In Entertainment, Family Support

A happiness researcher can help you make more meaningful memories.

by Anna Lee Beyer
Anna Lee Beyer writes about mental health, relationships, parenting, and books

In 2011, on a flight to Portland, Ore., I saw physicist Michio Kaku doing long hand calculations with a pencil and notepad. I was like, “Damn, I just occupied the same space as Michio Kaku doing physics.” Later that evening, our paths crossed again at the world-famous Powell’s Books where Kaku was signing his latest. Why was the day so memorable to me (but probably not to Michio Kaku)? It was my first time in Portland, my first time at Powell’s, my first time seeing a famous physicist. Also, things become more memorable through repetition, and I’ve probably told that story 100 times.

According to Meik Wiking, founder of The Happiness Institute and author of The Art of Making Memories: How to Create and Remember Happy Moments, there are eight factors that can help help solidify memories: the power of firsts, using your senses, engaging your attention, creating meaning, adding emotions, experiencing highs and lows, sharing stories, and outsourcing your memories. Below you’ll find ideas for how to apply each concept to building memories with your loved ones.

Harness the power of firsts

Novel experiences are extra “sticky” in our memory filing cabinets. For example, which do you remember better, your first kiss or your tenth kiss? Try these tips for seeding your memories with more “firsts.”

  • Wiking recommends visiting a new place every year. You could try to check off a different country every year, or stay close to home. Draw a radius of 100 miles around your home. There are bound to be parks, restaurants, small towns, local monuments, or secluded backroads you’ve never seen before. Even if you have been there before, has your partner or your child been there? Take advantage of their first time to build a new memory together.
  • Take a class together. Choose something neither of you have tried before so you share the memory of learning together. Try a single kickboxing class or enroll in a whole semester of flower arranging; it’s up to you. Virtual classes count too.

Make it multi-sensory

If we learned one thing from Marcel Proust, it’s that a cookie dipped in tea can be a powerful memory trigger. You may be most aware of what you see when taking in something memorable, but don’t forget the tastes, smells, sensations, and sounds you pick up.

  • Sometimes food is an afterthought, but for ideal memory formation, food is an excellent tool for a sensory-rich experience. Whether you are at the splash pad with kids on a summer morning or walking the narrow streets of Rome, look for opportunities to slow down and let food make the memories for you. Try a new agua fresca flavor or a bite of gelato. On any regular day, have your kids pick a range of new foods and head to the park for a tasting picnic.
  • Start a sensory round robin. Ask your family members to pause and chime in on what they are seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting, and feeling. Getting everyone’s senses engaged in the moment will help you cement memories together. Record these reflections in your notes app or a voice memo to refer to later.

Pay attention

This is what the ubiquitous advice to “practice mindfulness” boils down to: You won’t notice stuff if you aren’t aware, and you can’t remember stuff if you aren’t paying attention. Try these tips to pay more attention and make stronger memories.

  • Have a digital fast. Try this for an hour, an afternoon or a whole day: Put phones and devices away and engage with each other and what’s around you fully. If not using your phone is not a big enough challenge for you, pretend the power is out and play games by candlelight.
  • Make note of your “glimmers”—micro moments of joy, safety, peace, or contentment. Among your friends and family, normalize acknowledging when a song gives you shivers or spotting a hummingbird fills you with delight.

Make meaning

Meaning makes moments more memorable, Wiking writes. To turn an ordinary day into a memory, connect it to something personal and significant in your life.

  • Celebrate more. Birthdays and anniversaries are memorable because we make them meaningful. Why not stretch “meaning” to fill more days of your life? Celebrate half-birthdays, Fridays, and full moons with your own rituals, a toast, or cupcakes.
  • Take advantage of obscure holidays to start new traditions. Who cares if they are mostly made-up marketing tactics? May 4 is Herb Day, and coincidentally, a perfect time to refresh your witchy little window garden every year. With hundreds of options, you can find a few “holidays” to turn into an annual family tradition based on what’s important to you.

Let your emotions be a highlighter

Big feelings are associated with more vivid memories. What makes you feel excited, terrified, head-over-heels, or triumphant?

  • Do something scary. You don’t even have to be a thrill seeker who skydives or free climbs. Aim for roller coasters, ghost tours, or karaoke.
  • Want to get your heart rate up without the actual danger? Try virtual reality. If you can’t be in the same place as your loved ones, or you can’t get away for exotic adventures, replicate the thrills with VR travel and games. Even a chill virtual hangout can be a different way to bond with someone you care about.

Capture peaks and valleys

Sure, it’s cool when everything goes off seamlessly. But in reality, most of life’s experiences include a little yuck along with the yum. Make better memories by appreciating both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

  • Take the longer, harder route. You may, like me, choose to road trip from Texas to Massachusetts instead of flying because you are trying to build childhood memories. We remember both the disappointment of a closed hotel pool and the thrill of an unexpected room upgrade. We struggled in the hot Arkansa sun mining for diamonds, and were delighted to settle for shiny stones purchased in the gift shop. The highs and the lows come together for great memories.
  • Go for a big goal, noting all the challenges and wins along the way. When you decide to train for a half marathon or remodel your home, there are going to be many challenging moments before the big win at the end. Make the whole experience memorable by paying attention to when things get hard and the relief of getting through each rough spot.

Share stories

Just like my flying physicist story, your memories grow stronger when you and your loved ones trade stories. Stitch your retellings together into a new, better story with more details than you could have recalled on your own.

  • Start a collection that turns your memories into tangible story-starters. I think stickers fit the bill perfectly. They don’t take up much space and automatically take you back to the place and time where you bought them. Bonus points if you use your stickers to decorate a memory-keeping journal with details from each experience.
  • On the anniversary of an event or trip, print out pics and challenge your kids to turn them into a story book or poster with memories from that day. Wiking suggests the end of the year is a good time to pick your Happy 100 photos that tell the story of your whole year. Make it an annual tradition to have your Happy 100 printed in a memory book and to look back on memory books from prior years.

Outsource memories

Finally, don’t depend on your own neurons for all the memory storage. Think of all the ways you can capture memories outside of your own brain—the aforementioned memory book, a journal, or a collection of souvenirs all serve as memory repositories. Here are a couple more options:

  • Set up a private social media account just for memory keeping. You get your life’s story with memories and photos in one neat digital package without having to worry about anyone judging or stalking you.
  • Make a new family playlist for every season or trip. Listen to the same songs for a whole week at the beach, and years later those songs will still remind you of sea breezes and sandy feet.
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