How to Harness the Soothing Power of Memories

Recalling past happiness can help us weather present difficulties

In our never-ending quest for happiness, we often overlook the fact that it can never be a permanent state.

And that knowing how to identify it is contingent on being intimately familiar with its polar opposite, sadness.

The black dog of depression chewed up five years of my life. And yet, there were infrequent and isolated manifestations of bright, sparkling joy in the middle of darkness.

I remember every single one of them vividly.

Watching the sunset at the back of a ferry in the middle of the Strait of Juan de Fuca on my way back to Seattle from Victoria, BC; eating the most delicious cup of coconut pudding made in a little hut in downtown Vancouver; petting a tabby cat in a bookstore in Kitsilano…

Canada, it seems, is a joy-inducing destination for me, a gentle contrast to my harsh American life, a place where please and sorry are still part of daily exchanges between humans. So much so that even buses apologize for being out of service!

I hoarded happy memories so I could draw strength from them again and again during those endless stretches of housebound time that were the hallmark of my depression.

Back then, I wasn’t sure I’d ever recover the ability to be a human in the world.

Although I eventually did, I still use the same coping strategies today. Whenever exhaustion gets the better of me, I think of the tingling joy I felt skipping down the street in Lisbon with Portuguese electro-pop between my ears last January.

When your happiness drought lasts as long as mine did, collecting moments that make you feel good is one surefire way to store up joy for times when it may not be so abundant.

Summoning the power of happy memories doesn’t mean you live in the past but that you’ve chosen to ground yourself in contentment instead. And focusing on what makes your heart glad tends to bring forth more of the same.

When my stepmom’s Stage 4 cancer becomes a little too heavy to bear, this is what my parents do, too. She and Dad are fond of recalling travel anecdotes gathered over two decades and spanning the entire globe.

Like a shot in the arm, past happiness never fails to make them both perk up. Within minutes, the atmosphere can go from downhearted to shared mirth because they’re both natural storytellers and funny people. Plus there’s nothing I love more than asking questions about all the places I yet have to visit.

And just like that, we’ve weathered another storm.

“So you’ve come for a visit. That’s nice.”

Toward the end of her life, my grandmother was no longer in control of her mental faculties but she never failed to acknowledge happy when it showed up.

Visits were the highlight of her day, and she would recall them at length during the long hours she spent alone. By then, her eyesight was so bad she could no longer read, do crosswords, or watch TV.

Heeding my grandma’s example is partly how I was able to overcome paralyzing depression, recover the writing voice that had gone missing for five years, and go back to being functional.

I’m uncommonly lucky in so far as vocation is also my livelihood. Even on the toughest days when stringing words together is akin to nailing jello to a tree and I’m so tired I get dizzy while sitting down, joy is never far away.

And if I can’t quite locate it, all I have to do is remember all the goodness that happened since I went back to writing. Much of that goodness has human names and has been instrumental in helping me break out of isolation.

When all else fails and my brain refuses to engage, music does a good job at triggering rushes of delight with one song, and even bliss if I listen to more than one.

“All that could be is,” I’m wont to exclaim to no one in particular every now and then. Five words are all it takes for me to stop time, surrender to the life-affirming pleasure of a moment, and commit it to memory.

Just like my grandmother used to.

Frame fleeting goodness in gratitude and pin it up in your mental museum for permanent viewing.

That way, you’ll be able to conjure up happy any time the present comes up short.

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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