What Causes Nostalgia Goggles?

Our natural bias towards happy memories over bad ones

By Arnold
September 18, 2020

“Ah, the good old days.”

You know…before mobile phones…the Internet…and microwaves. A time when there were no text messages to interrupt your day, no instant “likes” to make you feel good, and no 2-day shipping with 100% return and refund policy.

We are told we are living in the safest and healthiest time in human history—so Harvard Psychology Professor Steven Pinker tells us. So why do the “good old days” seem, well, so good? 

There’s actually a psychological reason for why we view our past through rose-colored glasses, even if life was objectively more difficult back then.

Good Feelings Outweigh the Bad

It turns out that negative feelings from our memories diminish faster than the positive ones. This is known as the fading affect bias.

In a study published in the Review of General Psychology, participants recorded memories and rated how they felt about each memory. Three weeks later, the participants rated their feelings for those same memories again. The result? Negative feelings related to bad memories tended to diminish faster than positive feelings related to good memories. The result is that we are left with more positive feelings overall for our mental collection of memories.

So…is this because we distort our life’s events to be more positive at the time we experience them?

Probably not. In another study, participants recorded events in their life as they occurred along with how they felt about them—a diary. At the time of the events, negative feelings were just as strong as positive feelings.

After a period of time (3.5 months, 1 year, and 4.5 years), the participants re-rated how they felt about the life events they recorded. As in the previous study, the intensity of negative feelings around bad events faded significantly faster than positive feelings for good events. This suggests that your brain truly does prioritize the positive emotions related to your memories.

More Good Memories than Bad Memories?

So maybe we just have more good memories than bad memories? No again. In another study, participants were asked to recall childhood memories. They then rated their memories as either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. People rated their reminiscences 50% pleasant, 30% unpleasant and 20% neutral.

A separate study recreated this research using a sensory deprivation tank to ensure that nothing in the room was somehow influencing people to tend toward positive emotions (maybe critics thought there were puppy pictures on the wall?). The responses changed. Now participants reported 66% pleasant memories and 33% unpleasant. Of the previously 20% neutral memories, virtually all—a whopping 16%—became positive.

Interestingly, even for memories that we recall involuntarily—the ones that randomly pop into our minds throughout the day (what we call “MindPops™”)—positive recollections outnumber negative ones. The data showed that 49% of these involuntarily recalled memories were pleasant while only 19% were unpleasant.

All of this research shows that not only do we have more positive memories than negative memories, but the bad feelings from our negative memories also dissipate faster—leaving us with more happy feelings for our memories overall.

What does all this mean for you?

It means that when you reminisce, you are far more likely to recollect something positive, and feel positive as a result. Plus, your perspective of past events will tend to become more positive over time.

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