The Unexpected Joy of Memories
Have you ever found an old shoe box and spent hours poring over old letters, ticket stubs, photographs, and memories of the good old days?
Around the world, people have recorded and shared memories for centuries, ranging from Hindu funeral customs to modern Instagram timelines. But are we doing this only to build a rear-view mirror for our future selves? Or does recording and revisiting memories offer any benefits in the present as well?
We conducted three studies using “memory jars”—virtual and physical glass jars filled with memories, moments, and experiences—to find out.
Writing And Reading Memories Makes Us Happy
We first investigated the benefits of recording and revisiting memories using notecards stored in physical glass jars.
Students looking back on college years
College is a special time for many people—moving away from home for the first time, making friends at spontaneous parties, stressing about internships, and discovering who you are.
In our first study, 120 college seniors each filled individual glass jars with their 7 favorite college memories. One month later, they either read their own memories, or the memories of another classmate from the study. We found that both writing and reading memories, regardless of whether they were their own memories or a classmate’s, made the students happier. This was true even when the students classified their own and others’ memories as sad—there was a happiness boost from reading and writing all kinds of memories, not just the happy or “good” memories.
Senior citizens looking back on life
A few weeks after our first study, one of us heard amazing memories from some senior citizens with Alzheimer’s. A man who reported having only 32 memories left—the faces of 32 people he’d killed when he fought for Nazi Germany in World War II. A woman who juggled three husbands in the 1940s, all at the same time. A 105-year-old woman who had been sold as a slave in Alabama. The list went on, and drew us in. We wondered if older individuals would benefit from revisiting memories, much like the college students did.
We replicated our college student study with 105 senior citizens living in 11 different nursing homes across New Jersey. The photo below shows some of them sitting around the table with their memory jars and slips of paper. We found that both writing and reading memories made them feel happier. And less lonely!
Something as simple as opening a memory jar—even if it was someone else’s—brought bursts of joy and feelings of social connection, at a time in life when loneliness may unfortunately be too common.
Digitally Recorded Memories Have Benefits Too
Given our increasingly digital world, where social media platforms with infinite feeds have replaced photo albums with finite pages, we wanted to investigate if the benefits of reading and writing memories remained when done digitally.
In our third study, we recruited 230 individuals online. They typed seven memories and put them in a “digital memory jar” on their cell phone, laptop, or tablet. One week later, they either read their own memories, or those of someone else in the study. As in our previous two studies, we found that people were happier, less lonely, and better off in psychological well-being after reading and writing memories – regardless of who the memories belonged to.
We Underappreciate The Power Of Memories
Memories seemed to make people feel happy, connected, and well-off. But can people predict how happy reading their memories could make them?
Previous research has shown that people do not accurately predict how they will feel about events like breakups and career difficulties. We found that people aren’t great at predicting how they will feel about revisiting memory jars either. College students, senior citizens, and a diverse sample of people online were all much happier to read their own—and others’—memories than they predicted they would be.
We wondered if this could be because people thought their memories were too “mundane” and humdrum to enjoy later? Maybe they assumed that only looking back on incredible memories—ike climbing Mount Everest or meeting Mother Teresa—would make them happy?
Indeed, this mistaken assumption explained people’s underestimation of how happy reading memories would make them—it’s not that people’s memories were more exciting than they realized, it’s that reading even unexciting memories made them happier than they expected. This could explain why people would rather not document everyday moments in the present, not realizing they would love to read those same everyday memories in the future.
Why Does This Matter?
Documenting and revisiting memories matters, because they are potentially a:
- Low-effort source of joy: Even spending five minutes writing and reading memories makes people feel happy, less lonely, and improves psychological well-being. This is particularly useful in current times of social isolation due to COVID-19.
- More thoughtful “social media”: Research shows that heavy social media use makes people unhappy and lonely. However, we found that creating and revisiting digital memory jars were good for happiness, loneliness, and well-being. Maybe these digital memory jars could be a way to avoid “memory spam” and could help people focus on the memories that matter, rather than keeping up with clickbait and heavily manicured profiles of strangers?
Our memories have always shaped our sense of identity, future thoughts, and actions. By documenting these memories intentionally, maybe we can gain feelings of joy and social connection in the present as well.
For Further Reading
Sekhsaria, S., & Pronin, E. (2021). Underappreciated benefits of reading own and others' memories. Social Cognition, 39(4), 504-525. doi: 10.1521/soco.2021.39.4.504
Zhang, T., Kim, T., Brooks, A., Gino, F., & Norton, M. (2014). A “present” for the future: The unexpected value of rediscovery. Psychological Science, 25(10), 1851-1860. doi: 10.1177/0956797614542274
Shriya Sekhsaria is a Princeton alumna and CEO of Lumhaa, which helps people save and share memories with their families and favorite groups. Most of her work is focused on making technology more thoughtful and accessible.
Emily Pronin is Associate Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University. Much of her work concerns how people perceive themselves and others, and how errors in those perceptions can give rise to misunderstandings and conflict.