5 Ways to Keep Happy Memories From Fading Fast

This piece originally appeared on Shine's blog.

A few weekends back, I was at the beach with one of my lifelong best friends.

During lunch, her 3-year-old daughter broke into song, “We welcome you to Timber Tops, we’re mighty glad you’re here…” A huge smile spread across my face as she continued singing—it was the same song that welcomed her mom and me to summer camp decades ago.

It had been years since I last heard the song, but it immediately took me away from the beach and back to camp. I could smell the roasting marshmallows and hear the crackling pine needles. I could hear us belting out the songs from Rent and picture us having grilled cheese eating contests.

It was as if the stresses of everyday life melted away and I was a 13-year-old camper again in Bunk Juniper. That simple memory reinvigorated me—it was pure joy.

But it got me thinking: Why don’t I spend more time with my happy memories from camp? Why, if it brings me so much pleasure, don’t I appreciate my past more often? The truth: We aren’t really wired to naturally recall happy memories.

Happy Memories, Unfortunately, Fade Fast

A new study out of the USC Marshall School of Business shows that we tend to overestimate how often we’ll revisit a happy memory—and the daily distractions of life make us forget to remember. “Past experiences become less top-of-mind over time, and, as a result, people simply forget to remember,” Stephanie Tully, assistant professor of marketing at USC Marshall and a co-author of the study, told USC News.

When we’re distracted by what’s happening around us, there’s not a lot of space left for nostalgia.

There’s value in more regularly connecting with the good times. 

So, how important is it for us to revisit our memories? Dwelling on the past can take away from the present, so we don’t want to constantly live in our memories. But there’s value in more regularly connecting with the good moments—and the essence of those moments—that we thought we’d remember forever. Summiting a mountain, getting accepted into college, holding your baby for the first time—those moments. They’re the ones that are with you forever, but present with you rarely ever.

How to Savor the Past

According to the USC study, purchasing and keeping a physical souvenir from a trip made people more likely to talk and think about a past experience.

I believe that: When we have guests over and I pull out our cheeseboard from Israel, I relish the opportunity to talk about how we haggled in a Tel Aviv street market to buy the memento.

But say you’re off creating a memory without a gift store in sight—or you’re not looking to fill your home with tiny knick knacks. How can you hold tighter to your fleeting memories? Here, a few suggestions:

1. Live In the Moment

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We’re often so busy (or, busy Instagramming) that we forget to actually live them in the moment. The authors of the USC study say that we “forget Paris,” and perhaps it’s because we weren’t really “in” Paris. We’re so busy trying to capture the perfect picture or rushing from landmark to landmark that we miss the view from the top of the Eiffel Tower. We forget to notice the people, the smells, the sounds, and the wonders all around us—the things we can recall without having to turn to our phones.

A study out of Fairfield University in Connecticut showed that while taking photos can help us record events, it actually damages our memories. The researchers found that the more photographs a person took while visiting a museum, the less he or she remembered from the visit.

Researchers found that the more photographs a person took while visiting a museum, the less he or she remembered from the visit.

I was able to return to my Camp Timber Tops moment 25 years ago much more easily than something that happened on a recent vacation. The reason why: My Timber Tops days were long before Twitter or smartphones. We took some pictures, but we weren’t constantly seeing our world through Snapchat filters.

The next time you’re doing something you might deem memorable, create it for you and the people with you, in that exact moment. Not only might you enjoy it more, you are probably more likely to reap the lasting benefits for years to come.

2. Actively Practice Recalling the Good Times

We make conscious choices and intentionally schedule our lives when we want something. Why not create a conscious practice to revisit our memories? It might be an annual dinner with friends where you reminisce and share stories. Or a regular journaling practice.

I keep a Mom’s One Line A Day Journal to remember what my kids are doing. Each night, I record one anecdote from the day. Now almost two full years in, I get to see what was happening a year ago. Last night, I was writing how my daughter just learned how to say, “Go away Mommy!” When I read that the year before she had just learned how to say “Mommy,” it softened the blow.

3. Print a Photo

Remember the good ol’ days when we used to bring in rolls of film to CVS, pick up prints of our photos, and spend our weekends scrapbooking? Try returning to those roots and print a few pictures from a memorable hike or blow-out celebration. It’s a relatively inexpensive way to keep the memory alive and to create a reminder to revisit it regularly.

Yes, I realize this is slightly counterintuitive to my suggestion of being in the moment and not taking pictures—but a few pictures can serve as a great memory reminder.

After my flashback to Timber Tops, I pulled out my favorite framed camp picture: I’m walking down the dirt road with my two best friends, arms around each other, probably laughing about a silly outfit we wore to the last social with the boys camp. I’ve since put that photo on my desk, and each time I hit a roadblock I look over at it. It’s a little escape and also a way to center myself for the rest of the day.

4. Get Some Sleep

There’s ample research (like thisthis, and this) that shows how important sleep is for memory.

But to break it down in non-science terms: Remember the movie Inside Out, the Pixar film about a young girl named Riley and her crew of emotions? Every night when Riley goes to sleep, her “headquarters”—the home of her emotions—inputs the memories of the day (small marbles that are color-coded by emotion) into a vacuum, which sends them to a “realm” of long-term memories. It’s an important depiction of how we consolidate memories. During deep sleep (also called slow-wave sleep), our brains cement the most important memories for the long haul.

If exhaustion wasn’t enough of an excuse, now you have another reason to shut down Netflix and get to bed!

5. Try a ‘Peak Moments’ Exercise

A favorite exercise that I do with all of my clients is called “peak moments”. I ask the client to close their eyes and let a series of peak moments—moments when life was particularly rewarding or poignant—wash over her.

The client then picks one and dives deep into the moment: who was with her, what the air was like, and what was happening to her on an emotional level. Within minutes, we’re able to pull out what she valued most about the experience—as well as some of the values that guide her daily life.

And once she arrives to the memory, something shifts: Recognizing her core values at play in a past moment gives her a new sense of fulfillment. Nine out of 10 times I do this exercise, my clients exclaim, “Wow, I haven’t thought about that time in years.” But once we do this exercise, I know most client will come back to their “peak moments” more often.

Again: Be Sure to Balance the Past With the Present

Try some of these tips and see what you notice. Do you find more nostalgia in your life? Is it benefitting you?

Remember: Be sure to balance finding peace in the present with your trips back to the happy past. And be aware of the benefits your past can have on your future. Instead of racing into what’s next without a second thought to where you’ve been, find meaning in what you’re able to recall and let those values guide you in the present.

As we sang at Camp Timber Tops, “No day but today.”