The Power of Positive Memories: Why Looking Back Makes Us Happier Now

By  Aura  | November 18, 2020

It’s been a challenging year. From a global pandemic, to social unrest, to another divisive election, 2020 has been rough for all of us. The disruption of everyday routines and increased uncertainty around the future have many people on edge, and seeking new ways to stay positive and hopeful.

Fortunately, there is a way! While our present may be tough and the future may be cloudy, the past – and looking back on positive memories – has proven to be a lifeline for many. In fact, 78% of Americans said looking back on cherished past events has helped comfort them during this tumultuous time, according to a recent survey of 2,000 Americans we conducted with the help of researchers at 72Point.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that 73% of them report reminiscing more these days, be it through telling stories of the past or sharing photos with loved ones. And those who reminisce often are more likely to be more hopeful and satisfied with their life, even outside of the pandemic, than those who don’t.

Need more evidence? It’s actually science. Licensed psychologist and professor Dr. Krystine Batcho, PhD, who studies the psychology of nostalgia, sees the same connection between memories and happiness. 

“Revisiting the past brings back the joy of the good times and the comforting security of being reunited with loved ones. Happy memories remind us of when life was less complicated. During difficult periods like the ones we’ve experienced in 2020, positive recollections strengthen our confidence that life will be good again one day and that we will be able to overcome current challenges and any that come our way.”

Photos spark the feels

As the old saying goes, “A photo is worth a thousand words,” but they actually may be worth much more to us emotionally. Eighty-four percent of our survey respondents reported sharing photos, either digitally or in physical form, during the pandemic while nearly half of them were moved to tears by a photo that stirred their emotions. 

According to experts, looking at photos can activate the same emotion experienced at the time the photo was taken. That’s why it’s important to revisit old photos of happy memories which can increase happiness and our sense of connection to others. We asked survey respondents about the types of memories they were most likely to turn to during the pandemic and discovered they’re most likely to share and display the following:

  • Photos from family gatherings (28%), 

  • Wedding photos (25%) and 

  • Photos from celebrations like anniversaries or birthdays (24%) were among those most likely to be circulated by respondents since the beginning of the pandemic. 

  • Travel photos (21%)

  • Baby photos (17%)

  • Photos with friends (14%)

  • Photos inherited from relatives (14%)

  • Pet photos (7%)

Holiday photos were also popular (22%) – unsurprising, as nearly six in 10 respondents (59%) also said their fondest memories with friends and family members are holiday-related. These findings are consistent with Dr. Batcho’s previous work on nostalgia. 

"People are especially nostalgic for their memories of holidays. The holidays bring family and friends together in special ways. Traditionally, society has set aside holidays as occasions for time to celebrate with friends, relatives, and others important in our lives. Holidays have come to symbolize optimism, hope, and all that is good. Secular traditions and religious rituals encourage people to engage in the ideals that enrich relationships—giving, loving, altruism, and forgiveness. They are opportunities to create some of our most important memories. Holiday memories capture the happiest and most meaningful experiences of our lives.”

Digital Detox: A Break from Social Media

Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have billions of active users who use these sites to share photos and stay in touch with friends and family. But many have taken a break from these platforms for a host of reasons- privacy and data issues, politics, the spread of misinformation and more. Recently documentaries like The Social Dilemma and The Great Hack have brought home the importance of assessing our relationships with and time spent on these platforms. 

Our survey found that twenty-eight percent of respondents reported having lessened their social media presence, or deleted their social media accounts altogether, over the course of the past six to 12 months.

“With its constant ads and divisive commentary, social media platforms can be a very stressful place,” said Abdur Chowdhury, CEO and co-founder of Aura Frames. “I’ve found that taking time away from the screen and getting outside, engaging in a hobby or spending time with family – and making new memories – can be a refreshing boost to one’s well-being.”

Moving forward while looking back 

Whether you take a social media detox or spend quality time viewing old photos of happy times in the past, it’s important to stay positive during difficult times and know that the best is yet to come. As Dr. Batcho says, “In good times, memories help us see how much we’ve accomplished, and they inspire us to pursue even greater goals.”