news alerts 24/7. Multi-tasking ruins our ability to truly observe the world — and studies show it’s bad for our memories, too.
Start by learning to ignore your phone. ‘Grey scale’ it: in Settings, turn down those shiny, bright screen colours so the digital candy is less appetising, and turn off all notifications, too.
Meik suggests considering what you’re likely to remember in a decade, when choosing what to do. He believes the exhilaration of a jet ski could be more memorable than sitting on the beach (file image)
MAKE A MEMORY: Treat happy moments as you would a date — pay attention to them! Imagine you are out on a first date with someone. You are not just seeing, you are observing. You notice the colour of their eyes, the sound of their laugh, maybe even the scent of their perfume when you first said hello.
When you’re happy, harvest the details. If you described the scene in a novel, what would you write?
USE AN EMOTIONAL HIGHLIGHTER PEN
You probably remember where you were when 9/11 happened. Or when you heard about the death of Princess Diana.
They are likely to be ‘flashbulb memories’, a term coined in 1977 by Harvard psychologists Roger Brown and James Kulik, who believed that when important events happen, they are stored in a vivid and detailed way so we can access the memory later on, analyse the experience and perhaps avoid similar events in the future.
We often speak of flashbulb memories as national or international events, but one study conducted with American university students showed that only 3 per cent of their flashbulb memories were like this. The vast majority were personal: I love yous; exams; broken legs . . .
Happy events as well as dangerous or traumatic ones are stored as flashbulb memories. Emotional reactions are processed in a different part of your brain to that used for purely cognitive learning, and they stay with us for longer. Make that work for you.
Meik says telling your story repeatedly is important for holding on to happy memories or for getting others to hold onto them (file image)
MAKE A MEMORY: Try the Ten Years’ Time Test. When choosing what to do, consider what you’re most likely to remember in a decade. You might feel like spending holidays reading on the beach, but don’t pass up the opportunity to jet ski around the bay. The fear, the exhilaration, the relief when it’s over — that’s what you’ll remember best in the future.
STAY AHEAD OF THE FORGETTING CURVE
German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909) was one of the first to perform rigorous experiments to find out how memory works.
First, he learned some non- meaningful information — strings of letters parcelled into groups. And then he forgot it. By studying what he forgot and timing how long it took him, he was able to plot a graph showing a curved shape, the ‘forgetting curve’.
When there’s no attempt to retain information, found Ebbinghaus, it’s lost fairly rapidly — after 20 minutes, you lose around 40 per cent, and after one day, around 70 per cent is lost.
But Ebbinghaus made another discovery. We can alter the slope of the forgetting curve by repeating learned information at particular intervals.
Learning isn’t just about repetition; there has to be space between each repeat. If the fact is already in the front of your mind, there’s no work being done to enable you to recall it, but if the information is retrieved at intervals, the brain has to reconstruct that memory, and this strengthens it, like you strengthen a muscle. You are giving your brain a workout.
Today, the principle is known as ‘spaced repetition’.
MAKE A MEMORY: When you want to hold on to happy memories or have your children or grandchildren hold on to them, practise spaced repetition. Talk at night about a happy moment you shared that day. Tell the story in full. Talk about it the next day, too; then a week later, a month later, three months later and finally a year on.
Meik recommends snapping away and printing out photos for an album you can hold in your hands as hard drives are a risk of digital amnesia (file image)
BUY A PHOTO ALBUM AND PRINT OUT PICTURES
When asked what they’d save if their house was on fire, the most common answer people give is their photo albums.
I am no different. I see photos as the key to a vault of memories. If the key was lost, I fear the memories would be sealed off for ever.
This year, I brought home a collection of photo albums from my childhood, which my brother and I packed up after our mother died — photos I hadn’t seen in 20 years. The photos are not of great quality, but trigger so many memories. As I look at them, I feel snapshots of emotion or names resurface, and then a whole range of other connections start to be made.
The trouble is, most of our photos these days are locked inside hard drives. We risk digital amnesia when we lose a laptop or a phone. Pictures taken to post on social media, meanwhile, are often chosen to depict a version of life that doesn’t necessarily reflect reality.
MAKE A MEMORY: Take pictures for you! Instead of being the curator of how other people see you, try to be the curator of how your future self can look back.
10 best childhood memories
1. Family holidays
3. Collecting shells on the beach
4. First day at school
5. Watching Top of the Pops
6. Sports days
7. Watching children’s TV
8. Fish and chips
9. Pic ’n’ mix sweets
10. Playground games (British bulldog, etc.)
That means pictures of your everyday life; of objects that might not seem memorable now, but will be great fun to look at years from now. Snap away, then print them out and put them into an album you can hold in your hands.
WATCH OUT FOR THOSE DECEPTIVE DOORWAYS!
We’ve all been there: you’re at home, in front of your computer, and you get up to consult the letter on the kitchen table. You go to the kitchen, only to stand there, not knowing why you came in. You go back to your computer — and remember.
This is a common short-term memory failure. The phenomenon of going into a room only to forget why you went in there is known as the ‘doorway effect’.
In 2011, a team of psychologists at the University of Notre Dame in the U.S. published the paper Walking Through Doorways Causes Forgetting. ‘Entering or exiting through a doorway serves as an “event boundary” in the mind, which separates episodes of activity and files them away,’ explained researcher Gabriel Radvansky.
In other words, the act of walking through the doorway makes the brain believe a new scene has begun and that there is no need for memories from the old scene.We remember things by association. So forgetting may be caused by a simple lack of appropriate cues that spark the memory.
KEEP YOUR HAPPY MEMORIES SAFE
Wendy Mitchell is from Yorkshire. She worked for decades as a team leader in the NHS.
Today, she finds writing easier than talking and, with the help of a ghost-writer, last year published the book Somebody I Used To Know, a gripping, heartbreaking story and an insight into what we lose when we lose our memories.
It shows the challenges of living with dementia. How finding your way home from your favourite cafe becomes an issue. Or where in the kitchen you keep the tea.
But it is also an inspirational and heartwarming story. Wendy is resilient and resourceful and she is finding ways to outwit the disease for as long as she can.
She has created a ‘memory room’ with photos in rows across the walls. She labels them. The ‘where?’s, the ‘who?’s, the ‘why?’s. One row has pictures of her daughters, another the places Wendy lived, a third her favourite views — the Lake District and Blackpool beach.
‘I sit on the edge of the bed in front of them, feeling that same sense of calm and happiness. When the memories have emptied on the inside, they’ll still be here on the outside — a constant, a reminder, a feeling of happier times,’ she writes.
Extracted from The Art Of Making Memories, by Meik Wiking (£12.99, Penguin Life). © Meik Wiking 2019. To order a copy for £10.40 (offer valid to October 7, 2019; p&p free), visit mailshop.co.uk or call 01603 648155.