Being Happy: Memories and Goals

In a recent radio interview I was asked about the process by which we recall happy moments in our lives whilst less happy times tend to fade. Of course, it’s not the same for all everyone. Some people are adept at recalling past events as reasons for not engaging with the present or the future. I’m not referring here to recalling serious trauma but more the refusal to move on in the coaching context.

Working with mature students there have been numerous examples of people who have held on to the callous remarks of (poor) teachers. It took some of them 30 years to go back into the classroom. It wasn’t that they had suddenly found the confidence to do so, it’s just that the ‘pain’ and regret of not doing so became greater. As well as teach the syllabus it was also my job to convince them that it was the right decision. These students are the main reason I got into (life) coaching.

Social Media and Memories

A recent research study at Portsmouth University by Alice Good and Claire Wilson suggests that we use social media like Facebook, not just to interact with others but also to interact with our former selves. Some people spend a great deal of time looking through the old photographs the post on networking sights. The process of looking back can create have an emotional buffering effect especially during tough times. It can create a sense of well-being and optimism to help us to deal with present challenges and to face the future.

Constructed Memories

The human memory is not an infallible storage device. Cognitive psychologist  Frederic Bartlett demonstrated in the 1930s that memories are highly constructed. When things don’t make sense or when there is missing information, we fill in the gaps based on memory default values based on our experiences of likelihood, Often our memories bear little relation to what actually happened, which is why the accuracy and reliability of eye-witness testimony (in the justice system) has been challenged by psychology, most notably by cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus. In cognitive-behavioural therapy questioning techniques centre on cognitive distortions, most often on black-and-while, absolutist thinking. Similarly by exploring exceptions to negative evaluations, in the solution-focused approach, we can reveal small nuggets of possibility to build upon. In classic psychoanalysis we have he concept of defence mechanisms, where sometimes memories of painful experiences are blocked at an unconscious level in order to protect us emotionally and psychologically. Often memories seem to have a life of their own.

Being Happy

Happiness is no longer just in the realm of pop psychology, it has become a legitimate topic in academic psychology led by pioneering Positive psychologist Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. For Seligman, happiness is about living our lives according to our values and strengths. For Csikszentmihalyi happiness is about setting goals that stretch us and put us into a state of flow. ‘Flow’ is that state of total engagement in what we are doing, when we are totally ‘in the present moment’ and lose a sense of time and of ourselves. We can actively do something about our own happiness. Along with confidence-building it is one of the main motivations for seeking (life) coaching.

The Past-Present-Future Balance

As with all aspects of life, balance is key. It’s good to reminisce and look back and be reminded of the good times. The best times in our lives are often when we most in tune with our strengths and values. For some people the past has a powerful lure, so much so that it taints the present and the future. Philosopher Walter Benjamin said that ‘History is an angel blown backward through time’.  It means that, essentially, we walk backwards into the future. We cannot help but look back but still need to move forward. It’s important to value the past for its lessons, for uncovering our strengths and for providing us happy memories to see us through challenging times. Perhaps it’s greatest value is to help propel us into the future. There lie new opportunities to live according to our values, to use our skills and strengths and more opportunities to experience a sense of flow, those moments where time appears to stand still. Over the past few years there has been an explosion of interest in mindfulness – the ability to live in the present moment for what it is without letting it get crowded out by the past or the future. It’s all a delicate balance that becomes a whole lot easier when we take a few moments out of our day to settle our minds and take a few, long, slow deep breaths. Taking control of our stress/relaxation is the first step to confidence and happiness.

(In conversation with Annie Othen, BBC Coventry and Warwickshire, 21/3/13 )

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