“The more tranquil a [person] becomes, the greater is [one’s] success, [one’s] influence, [and one’s] power for good,” observed the British essayist James Allen. “Calmness of mind is one of the jewels of wisdom.” Though written more than a century ago, these words remain highly relevant. As a business manager turned philosopher, Allen was sensitive to the importance of equanimity in daily life, and observed that, “People will always prefer to deal with [one] whose demeanor is strongly equable.” Though social scientists long showed little interest in our ability to maintain a positive mood, this situation is swiftly changing. For it’s now clear that self-regulation—as it’s known technically—has important personal consequences.
Evidence from both clinical and experimental studies has linked poor self-regulation to a variety of mental health difficulties—including chronic anxiety, depression, and addictions. Our daily physical wellbeing including sleep quality is also harmed by this deficit. Research shows that self-regulation comprises two different—but perhaps equally vital—skills essential for everyday flourishing: reducing negative feelings such as anger, sadness, and worry, and amplifying happiness. This column focuses on the second aspect of self-regulation, namely, our capacity to create, sustain, and magnify a happy mood. Because psychologists know a lot more about deficient self-regulation than its optimal functioning, I’ve recently initiated an international study with colleagues in India and elsewhere, to better understand how people use cheerful memories to uplift their daily moods.
Getting into the groove
How people create a good mood for themselves is a relatively new specialty of psychology. Most of the research is less than 20 years old—and strikingly little is known about how we develop this ability. For example, there’s almost no research on children’s capacity to bolster their moods, possibly because most developmentalists believe that children’s moods depend mainly on short-term situational factors. We know that based on early experiences usually involving parents, children eventually develop strategies for dealing with their own emotions. Children with close, loving attachments are likely to seek out experiences that generate pleasant feelings, whereas those lacking such attachments are more emotionally passive or even avoidant.
The presence of a warm, stable family life generally keeps most children in a pleasant mood. For example, Dr Reed Larson at the University of Illinois at Urbana found that pre-adolescents reported feeling 'very happy' most of the time. They usually reported feeling unhappy only when an immediate, short-term event undercut their emotional state—such as losing a game or being disciplined by parents.
Adolescence, of course, is very different. Research has consistently shown that the teenage years are associated with escalating rates of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-injury, delinquency, and suicide. Young adolescents report feeling extremely happy far less often than fifth graders do—and feeling unhappy far more often, especially in a free-floating, mildly negative way—identified technically as dysphoria. Probably almost everyone can remember such moods from their teenage years—often a mixture of vague uneasiness, resentment, and irritability. For decades, best-selling books and countless magazine articles attributed such moods to adolescent envy of adult freedom. But more recently, developmental psychologists regard adolescent dysphoria as encompassing a significant longing for childhood’s comforting security and simplicity.
Adolescent mood management, or mood repair as labeled by researchers, has generated empirical study. They’ve consistently found that listening to music is a primary strategy that teens use. In Larson’s view, listening to popular music “allows adolescents to internalize strong emotional images around which a temporary sense of self can cohere.” Certainly, there is scientific validation for the view that music enables teens to bolster their moods. In Finland, Drs Suvi Saarikallio and Jaakko Erkkila found that music provided a means for adolescent emotional discharge and revival, as well as solace for inner hurts and creating strong sensory sensations.
Although adults listen to music to uplift moods, they also commonly use a second major strategy in self-regulation: accessing happy memories. Experimental studies have shown that recalling a positive event from one’s life is a definite mood enhancer—especially if done through concrete imagery rather than verbal description. In other words, if a summer trip with your spouse provides a wonderful memory, picture the scene as vividly as possible—but don’t replay it using words or contrast it verbally with gloomier memories. A caveat is also in order—such studies reveal that the act of remembering an upbeat life event doesn’t help people with clinical depression—only those who have recovered or never experienced it.
A new international study
Though experimental studies can be informative, they’re hard to generalize to everyday life. For precisely this reason, my research team has sought information on how people actually use happy memories to improve their moods. Among the researchers is Dr Garima Srivastava of India, affiliated with the White Swan Foundation, who helped develop the questionnaire and collect data. Our sample comprised of 110 adults with good overall mental health residing in Asia, Europe, and the Americas. They reported relatively high life satisfaction and the ability to cope well with stress.
What have we found? First, that nearly everybody engaged in this form of mood regulation. A sizable minority (23.6%) described doing so at least daily—and a definite majority (53.6%) at least weekly. Only four participants reported having never done so; this tiny group comprised men and women equally. Second, a wide spectrum existed on what spurred people to evoke a happy memory. The most frequent catalysts were daydreaming (33.6%), desiring to magnify a happy mood (26.3%), and wanting to alleviate sad feelings (19.1%). Less frequent motivations were to uplift an anxious mood (9.1%) or relieve boredom (6.4%), and the least frequent inducer (5.4%) occurred when their mind simply “was a blank.”
In what setting does this behavior occur? A bare majority (50.9%) reported usually evoking a happy memory when physically alone—such as in a car or a room—while relatively equal groupings reported doing so while actively socializing (26.3%) or while they were socially but not physically alone—such as riding on a bus or shopping (22.7%).
What types of happy events do people choose to recall? Here, our findings were similarly quite varied. Participants reported most frequently (37.3%) that the event usually happened between a month and a year ago, and nearly equal groupings indicated that it happened in the past week (22.7%), past month (20.0%), or over a year ago (20.0%). To describe a memory’s content, participants were presented with a choice of 10 categories. In rank order, the most frequently reported were a social activity, such as involving friends (20.0%), a personal achievement or a family activity (both at 17.3%), travel or a vacation (16.4%), a romantic activity (15.5%), and a song or a musical piece (7.3%). Three categories were minimally reported—a sports match (2.7%), a movie or TV show (1.8%), and a religious activity (0.9%). Nobody reported a happy memory involving an internet website (sorry, Facebook!), and one participant didn’t specify.
Confirming previous research, we found that accessing a cheerful memory is an excellent way to enhance one’s mood. When asked how much it usually did so, a paltry 3.6% reported “very little” and only 12.7% reported “a small amount.” In contrast, nearly half (49%) reported that it did so “a moderate amount” and 25.5% reported “a very large amount.” Our question concerning stress reduction yielded more divergent results. A full 40.0% of participants reported that evoking a happy memory reduced stress by “a moderate amount,” followed in frequency by the comparable figures of “a small amount” (25.4%) and “a large amount” (22.7%). It’s also interesting to note that while 7.2% said that accessing a cheerful memory usually reduced stress “a very large amount,” only 4.5% reported that it did so “very little.” This diversity of answers may reflect that stress can be either temporary or long-term and that our survey didn’t distinguish between these types. Among our sample in India, most participants were college-educated Hindu women. Nearly all reported accessing a cheerful memory at least occasionally—and were most likely to do so while socializing with others rather than when alone.
How can you benefit from this research? First, answer these two questions: “What activities or events usually put you into a good mood?” and “What kinds of experiences start sending you into a bad mood?” Be as specific as possible in your answers. Then describe three happy memories of the past year and note when and where they occurred. The goal is to identify the circumstances in which you’re most likely to self-regulate positively in this way.
Second, learn to diversify the types of memories that you usually access. Most participants in India typically recalled a family event or personal achievement in order to generate a happier mood. It’s fine if you do so too. But I’m convinced that we all can learn to expand our preferences for the memories we choose to uplift our mood. In this regard, it might be worthwhile to view the 10-category list—and over a series of days, see if you can recall a personal example of each one. By learning to broaden your scope of cheerful memories, you may develop greater appreciation and gratitude—traits that positive psychology consistently links to emotional wellbeing and life satisfaction.