Recalling happy memories is good for your health in general. As I discuss in this podcast (episode #310) and blog, thinking about good times is like a physical insurance policy in the brain, which, when times get tough, helps support your mental and physical health.
The warm feeling of wellbeing that washes over you when you recall all the fun, joy and excitement you have experienced isn't just in your head. It's in your brainwaves and brain chemicals, and it even impacts the telomeres in your DNA!
Besides the intellectual stimulation, the activity of recalling the happy thoughts, which bring with it a “whoosh” of memories, reactivates the imagination and prompts the desire to share and connect with other people, which the brain loves. This process boosts your psychoneurobiology, which is the way your mind, brain and body connect and work together.
Recalling good memories also helps reduce toxic, unmanaged stress, brings a fresh perspective to the situation at hand and can deepens your relationships. The meaningful connections that come from sharing happy memories increases our social connectedness and pro-social behaviors, while decreasing negative feelings and social biases. It can even improve feelings of confidence and optimism for the future!
More specifically, focusing on good memories can help to increase positive emotions inside our memory networks, which are the “glue” keeping our memories together inside the thought. This, in turn, “turbo boosts” the memory, shooting it to the conscious mind so that it demands attention, but in a good way. This process can increase our sense of hope, peace and resilience in the moment, which, in turn, can help bring clarity, perspective and wisdom when we are experiencing a challenge.
More specifically, on the level of the brain, building and recalling healthy memories can:
- Prompt a healthy, balanced brain wave flow, with bursts of healing theta energy waves.
- Activate the amygdala, which is like a library keeping our emotional perceptions in “books”. This helps us develop healthy emotional perceptions that enhance the overall functionality of the amygdala.
- Activate the frontal cortex, which can improve blood flow and coherence between the two sides of the brain. This can improve our resilience, decision-making abilities and intelligence.
- Switch on the different components of the mirror neuron system in the inferior frontal/pre-motor and inferior parietal cortex as we experience the increased bonding and sharing that comes from talking about a happy memory with our loved ones.
- Increase our sense of imagination, which means new thoughts with new memories are being built into the brain, strengthening it while also increasing our resilience. It is almost as though good memories build a supporting lattice/network in the brain, which help you stay strong during hard times (the ultimate insurance policy!).
- Activate systems for reward and positive affect in the brain and body, including the ventral tegmental area, nucleus accumbens and the orbito-frontal cortex.
- Boost serotonin and dopamine, which are neurotransmitters in the brain that give us feelings of satisfaction and well-being, and cause the pleasure/reward centers in the brain to light up. Endorphins, which are the body's natural pain killer, also can be released when we think of happy times in the past.
One way I love to harness all these benefits is through what I call a “gratitude thought insurance policy” exercise. First, gather awareness of as many things as you can think of in the moment that you are thankful for - these are the happy memories I spoke of above. Reflect on these memories, and ask, answer and discuss them with yourself or a loved one to find the information, emotions, and physical responses these memories bring about in your brain and body. (This is based on the different types of memories I spoke about in last week’s podcast.) Write down what you have been reflecting on, in as much detail as possible, to help organize your thinking. Then, recheck what you have written to add more insight and look for patterns. Now, practice looking at what you have written every morning when you wake up and when go to sleep for 63 consecutive days to help build a gratitude insurance policy mindset. (This is the time it takes to build a new mindset/habit.) During this time, watch how this carries over into your day to day life; observe and write down (in your journal, on your phone, or whatever works for you) how this exercise helps you, especially during tough time.
Another great resilience-building exercise it to develop what I call a “possibilities thought insurance policy”. This is like the gratitude exercise above. First, gather awareness of as many things you feel that you feel you have failed at or haven’t done. Now, reconceptualize these things as “I haven’t failed; I have learned x things that now I know don’t work, which is great to know!” Reflect on what these lessons are by asking, answering, and discussing them to find the information, emotions, and physical responses in your brain and body. Write down what you have been reflecting on, in as much detail as possible, to help organize your thinking. Then, recheck what you have written to add more insight and look for patterns. Now, practice looking at what you have written every morning when you wake up and when you go to sleep for 63 consecutive days to help build a possibilities insurance policy mindset. During this time, watch how this carries over into your day to day life; observe and write how this exercise helps you, especially during tough time.
For more information on happy memories as an insurance policy for your brain, listen to my podcast (#310), and check out my latest book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess and my app Neurocycle. If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).
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1:31 What it means to have a mental “insurance policy” for challenging times
3:30 The relationship between thoughts & experiences
4:20 How toxic memories can affect us
6:45, 11:00 How good memories are a mental “insurance policy”
7:10 What it means to be “wired for love”
8:10 How healthy, happy memories can increase our cognitive resilience
9:00, 21:00 The healing power of gratitude
13:20, 17:00 How happy memories can improve our relationships & mental health
14:00 The relationship between recalling good memories & making wise decisions
24:50 Why we all need a possibilities mindset “insurance policy”
This podcast and blog is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional.