I have a hard time remembering things that went well. It’s much easier for me to call to mind mistakes I’ve made: times I dropped the ball, or tried and failed to do something that matters to me. This is definitely a phenomenon many people experience (negativity bias), but at least in my case there’s something more going on. Somehow, my brain seems to naturally flag only the negative experiences as things worth remembering (I guess to avoid similar mistakes in the future?), and at the same time, the fact that I can’t fix things that went badly in the past is so painful, I’d rather avoid thinking about the past entirely. Talking to friends and relatives, I realized that there are whole trips and visits I’d completely forgotten about (but can, with difficulty, vaguely remember), either because:
- I felt bad about the way something happened, and so tried to put it out of my mind, or
- Everything went fine, so apparently there was no benefit to dwelling on it.
But I don’t want to live my life forgetting huge swaths of it as I go, and expecting things to go badly because that’s all I can remember — so what can I do?
I’ve been thinking for a while about how I’d like to focus more on the positive side of decision making, thinking about what success means and what paths to it might look like, rather than just trying to avoid numerous failure modes — for example, see my posts Worry Less, Care More and How to Hope. So I decided that I needed a way to bring positive examples to mind more easily, and came up with this plan:
Every day, I list three good decisions I made the day before.
Making the list the day of and then reading it the next day doesn’t count, and no one is allowed to help me think up what my good decisions were. The point is to practice looking through my recent past to generate the examples within myself.
Here’s what I found:
- It’s hard. Often, it’s hard enough just trying to remember what happened the day before, let alone any decisions I made. I keep feeling the urge to look away from the past, like I’ll be too ashamed if I confront it head on.
- It’s easy — once I get started. Usually once I can think of one or two good decisions, they start coming to mind thick and fast.
- It works! Having to come up with positive examples makes them feel much more available later, if I want to think back to some things that went well (which I can do now!).
As a bonus, as I go about my day I often have the thought “This can be one of the good decisions I look back on tomorrow!” It means that I consciously put my attention on the parts of my day I’m proud of and feel good about, which itself is a great feeling.
I’m curious if you have special memories you like to look back on, or practices that help you remember the positive parts of life. I’d love to hear about it in the comments!