“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
When people consider making big changes in life—moving cities, changing careers, leaving relationships, quitting jobs they didn’t much like—they’re usually motivated by one common desire. Upheaval can be worthwhile if it leaves the past behind and creates a future that is happier and more promising.
But abandoning the past and building a better future is harder than it sounds. “At home I dream that at Naples … I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay “Self-Reliance” in 1841. “I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples.” Sounds wonderful! But he continues: “And there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from.” You can’t escape your past, because it travels with you into the future, inside your head. Your memories are the first thing you unpack in Naples.
You can’t alter history. You can, however, change your perception of it. The next best thing to a time machine is rewriting the story of your memories, making the baggage of your past a little lighter on your shoulders as you travel through the present and future.
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Humans are time travelers by nature; in fact, scientists have found that we may retain memories of the past precisely so that we can envision and predict the future. Imagine a beach in Spain you would like to visit but never have; the picture in your head might look suspiciously like that beach in Florida from last year. This feat explains why we are so successful as a species: Past events give us a crystal ball, which we can use to decide what to do and what to avoid doing.
As my colleague Ed Yong has written, modern neuroscience shows that memory is more about reconstruction than retrieval. Each time we conjure up the past, a part of the parietal lobe called the angular gyrus pieces together various bits of stored information to assemble a memory. This process is a biological marvel but prone to change with time, as researchers have shown in various ways over the past few decades. For example, shortly after the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle in 1986, two psychologists asked university students to recount in detail how they heard the news of the event. Thirty months later, they asked the same students the same question. In 93 percent of the cases, the accounts were inconsistent, despite the respondents remembering the details vividly and feeling confident in their memories. You might have experienced something similar if, say, you and your sister differ in your recollection of a particularly contentious Thanksgiving.
The reason our memories change is that we reconstruct the stories of past events in accordance with our current self-narratives. We look to days gone by to figure out who we are and why we are doing what we’re doing now. To make past information fit our current circumstances, friends, and enterprises, we often unconsciously edit our memories.
Our shifting memories aren’t necessarily inaccurate; rather, they are assembled from partial sets of details, and the exact details we remember change each time we dust a memory off. You and your sister might simply remember different aspects of that Thanksgiving dinner that reinforce your different current circumstances: She says the day was ruined by Aunt Marge (and currently isn’t on speaking terms with Aunt Marge); you (who love Marge today) say there was a minor disagreement at the table, but no harm was done.
The particular details we retrieve about past events generally correspond with our current emotional state. For example, researchers have observed that when you are feeling afraid, you tend to construct memories that focus on the sources of threats and remember the past as more full of specific things that hurt you than you otherwise would. In contrast, if you are happy today, your memories will probably be broader and more general. Neither set of memories is necessarily wrong—just reconstructed in different ways, based on current emotions.
The fact that your current conditions and feelings influence how you reconstruct memories gives you a lot of power to change your understanding of the past. And if you reconstruct the past more positively, it can help you make decisions about the future—to make useful alterations but avoid changing your present arbitrarily in the hopes of a better life. Here are three ways to move forward.
1. Keep a database of positive memories.
Mood and memory exist in a feedback loop: Bad memories lead to bad feelings, which lead you to reconstruct bad memories. However, if we purposely conjure up happier memories, we can interrupt this doom loop. Researchers have shown that asking people to think of happy things from their past can improve their mood. You can reap similar benefits in a systematic way by keeping a journal of happy memories, and reviewing it when you feel down.
2. Focus on gratitude.
Your journal should focus in particular on things in the past for which you are grateful—for example, kindnesses and love from others—so you don’t forget these things. A 2012 study of nearly 3,000 people published in the journal Cognition and Emotion found that when people agreed with the statements “I have so much in life to be thankful for” and “I am grateful for a wide variety of people,” they experienced positive emotions and fewer symptoms of depression. Look at these grateful memories regularly—every day or at least every week—to train yourself in gratitude.
3. Look for meaning and learning.
Every life contains authentic bad memories. I am not suggesting that you try to reconstruct a past that expunges them or makes them rosy. In some cases, that would be impossible—they are just too painful. Furthermore, some terrible memories can lead us to learning and progress or keep us from repeating mistakes.
Try methodically to see how such painful memories help you learn and grow. Scholars have shown that when people reflect on difficult experiences with the explicit goal of finding meaning and improving themselves, they tend to give better advice, make better decisions, and solve problems more effectively.
In your journal, reserve a section for painful experiences, writing them down right afterward. Leave two lines below each entry. After one month, return to the journal and write in the first blank line what you learned from that bad experience in the intervening period. After six months, fill in the second line with the positives that ultimately came from it. You will be amazed at how this exercise changes your perspective on your past.
After lamenting the unwelcome emotional baggage he brought along to Naples, Emerson wrote, “The intellect is vagabond.” What he meant, I think, is this: Try as we might to distract ourselves from ourselves through travel—and other big changes of lifestyle—it never works. Instead, he counsels, we should endow “every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation.” In other words, turn that past from an unwelcome guest to a valued teacher.
The next time you want to make a positive change in your life, don’t limit your imagination to a change of scenery or the people around you. Start with the backdrop of your life, the very thing that is probably making you restless in the first place. Maybe you want to escape the city where you spent the torturous months of coronavirus shutdowns—which perhaps made you isolated and lonely, or harmed your relationships—by moving. Before you get on Zillow, interrogate those painful memories; don’t let them roam around by themselves. Instead, think of the sweet moments you’ve had at home, the kindnesses you received during those uncertain early pandemic days, and the lessons you learned about yourself. Maybe in the end you will decide to leave for Naples. But whether you go or stay, your consciously managed past will make a fine travel companion.