Train Your Brain to Remember the Good Stuff

The more vividly you can capture happy moments, the easier it will be to revisit them in harder times

Black man smiling over a cup of tea.
Black man smiling over a cup of tea.
Photo: Granger Wootz/Getty Images

After a long string of bad days, Tuesday night was an unexpected bright spot. My husband and I followed our sons on their scooters for a post-dinner romp at the neighborhood playground, which we had all to ourselves. The sky was cotton-candy pink, the temperature was just right, and best of all, the boys had traded their usual bickering for belly laughs.

Chasing my three-year-old around the park, I felt free, childlike, and connected — almost like the world wasn’t crumbling all around me. It was something I hadn’t felt in months.

It was also fleeting. By the next morning, the buzz of that evening had already worn off, and I once again found myself consumed by stress as I slogged through the day. If only I could teleport back to that breezy, balmy night at the park.

Life seems to grow more overwhelming and unpredictable every day, and during the pandemic, positive emotional experiences are hard to come by. But we can nourish ourselves by revisiting the ones we’ve already lived through. Remembering that life once felt good can create a sense of hope, and reexperiencing that feeling firsthand can offer respite from the stress of the present.

It takes a bit of work, though, to capture a moment thoroughly and vividly enough for that kind of emotional time-traveling. Natalie Dattilo, a psychologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, says we’re more likely to remember things that are highly charged. Often, that means your brain remembers scary or traumatic experiences over happy ones — your psyche’s way of protecting you from future dangers. But Dattillo says it’s possible, and important, to also encode happy memories in your brain with similar intensity.

“It’s probably just as critical that we’re able to recall happy events, even if they’re momentary and fleeting,” she says. “By reexperiencing those positive feelings, we can stay optimistic and look forward to feeling good again in the future.”

Since the brain tends to replay more emotionally charged experiences, the key to hanging on to positive ones is to “charge” the memory when you’re in it. Here’s how to create a lasting emotional memory you can escape to on your hard days.

Tweak your mental filing system

To revisit an emotional memory, you’ll need to dig it back up from your mental filing cabinet. So make sure you file it in an accessible place. Dattilo says naming a feeling can help solidify the experience, and help you with more specific recall later on. So instead of telling yourself “This was a good day,” try something more specific, like “I felt peaceful today” or “This experience brought me joy.”

“Labeling a feeling adds a layer to the experience because you’re engaging other parts of the brain,” she says. “So you’re not just feeling something with the emotion center of your brain, you’re engaging the part of the brain that contains information.”

Attach a sensory detail

According to Dattilo, your senses are powerful triggers of episodic memory — that’s why the smell of fresh-baked cookies reminds you of your grandma’s house, or why your favorite song instantly transports you back to high school.

If you’re in a moment you know you want to return to later, notice as many sensory cues as you can: the color of the grass, the way the sun feels on your arms, the slightly tinny sound of your best friend’s voice filtered through Zoom. Linking a physical element to a positive experience can make the memory more durable, and provide you with a tangible way to return to the memory later on.

“Connecting your emotional experience to your senses will allow you to bring the memory back in the future,” says Baltimore-based therapist Raffi Bilek. “You’ll pull up the sensory details and be able to echo that same positive state you were in at the time.”

Take a “souvenir” with you

Sometimes, you need a more tangible trigger to transport you. Dattilo suggests snapping a picture on your phone to look at later on — making it a habit to capture seemingly mundane, but pleasurable, experiences along with the more momentous ones. You could also grab a small token to symbolize your happy experience. This could be as mundane as a flower from your favorite hike, or a napkin emblazoned with the logo of your neighborhood coffee shop.

“Try to keep a memory box of simple souvenirs that can remind you of happy experiences, and come back to it often,” says Patricia Celan, a psychiatry resident at Dalhousie University in Canada. “The more you reread a happier chapter of your life, the more likely you are to remember it.”

Cut out the distractions

To remember the moment, you have to appreciate it. Aim to be “all in” when you’re really enjoying something. “Just the act of being more engaged with what’s happening — paying close attention to what’s happening right now — enhances the experience and makes it more memorable,” says Dattilo.

So put down your phone, close any tabs that might be causing anxiety, and pay attention to what’s in front of you — and more importantly, how it makes you feel. The more physically and mentally “there” you are, the more likely you’ll be able to recall the moment later, when you really need it.

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.

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