Over Time, Memories May Grow More Positive
By Charnicia Huggins
NEW YORK — When recalling memories of negative or positive events that helped to shape our identity, such as a break-up or marriage, we tend to downplay the fear, anger or other negative emotions experienced at the time and remember more of the positive emotions, new study findings indicate.
"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," write study authors Drs. Michael Conway and Wendy-Jo Wood, both of Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec.
The findings may also have implications for an individual’s mental health.
"Mental health is maintained or improved by people’s attempts to make sense of their life experiences," Conway told Reuters Health.
"People try to see the positive in even very difficult life experiences, and come to downplay, as much as they can, how negative some events were in the past," he explained.
For their research, Conway and Wood investigated people’s emotional memories for self-defining events, which they described as emotionally complex events that contribute to a person’s sense of identity or overall life story.
In one study, 279 university students were asked to think about an important past event that helped define themselves. They were then asked to describe the event in various terms, including the extent to which it had a big impact on them and how much it helped them learn about themselves and about life.
Based on the students’ responses, Conway and Wood conclude that a person’s perception of the impact of an event is a good marker for meaning making, that is the process that results in an individual integrating an event with his or her positive sense of identity.
In a second study, 79 university students were asked to report and describe, on paper, five self-defining memories and to rate those events on a five-point scale in terms of its impact. They also completed two questionnaires about the 10 emotions they felt when the event occurred and how they currently felt about the event, respectively.
Conway and Wood found that when the study participants reflected on negative events, such as conflict with bosses or teachers, death, or physical or sexual assault, they reported that they currently felt less negative emotions, like anger and disgust, and more happiness and pride than they had felt at the time of the event.
Further, when the students reflected on positive events, like a dating relationship or marriage, recreation, or attaining a personal goal, they reported feeling just as happy as they had felt at the time of the event, as well as similarly intense feelings of love and pride. Again, however, they also reported feeling less anger, embarrassment, guilt and other negative emotions than they had initially felt, the report indicates.
"What was striking is that the findings held up for a wide range of emotions," Conway told Reuters Health, adding that "when making sense of their past experiences, people would downplay all the negative types of feelings they had, such as fear and anger."
With regard to a negative event like the death of a grandmother, for example, "the sad event is still mostly sad," Conway said, "but the positive emotions have come out more."
People are "seeing the silver lining, so to speak" and may feel happy afterwards as they realize that the grandmother’s suffering is over, he said.
Describing how the practice is common among men and women in a variety of life situations, Conway told Reuters Health that "everyone can experience strong emotional reactions in extreme situations, and everyone needs to come to terms with such events in order to maintain a positive sense of self, and a positive sense of the world at large."
SOURCE: Journal of Personality, June 2006.