We humans

There’s an art to happy memories — you can make more by experiencing more “first”s

Jan 14, 2020 /

Studies show we’re better at remembering the novel and the new, so let’s use this tendency to add to our storehouse of memorable and meaningful moments, says happiness expert Meik Wiking.

Ask any older person to recall some of their memories, and there’s a good chance they will tell you stories from when they were between the ages of 15 and 30. This is known as the reminiscence effect, or reminiscence bump.

Memory research is sometimes conducted by using cue words. If I say the word “dog,” what memory comes to mind? Or “book’? Or “grapefruit’? It’s best to use words that are not related to a certain period in life. For instance, the phrase “driver’s license” is more likely to prompt memories from when you were a specific age than the word “lamp.”

In studies, when participants were shown a series of cue words and asked about the memories they associate with those words and how old they were at the time of the memory, their responses will typically produce a curve with a characteristic shape, the reminiscence bump. The recency effect — a final upward flip of the curve — can usually be seen, too. For example, when asked what memory comes to mind when cued with the word “book,” what people have read recently may pop up more easily than what they read 10 years ago.

You can also see the reminiscence effect in some autobiographies, where adolescence and early adulthood are described over a disproportionate number of pages. If you look at Agatha Christie’s autobiography, which is 544 pages long, the death of her mother happens on page 346, when Christie was 33. In the period that covers the reminiscence bump in her life, memories fill more than 10 pages per year. In contrast, she sums up the events of 1945 to 1965, when she was aged between 55 and 75, in just 23 pages — a little over one page per year.

What do you remember about being 21, or from another year? And how do your memories from different decades compare?

One theory behind the reminiscence bump is that our teens and early adulthood years are our defining years, our formative years. Our identity and sense of self is developing at that time, and some studies suggest that experiences linked to who we see ourselves as are more frequently retold in explaining who we are and are therefore remembered better later in life.

One study found that 73 percent of people’s vivid memories were either first-time experiences or unique events.

Another theory is that the period involves a lot of firsts. Our first kiss, our first flat, our first job. In the Happy Memory Study we conducted at the Happiness Research Institute, we found that 23 percent of people’s memories were of novel or extraordinary experiences.

Novelty ensures durability when it comes to memory. Several studies show that we are better at remembering the novel and the new, the extraordinary days when we did something different. One study by British researchers Gillian Cohen and Dorothy Faulkner found that 73 percent of vivid memories were either first-time experiences or unique events. Extraordinary and novel experiences are subject to greater elaborative cognitive processing, which leads to better encoding of these memories. That is the power of firsts. Extraordinary days are memorable days.

The importance of firsts also means that, say, if you go to university, you are more likely to remember events from the beginning of your first year than later in that same year. In a study led by David Pillemer, professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire, participants were asked to describe memories from their freshman year in college. “We are not interested in any particular type of experience,” said the researchers, “just describe the first memories that come to mind.” The researchers interviewed women who had graduated 2, 12 or 22 years ago from Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

In the second part of the study, participants were asked to analyze, one by one, each of the memories they had described earlier. The memories were rated on the intensity of the emotions the experience involved, the impact the event had on their life (both at the time of the memory and also in retrospect), and the estimated date of the experience they remembered.

The study showed that the majority of memories took place at the beginning of the academic year: around 40 percent in the month of September and around 16 percent in October. These results suggest that transitional and emotional experiences are especially likely to persist in the memory for many years. That is the power of firsts.

In our study, we also found evidence of the power of extraordinary days and novel experiences when it comes to happy memories. That is why I remember every first kiss I’ve ever had — including the very first.

In our study, we also found evidence of the power of extraordinary days and novel experiences when it comes to happy memories. More than 5 percent of all the happy memories we collected are explicitly about firsts. First dates, first kisses, first steps — or traveling alone to Italy at the age of 60 for the first time. The first job, the first dance performance or the first time you watched a movie in the cinema with your dad.

That is why I remember every first kiss I’ve ever had — including the very first. Her name was Kristy and I was 16 and scared of her dad, who was a professional rugby player.

If you want to create a night to remember for dinner guests, serving them something they have not tasted before might do the trick.

New and memorable experiences can also come in the form of food. I was 16 when I first tasted a mango. It was in 1994, I was an exchange student in Australia, and mangoes had not yet been introduced to supermarkets in Denmark, where I grew up.

I remember the sweetness, the texture. I remember thinking, “Where have you been all my life?” Since then, I have been chasing mangoes — other great food experiences out there which I have not yet had. I have tried fermented Icelandic shark and snails in a street market in Morocco. Both made me throw up a little, but I remember those moments quite vividly.

My point is that firsts can come in the shape of gastronomy. If you want to create a night to remember for your dinner guests, serving them something they have not tasted before might do the trick (but maybe not fermented shark, if you want them to come again). Ideally, it would be something that is not over and done with in a second, like a shot of licorice vodka at 3 AM. Nobody remembers that — for several reasons.

Better to go with something like an artichoke, which takes a bit of an effort to eat, as you have to peel each leaf off, dip it in salted butter, then use your teeth to harvest that wonderful flesh. This makes the whole experience longer lasting and multisensory.

It might also be the reason why life seems to speed up as we get older. When we’re in our teens, there are a lot of firsts, while firsts at age 50 are rarer. This is also why studies find that people who immigrated from a Spanish-speaking country to the US have their reminiscence bump at different times, depending on how old they were at the time of the move. Temporal landmarks of firsts and changes of scene play an important role in organizing autobiographical memory. There is a before and an after.

If we want life to slow down, to make moments memorable and our lives unforgettable, we may want to remember to harness the power of firsts. In our daily routines, it’s also an idea to consider how we can turn the ordinary into something more extraordinary in order to stretch the river of time. It may be little things. If you always eat in front of the television, it might make the day feel a little more extraordinary if you gather for a family dinner around a candlelit table—and if you are always eating candlelit dinners, it might be nice to eat dinner during a movie marathon.

Adapted from the new book The Art of Making Memories: How to Create and Remember Happy Moments by Meik Wiking. Published by William Morrow. Copyright © 2019 by Meik Wiking. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.

Watch his TEDxCopenhagen talk here: