Memory-Keeping Can Make You Happier

No matter what role you’re filling in the present moment (mom, teacher, CEO, daughter, caretaker, military spouse, friend), one thing seems to universally true of our modern life:

It’s hectic.

If you’re in the large percentage of the population that’s treading water in a sea of notifications and obligations, leaving you exhausted and sometimes discouraged at the end of long days, this one’s for you.

I’ve spent most of my life preoccupied with the future. My second-favorite movie genre, right behind “Hallmark Holiday,” is “sci-fi future apocalyptic crisis” (like this).

As a kid I daydreamed about places I’d visit, books I’d write. I lived in my head, and not a whole lot has changed since then.

As an adult I find myself thinking about what’s to come: big things like where we’ll move next and when we might travel back to Europe; and small things like who’s going to take the kids to baseball practice tomorrow or what gift we should buy for a friend’s birthday next month.

Since having kids, though, I’ve realized how much I’m missing out on when I miss out on the present moment.

So many of my thoughts relate to future problems and trying to solve them - even when I have no control over the outcome, or at least, not yet. And that lack of control and the wheel-spinning I do to try to gain some traction can leave me feeling discouraged, stressed, and overwhelmed.

The solution seems so simple. Just embrace the happiness that’s right in front of me, let go of the future, and practice being content in the present moment.

Of course these days our “present” isn’t super hospitable. No, the present abounds with notifications and news and information coming at us from every angle.

Modern life has connected us and put the world in the palm of our hands.

But knowing what everyone else is doing can put pressure on us to think we should be doing more, better, faster. 

And I’m not sure that’s making us happier or more content.

Research suggests that gratitude increases happiness. Being appreciative of what we have and practicing living in the present moment helps combat the stress and overwhelm so prevalent around us.

But how do we live more grateful, present, and authentic lives when we’re running on fumes?

And how do we combat comparison when media and technology beg for our attention, constantly; sending us a subtle but pervasive message that we’re not quite living up to some glossy standard of modern excellence?

Maybe in order to be able to clearly identify and appreciate what matters, we need to take one step further back from the present, away from the noise and the things we can’t control; away from the future problems that can’t be solved by worrying about them today.

Maybe the answer is to turn around, to look behind us, to reflect on the past in order to appreciate the present.

To remind ourselves what matters so we can more readily identify those moments as they’re unfolding.

To slow down long enough to see our lives in context and document the best of them in order to recognize all the best.

Here’s what I know about looking back: reflection gives us perspective. We can learn to not sweat the small stuff when we see the bigger picture.

And it makes us more grateful for the people and experiences we can’t imagine living without.

Ultimately, reflection empowers us to determine what’s really important to us. And one simple way to start reflecting is through memory-keeping.

When we sift through the photos and videos on our phones, the artwork we saved in a pile, even the notes we jotted down in our calendars, we can start to piece together not just a narrative - not just the story of what happened. 

But like historians, we can decipher which significant moments really mattered in the long run:

  • The moments that define a month or a year

  • The people we love and who love us

  • The celebrations that mark the passage of time 

  • The experiences we’ll never forget

If we can document those memories in some way that enables us to revisit them from time to time, we won’t forget them. 

The answer to the question “how should I spend my time?” is the same as the answer to “what do I want to remember?” so that memory-keeping becomes the act of reflection itself, and an exercise in determining how we ought to spend our lives.

So when we feel the squeeze of busy-ness, and the ache of comparison threatening to make us feel like somehow the life we’re living isn’t good enough, we’ll remember:

It’s better than good enough. 

It’s our beautiful, wonderful, one-time-only life.

We’ll remember that because we took a little time to document all the best memories that have made it so.


Here's how memory keeping can make you happier - video essay
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