“In 2018, we conducted a massive global study around happy memories at the Happiness Research Institute… ‘Please describe one of your happy memories,’ we asked… We received more than a thousand answers from all over the world [seventy-five countries]… However, despite the diversity in sources, I could relate to every happy memory. I understood why each moment was a happy memory for that person. We might be Danish, Korean or South African, but we are first and foremost human.”
—-Meik Wiking, The Art of Making Memories (2019)
Meik Wiking has a new book and it’s all about memories! Just released on the first of the month, here are three reasons why I decided to get my hands (and ears) on it as soon as possible:
- Wiking’s books are a stellar combination of pop culture tie-ins, research snapshots (that generally seem to flesh out the best of what the scientific method has to offer), personal stories and insights, earnest thoughts, and good humour. They give due credit to the notion that books matter for human health and happiness (as we shall soon read).
- His books are visually splendid—I love the art, I love the way the parts are broken up into approachable, digestible pieces, and I even love the font.
- Wiking narrates his own audiobooks and has one of the most soothing voices I’ve ever heard. The production quality of past books has been excellent, with small musical compositions that fit the mood of the books with tasteful ease. I have genuinely been brought to laughter now and then on the long commute to work, which has been both surprising and cheering.
If you are not as yet convinced that Wiking may be worth the read, I humbly offer this excerpt from his previous title, The Little Book of Lykke:
“Bibliotherapy, the art of using books to aid people in solving the issues they are facing, has been around for decades, and the belief in the healing power of books is said to go back as far as ancient Egypt and Greece, where signs above libraries would let readers know that they were entering a healing place for the soul.”
-Meik Wiking, The Little Book of Lykke (2017)
While I may be a sucker for a good quote about libraries, what Wiking says is true; books really can help, cheer, encourage, inspire, and improve. The Little Book of Hygge, for example, gave me a new appreciation for toasty socks (something I have rebelled against since toddlerhood); it taught me the best way to socialize as an introvert, to connect more often with family and friends, and to value (and even put into practice now and then) a few minutes of comfortable resting with hands wrapped around a hot drink.
And while nothing beats discovering a prominent Lord of the Rings movie-quote at the commencement of The Little Book of Lykke (a thousand points for that, Mr. Wiking), Wiking’s new book keeps up capitally with its predecessors. Here are a few key takeaways from The Art of Making Memories:
1. Throwbacks: “‘reliving positive memories and beloved icons from the past feels good'” (Forbes Magazine, quoted in The Art of Making Memories).
There is a reason why Stranger Things is such a joy-ride for anybody who lived through the eighties—not only is if fun to reminisce, but studies show that remembering the happiness of the past contributes to the happiness of the present.
2. The ‘doorway effect’: “In 2011, a team of psychologists at the University of Notre Dame in the US published the paper ‘Walking through Doorways Causes Forgetting’ (no spoiler warning in academia it seems…)”
Have you ever walked into a room and forgotten what you came for, only to suddenly remember what it was when you are back in the former location? The ‘doorway effect’, as it is called, happens because the brain regards passing through a doorway like the exposition of a new scene or event, leaving behind the temporary memories of the former scene/ event. In another study, it was shown that when people were asked to memorize a set of words conveyed to them underwater as opposed to on land (and vice versa) that they were much more able to recall those words when in the original environment, “Recall was approximately 50 percent better when the learning and recall context were the same” (such as being asked to remember underwater what was learned underwater, or to remember on land what was learned on land).
So what does this mean for happy memories?
Objects, places, sounds, and smells can trigger memories and take you back; Wiking suggests taking a tour of the important landmarks in your own biography. As for making future memories, too much sameness and the whirr of the daily grind can blur our memories. If we vacation to the same spot every year or wear the same cologne for a decade, it may be harder to use that location or that scent to bring back a specific time in our lives. Seeking out new experiences at any age is recommended for building more vivid memories.
3. Firsts: “Extraordinary days are memorable days.”
Studies show that we are far more likely to recall events that occurred between the time when we were fifteen and thirty years of age. Partly, this is because it was a time when a lot of firsts took place; these tend to be more significant to us and therefore, more memorable. Wiking encourages readers to “chase mangos”, referring to the delicious experience of first time he tasted a mango while abroad at the age of 16 (he remembers thinking ‘where have you been all my life?‘). Both familiarity and novelty are positive in their own way, but once again, cultivating a dash of newness at any age is one way to capitalize on our love of firsts and our propensity to remember them.
4. Language matters—“Your children may forget their own earliest happy memories. So even though it is their happy memory, maybe you can hold onto it for a while and give it back to them when they are old enough to carry it forward.”
What is your earliest memory? Chances are, it is not before 3 years of age. This is something I have sometimes wondered about. Why are these crucial first years of our personal biographies so foggy, improving gradually as the years go on? It was a huge thrill to get my answer in one of the later chapters; “…evidence suggests that our memory is linked to our language ability… our memories start staying with us at the time we begin to be able to tell stories about our life.” Stories matter in so many ways, and this is yet another to add to that cornucopia of reasons to love them. Remembering to tell the stories of our happiest memories at intervals (so that the brain intermittently repeats the work of reconstructing them) naturally strengthens our ability to recall these times more vividly.
5. “End on a high note”
We are more likely to remember an event positively if it ended on a high note (as Wiking would say, “thank you, big data, for that nugget of wisdom”). One study was conducted with trick-or-treaters on Hallowe’en night:
“All the kids were given different combinations of candy and asked to rate their happiness levels in relation to it. Seven different happiness levels were shown by using smiley-face symbols ranging from neutral to ‘open-mouthed-grin smiley face’. Some kids were given a full-size Hershey’s chocolate bar, some kids were given a piece of gum, some kids were given first a Hershey’s bar then a piece of gum, and some kids were given a Hershey’s bar then another Hershey’s bar. You would expect more candy to equal more happiness. But the children getting a chocolate bar then a piece of gum were less happy than the kids who received just a chocolate bar. And two chocolate bars did not bring more happiness than one chocolate bar.”
The same holds true for people of all ages (evidenced by a fine set of comparable and varied research examples); the duration and pleasantness or unpleasantness of an experience weigh less heavily than how it ended (this explains why I probably won’t feel like watching A Star Is Born ever again). To the greatest extent, the way that an experience ended (along with the peak moment) will inform the way we will remember that experience. Great takeaways include keeping the most glowing assessments for last in parent-teacher conferences, saving the best gifts for last at birthdays (something we may already intuitively do), and making unpleasant tasks more palatable by ending on a high note (taking your child out to play catch or making cookies together directly after the math tutor, or jumping in the pile after raking the leaves).
I hope you love The Art of Making Memories, and all of Wiking’s books, as much as I did. Have a safe and happy Hallowe’en to all the trick-or-treaters out there and remember (to those giving out the candy):
- chocolate > gum
- chocolate + gum < just chocolate
- chocolate = double the chocolate (at least with full-sized bars, according to the study)