Thinking Positively Can Affect How You Remember Something Even Before It Happens

If you have any social anxiety, chances are you look at any upcoming social events, from parties to reunions (or even the small interactions with your local supermarket checkout person) with a bit of trepidation and foreboding. But new research indicates that, at least when it comes to how we remember events, it can be important to be optimistic about how we think of them ahead of time. The reason? Our attitude towards future events can affect how our memories of them play out afterwards.

This seems odd; how can we affect the memory of an event before it’s even happened? But human cognition is a peculiar thing, and memories are one of the most complex aspects of brain functioning. In the new study, published in Psychological Science, scientists managed to show that looking for the good parts of an event before it happens colors how you remember it after the fact. Interestingly, however, the abstract for the study notes that negative thinking ahead of an event did not impact future memory — so the moral of the story is that this is all good news.

The experiments themselves involved 27 people who were asked to imagine a future event going well or going badly, and to describe it as such. After quarter of an hour, they were then told how the "event" had turned out, and whether it was good or not. Two days later, they were tested to see how they believed the imagined event had actually gone. The more positively they’d imagined it beforehand, the more positively they remembered it — even if all the information they’d been given indicated that it had really gone pretty badly.

"Adopting an optimistic outlook can actually transfer to a rosier reflection once those upcoming experiences become part of the personal past," the scientists explained in a press release. We already know that we can warp our memories to be more positive or negative; "rosy retrospection" is a recognized psychological phenomenon that describes the tendency to look at events from the past as more positive and happier than they really were. It’s the good-old-days situation common to everybody who’s ever spent time with an elderly relative droning about how things were better "in their day". But this research shows that making those memories rosy in the first place may rest on how we think of events before they actually happen.

We also know that memories themselves can make us more cheerful about the future. A study in 2013 found that feeling nostalgia about the past improves how optimistic people tend to feel about events still to come. Memory and optimism — or pessimism — seem to be tied together pretty tightly in the brain. And optimism is a good strategy for your body, too: it’s been linked to better heart health, lower stroke risk, and higher immune system function.

How can we turn this knowledge into better memories and experiences? Optimism training is a known phenomenon, and a study in 2015 found that a system called Best Possible Self is the most effective out there. It’s actually pretty easy to do online: it’s a six-week, ten-minute writing exercise that involves picturing the best possible future for yourself in every possible way, from mental health to your job and love life. And it’s not a one-off: repeating it if you feel like you’re losing optimism has been shown to help to keep positive. If you can use that sort of training to look at future events and think "I’ll crush this," it’s likely all your memories will be rosy as a spring bloom.

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