We may wish some memories could last a lifetime, but many physical and emotional factors can negatively impact our ability to retain information throughout life. While positive affect (feeling enthusiastic, cheerful, attentive, proud) plays a starring role in memory, the nature of that role has remained unclear until now.
A nine-year longitudinal study recently published in the journal Psychological Science found that people who feel enthusiastic and cheerful— what psychologists call “positive affect”—are less likely to experience memory decline as they age.
A team of researchers at Northwestern University analyzed data from 991 middle-aged and older U.S. adults who participated in a national study conducted at three time periods: between 1995 and 1996, 2004 and 2006, and 2013 and 2014. In each assessment, participants reported on a range of positive emotions they had experienced during the past 30 days. In the final two assessments, participants also completed tests of memory performance. These tests consisted of recalling words immediately after their presentation and again 15 minutes later.
The researchers examined the association between positive affect and memory decline, accounting for age, gender, education, depression, negative affect and extroversion. They found that memory declined with age, but participants with higher levels of positive affect had a less steep memory decline over the course of a decade.
This result adds to a growing body of research on positive affect’s role in healthy aging. The researchers suggest that future research might address the pathways that could connect positive affect and memory, such as physical health or social relationships.
10 Ways To Stack Your Positivity Deck
If you tend to look on the negative side of life and would like to look on the bright side, here are 10 ways to cultivate a positive outlook and keep your memory healthy:
- Learn to look for the opportunity in the difficulty. Focus on the upside of a downside situation.“I had to pay more taxes this year than I’ve ever paid” becomes “I made more money this year than I’ve ever made.” And “Many people are going to catch Covid-19” becomes “Many people will contract the virus, and many people will get well, too.”
- Focus on solutions instead of problems. Brainstorm a wide range of possibilities. Ask, “How can I make this situation work to my advantage? Can I find something positive in it? What can I manage or overcome in this instance?” Before an unpredictable situation, think of it as an adventure to have instead of a problem to solve.
- Broaden your scope. Positivity is always present—even under the direst pressures. Learn to focus your mind on the possible, big-picture aspects of situations and build on them. Broaden-and-build widens the span and boundaries of your mind so you can see more possibilities. In other words, you expand your negativity’s constrictive “zoom lens” into a “wide-angle lens,” creating a perspective that enlarges your range of vision.
- Avoid blowing situations out of proportion. Don’t let one negative event rule your whole life pattern. “I didn’t get the promotion; now I’ll never reach my career goals” becomes “I didn’t get the promotion, but there are many other steps I can take to reach my career goals.” Nothing is permanent, and every situation can be changed for the better.
- Practice positive self-talk. After a big letdown, underscore your triumphs. Instead of attacking yourself, learn self-compassion. Avoid negative self-talk, and give yourself positive affirmations. High-five your “tallcomings” instead of bludgeoning yourself with your “shortcomings.” Affirm positive feedback instead of letting it roll over your head.
- Frame a setback as a lesson to learn, not a failure to endure. Ask what you can learn from difficult outcomes and use them as stepping-stones, instead of roadblocks. Think of the situation as happening for you instead of to you.
- Strive to see gains contained in your losses. Every loss contains a gain but you have to look for it. Every time you get up just one more time than you fall, your perseverance increases the likelihood of propelling you up the career ladder. Baseball great Babe Ruth said, “It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up. Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.”
- Be chancy. Take small risks in new situations instead of predicting negative outcomes before giving them a try. “I won’t go to the party because I don’t know anyone” becomes “I might not know anyone, but if I go to the party, I might meet a new friend.”
- Practice Cheerfulness. Humor is good medicine. When was the last time you cackled at yourself for a series of incredulous mistakes you made one after another or something silly you did? Learn to laugh at yourself, tell a joke, try to remember funny experiences you’ve had, watch a comedy movie, check out a stand-up comic. Train yourself to look at the lighthearted side of life.
- Hang out with positive coworkers. Optimism is contagious. When you surround yourself with optimistic people, positivity rubs off and becomes part of your muscle memory.