February 9, 2016

The Power of Memories

Memories: something remembered from the past that recalls a moment, a place, a person, or a feeling. Memories, both good and bad. Memories, fleeting or recurring. Memories, powerful or almost like a whisper.

Just reading the word can trigger a memory or two. And, interestingly, studies show that for the majority of us, negative memories are more prevalent and more detailed than positive ones. Criticism has more power than praise, particularly if it is the last thing someone hears.

Culturally, these studies show that we tend to think people who say negative things are smarter. A movie critic who writes about a film or piece of music or art in glowing terms will not be as well received. Apparently our brain tells us that someone who isn't noticing the bad parts of something is not to be trusted. 

These findings do help explain a lot about how our world seems to function. Politics is all about pointing out how wrong someone else is about almost everything. The media rarely covers good news - it just doesn't attract the attention that bad news does. All of us have had the experience of slowing down to look at a car crash on the freeway, and thinking, "thank goodness that isn't me. What a bad driver." So, this is just the way the brain works: something negative will stick with us longer and be more powerful. 

OK, so I must be a little unusual or have a brain that is wired differently. Sure, I can remember some bad stuff while growing up. Yes, I had negative experiences during my working years, like being fired. I recall giving some very bad advice over the years to clients that lost me their business. There are some experiences in my marriage that don't give me a warm glow when I think about them (all my fault, by the way...no really!). 

But, I have to search for bad memories. As I told my mom and dad several years before they died, I have no negative memories of my childhood. I was never beaten, underfed, unloved, ignored, or uncared for. I was only nurtured, held, encouraged, supported, and loved. If there were unpleasant memories they were tough times we went through as a family, not just me. 

My memories are almost unfailingly positive. That doesn't mean my life has been a dream. As a human being I have had my share of disappointment, heartache, and loss. But, I almost never recall that stuff unless asked to. Even after my heart attack last summer  I look back on that episode as a time when so many wonderful people expressed feelings of love and support for me, the doctors and hospital staff were great, and I was given a chance to fix my body and my lifestyle. It was a good experience.

Apparently there is a name for this: positivity bias. To string together a few cliches, I don't wear rose-colored glasses and I am not a glass half full (or nearly full) kind of person. I can become as agitated or angry as the next guy. I know there is a lot of evil in the world and at the moment it seems to be winning. But, those feelings doesn't extend to my memories. 

Part of the reason I have continued to write Satisfying Retirement (now Satisfying Journey) for almost six years, is the forum it give me to encourage people, to talk about the possibilities that are in front of us, and to celebrate the wonders of a fulfilled life.

Now I know why: I have PB (positivity bias).


  1. Good morning Bob. Maybe that is one of the things that draw so many seniors to your blog, that and your always good advice. Not remembering the negative stuff, wow I can't image a life like that. One of my dark sides is that I seem to be constantly plagued with bouts of depression but that is not necessarily a bad thing. As the quote from Will Rogers that is in my blog header says "Nothing makes a man more broad minded like adversity". Remembering my negative stuff helps me to empathize with others going through hard times and that is proudly at the very nature of my being.

    Keep up the PB. It's nice to hear the positive stories among all the negative.

    1. One of my favorite books of the Bible, James, makes it quite clear that we will be tested and life is not going to be easy. Yet, those trials are the route to perseverance and ultimate joy. I believe that to be true and I have been tested (and continue to be) but the memories just seem to roll off my back. Weird, right?

  2. James is one of my favorite books too. It tells us how to live on this earth and that should be important to all of us.

    I wish I could get things to roll off my back but they just seem to cling there forever. :)

    More power to you my friend....

  3. As you state, Bob, the vast majority of people have a negativity bias. In addition to the examples you post, studies have shown in areas such as investments people remember the losses much more than the gains. In my own world, Deb prides herself on being Italian and remembering every slight against her (many/all of her relatives were very similar.) I, on the other hand, will try to forget things in the past, particularly the distant past, that have no more importance in my life. Perhaps that is why she deals with high BP and the like, while I have fortunately been immune to most maladies. Something for others to consider, since dwelling more on the positive might help to lengthen one's life.

    Timely post, my friend.

    1. Betty and Deb could commiserate very easily. My wife does remember all the problems of the past and also projects problems into the future. Maybe my role in life is to help her counter-balance all that negative energy!

  4. Without PB I'm not sure I would have survived this long. I haven't forgotten the past, which is coming in book form soon, but it hasn't turned me into a negative person. I've always been grateful for that. And when I find negative types in my life I ease away from them. No one needs unnecessary negativity in their lives. It's all around us daily, so that would be piling on.

    1. Negative people can suck the happiness out of any situation. Spending time with them is not a smart use of one's time. BTW, looking forward to your book, Barb.

  5. I have also been told (more than once) that I seem to have 'positivity bias' (also referred to as the Pollyanna principle--the tendency to remember pleasant items more frequently/accurately than unpleasant ones). I am not sure if this 'bias" is rooted in heredity, upbringing, or if it is simply a conscious/unconscious choice. Either way, I'm totally with Barbara on this - no one needs unnecessary negativity. Thanks for another great post, Bob. I enjoyed it immensely.

    1. Thank you for very "positive" comment! Not everyone in my immediate family exhibited PB, though my dad certainly did. In a life filled with lots of trials and disappointments he keep a very even keel and sunny disposition. Up until the day he died, his response to how he was doing or what kind of week he had experienced would always be, "fantastic!"


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