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Happy memories – and why they're more than just nostalgia

A new study says that thinking of happy memories can reduce your stress levels. Zoë Beaty tries it out

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By Zoë Beaty on


One night last weekend, I couldn’t sleep. The sheets felt rough on my skin, my body was uncomfortable, the air was too close and too hot, and somehow simultaneously too cold. As soon as my heart started to beat faster, amid increasing anxiety that I was stuck in sleep limbo, I couldn’t hear anything else – which, helpfully (inevitably), made it hammer harder in my chest. It was 4am and two hours or so of black nothingness loomed between now and my alarm. 

What do you do when you can’t drop off? Or at any time when you feel your tummy filling up with stress? It’s rare that an on-the-spot solution becomes miraculously available and, if one more person says, “I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about,” in response to me (probably uneasily) confessing something that I am quite obviously already worrying about, I might implode. Deep breaths help somewhat; yoga is better. But what about the times when that’s not possible?

That night, I tried an old trick. I dragged my thoughts away from deadlines, stopped circling around the worry of how tired and inefficient I would be the next day and did something that sometimes works: I tried to put myself into a happy memory. 

Simple, yes, but new research says it can really help. A team of researchers found that willing yourself to bring happy memories to the forefront of your mind can actively shut down your body’s stress response. Published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, the study saw subjects put into stressful situations (like having their hands thrust into freezing water), before being split into two groups – one of which was told to recall a happy memory, while the other group were told to think of something from the past with little emotion attached to it. 

On the Tube, when I’m deep into the sweat-pits of the Jubilee line each morning, I might think of the time we went skinny-dipping in freezing cold Norfolk, or dancing on bars in Spain

The results not only showed that, of course, the first group ended up in a happier mood, but that the happy memory actively dampened levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. The strong physiological response, researchers said, “highlight the restorative and protective function of self-generated positive emotions via memory recall in the face of stress". 

Sure, it’s hardly groundbreaking. And certainly not fail-safe. But it does give a bit more weight and direction to those times find yourself willing your mind to stem an imminent panic – that there is a small thing we can do which will have an impact on the way our body feels during stressful moments feels useful to me. 

Because we encounter many stressful moments day to day, and in the dead of night, when insomnia strikes. On Sunday, I thought about just hours earlier, when I’d laughed all the way home after a day in a beer garden and too much curry. And I thought about last summer, wailing so loudly to Sam Cooke, at home with my best friends, that we got a complaint from the neighbours. 

And from now on I’m going to use this trick a little more consciously. On the Tube, when I’m deep into the sweat-pits of the Jubilee line each morning, I might think of the time we went skinny-dipping in the freezing cold Norfolk sea, or dancing on bars in Spain. Or meeting my twin sisters for the first time, aged 16, hours after they were born, and touching their soft little cheeks. When I’m worrying about meeting a difficult deadline, or feeling the sting of rejection, I might think of road trips with the girls, or thinking that gig couldn’t get any better, just before it did, or seeing the swell of love in Mum’s eyes in the moments after she got engaged to my stepdad and how I felt – that everything might just turn out alright in the end. 

Even writing this now, I’m more convinced of that. 


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Mental Health

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