The Health Benefits of Happy Memories

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Summer is the time for making memories. A quick scan of Instagram and Facebook reveals the photo highlights from friends’ and family’s summers: seaside smiles, mountain climbing, posing pets, berry pies and barbecues, lazy afternoons, campfires and sunsets.

On a recent staycation, our family scheduled an event each day to get us out of the house and share a fun experience, even if it was simple. We planned an outing at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, an afternoon at our local farmer’s market, a trip to a nearby ice creamery, water skiing on a friends’ lake, a rainy afternoon at the movies, and a day at our favorite New England beach.

Looking back at the photos reminds us of the good times we shared, but it’s also important to remember that happiness isn’t limited to vacations and special times.

Memories are an inevitable aspect of life and the positive ones indicate not just the ability to do or see amazing things, but to make these moments lasting by how we think about them at the time and in the future. Looking back requires gratitude to see those moments in their best light, especially as they begin to fade into the background, or if they become tarnished by the passage of time, grief, or changed relationships.

Gratitude is a springboard to action and to higher motives for living. It’s essential because it causes us to focus on the good, storing our memories on a shelf of prayer, lit up by joy and true contentment. “What is gratitude but a powerful camera obscura, a thing focusing light where love, memory, and all within the human heart is present to manifest light,” wrote New England healer and founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy.

The darkness of depression can often interfere with a person’s natural inclination to recall happy memories and one scientist is trying to come up with an artificial solution. Susumu Tonegawa, a Nobel-winning molecular biologist at MIT, recently completed research with experiments to see whether artificially triggering happy memories in the brain could help with treatment of depression.

According to Tonegawa, “When we make a happy memory, engram cells undergo physical and chemical changes to encode it. We can retrieve it when those cells are triggered.” He performed experiments on mice to test his conclusions and although he admits his research isn’t conclusive, he’s optimistic that someday a happy-memory-triggering device could be an effective tool to treat depression. (“Triggering Happy Memories, Scientifically”, Boston Globe)

Still, isn’t there something we each can do to maintain our happiness that defies artificial tinkering?

My spiritual practice has taught me that happiness can’t be found in a human brain, but rather that joy has its source in God, the divine light that dispels darkness. It can be easy to focus on memories with a far-off fondness, but that would tend to prevent us from making moments count in the present, or from expecting that happiness is always available.

It was this divine light and a daily practice of turning to God for answers that helped someone I know after he lost a BOX formatclose relative. As he reviewed his many special memories with her, including photos, videos, letters and journals, his prayers helped him to focus on the vibrant life they represented, so they wouldn’t be tainted by the sadness of her absence. Then he got the idea to make a handmade redwood box as a place to store those precious mementos. It took hours to complete, but each time he worked on it he artfully crafted his love into the memory box and felt the joy of these experiences still very much with him, which had a healing effect.

His prayer for present life and love is echoed by the following Psalm: “Day by day the Lord also pours out his steadfast love upon me, and through the night I sing his songs and pray to God who gives me life.” Psalm 42

Thought focused on present good and recognizing that happy times aren’t at the whim of circumstances can pierce through the darkness of sadness or regret. Fond memories don’t have to just be a thing of the past, but a reminder of joy throughout our days.

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