The Good Times Define Us, Not the Bad

Life has its ups and downs, but a huge body of research shows that, for most of us, the ups define who we are, not the downs.

We are a pretty happy species -- despite adversity and those occasional heartbreaks -- and when we look back at the emotional events that have shaped our views of ourselves, we tend to dwell upon the good ones, not the bad.

A new study from Concordia University in Montreal reveals that we really do look back on our own lives through rose-colored glasses. The study, published in the current issue of the Journal of Personality, found that people reshape their memories of past events as the years go by.

The study was part of a doctoral dissertation by Wendy-Jo Wood, now a clinical psychologist at Nova Scotia Hospital in Halifax. It included more than 300 college students who were asked to recall several past events and describe how they felt then and how they feel now.

The participants consistently de-emphasized the negative and emphasized the positive. In retrospect, even heartbreaking events, like the death of a friend or a physical assault, were viewed more negatively in the past than today.

Even a personal tragedy can eventually become a beneficial experience, because we take pride in the fact that we managed to get through it and go on with our lives. Or at least that's what our memory tells us in its ongoing effort to use the stream of past events, good as well as bad, to tell us who we are.

Psychologists call that autobiographical memory. It's all those things that happen to us personally in our journey through life. They are also called self-defining memories.

There has been a lot of effort in recent years to understand the way we look back on our own lives. Psychologist Richard Walker of Winston-Salem State University and a team of researchers culled through numerous studies from around the world to see what they tell us about how we view ourselves and our past.

They found that our memory has a "positive bias." We remember far more pleasant than unpleasant events.

Why should that be the case? Walker came up with one plausible explanation. Most of us simply experience more positive than negative events. The researchers found that even people who have physical or mental disabilities are generally happy with their lives. Life is good.

But the researchers also found that even a mild dose of depression can wipe out that positive bias, taking away our rose-colored glasses.

Walker's team reported that seven of the studies that they surveyed revealed a "fading effect" for negative emotions. Positive emotions and positive memories have more staying power.

"This implies that there is a tendency to 'deaden' the emotional impact of negative events relative to the impact of positive events," Walker says. "Such deadening occurs directly because people are motivated to view their life events in a relatively positive light."

That doesn't mean we don't remember the bad things that happen to us. We just don't remember them as well as the good things.

In her research in Canada, Wood found support for a widely held view that we reinterpret our past to put things in a better light.

"Finding benefit or learning a lesson from a past negative experience would presumably lead people to feel more positive emotion (e.g. pride) about the event now compared to how they recall feeling at the time," she writes.

"People construct life narratives in order to maintain an ongoing sense of unified and purposeful identity," she adds. "These life narratives are punctuated by particular life events that were assigned high levels of subjective impact and meaning.

"Despite the fact that a very wide range of events and experiences was reported by participants [in her study] as being self-defining, a systematic pattern of benefaction was found for the emotions associated with these self-defining memories."

Those rose-colored glasses are back.

"These findings suggest that healthy individuals work to build a positive narrative identity that will yield an overall optimistic tone to the most important recalled events from their lives," she concludes.

That doesn't work for everyone, of course. Walker's team found that good and bad memories fade evenly for people who are depressed.

But the human memory system seems to be designed to put bad things aside, at least in the absence of depression, and dwell on the good.

And that, Walker concludes, "allows people to cope with tragedies, celebrate joyful moments and look forward to tomorrow."