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The power of reliving positive memories through photos

03.29pm 30 September 2021


Vijay, Senior Advisor Safety and Wellbeing, took time to kōrero with us about the power of reliving positive memories through photos.

Like most of us, I found myself with a lot of spare time during the current lockdown. I decided to declutter and by chance discovered a rather large cache of old photo albums. Some of them were black and white images from my childhood. Some were of the various trips I had been from around the world.

While some photos triggered memories that dampened the eyes, the majority of them triggered positive emotions - joyful and pleasure. An example of the former were the photos with my grandparents and parents, reminding me that they were no longer with me. Whereas, most of the photos of my trips from around the world with my family made me happy e.g. my daughter finishing 100km trail walk for fundraising in Brisbane.

This feeling of positivity was directly associated with the pleasant memories I had of the experiences captured in the photos. I reminisced albeit momentarily, yet felt a surge of positivity almost all through the day. My wife also mentioned about the upbeat mood I was in that day. The other unintended effect was that she joined me in sifting through the photos and we talked about the great times we shared.

This feeling of positivity and its importance in maintaining mental wellbeing reminded me of the learnings from my studies in positive psychology. I looked into this a bit deeper. It turns out, there is a spate of research that suggests remembering happy times may offer protection for mental health. Here is how.

A recent study from the University of Cambridge, England found that the ability to remember pleasant events in detail is associated with lower cortisol levels and fewer negative self-appraisals. A photograph is a time stamp which captures a specific event in time and place. It allows the person to go back to that ‘specific’ memory and trigger the emotions associated with it. An example of ‘specific’ as opposed to general memory would be recalling a fun activity with friends or family.

Another study found that when happy memories are triggered immediately after a stressful event the subjects’ cortisol levels hardly moved. The brain scan of these subjects found that several areas of the brain’s prefrontal cortex (areas involved in emotion regulation and cognitive control) became more active when people recalled positive memories.

One more thing, look for the photos in which you or someone dear to you is smiling. It turns out by viewing such images makes you respond with a smile. A mere act of smiling can increase levels of hormones like dopamine and serotonin in the body. We know dopamine increases our feelings of happiness and serotonin release is associated with reduced stress.

The moral of this story is please make time to go through your old or recent photos and trigger happy memories. They may shield you from feeling low or overwhelmed from most of the negativity we see on the news or feeling helpless to control our circumstances.