I woke up Monday morning feeling unwell. And then some concerning news arrived. I was worried, and an abundance of other negative memories, past events, comparative scenarios flooded my brain. I’d planned to do a few emails and some work from home, yet I felt a need to inject something positive into what seemed like a horrid start to the week. ‘I know’ I thought, ‘I shall go to that coffee bar a couple of miles away where I met my friends Marie and Nikki. That will cheer me up.’
Now Marie and Nikki were not going to be there. There were a handful of cafés a good deal closer, so what was it that drew me to that particular place? Of course, I was aware that it was the memory of the lovely morning I had shared there with my friends previously, but why was the association with a simple location so strong in my mind? Why did I feel it had to be that specific café?
Now this wasn’t the first time this had happened with location association – nor the first coffee bar! I remember years ago during a particularly tough time in my life, my Mum would ring me up and say, ‘Come on let’s get out, let’s pop off to our favourite spot’. That restaurant always made me feel better. The waitresses were friendly and they chatted warmly to Mum and me; it was a light airy space; I enjoyed the Italian food and their coffee; and I had just had many ‘happy’ times there. So this café was my ’safe, happy, place’, that could often quite literally shift my emotions if I visited. And then one day I was sitting in this restaurant with my family, and my boyfriend at the time called me, fundamentally splitting up with me on the phone. As I walked out of the café that day I knew I would never feel the same about that place. However many happy memories I had had there in years past, this was now a ‘sad’ place. I did not return for months. And it has never been the same.
Our emotions and our memories are inextricably linked. This emotional association can also be with objects, things, time periods or any other element in our lives. Have you ever looked at something and just felt happy? An old toy for example? Sindy Dolls to this day still make me smile! They remind me of happy childhood times (not the same for Barbie – sorry you Barbie or Action Man fans!). Or for that matter are you aware of things that make you sad? I remember a major de-clutter in my house which lasted weeks and involved me looking at something (be it a framed photo, ornament, or piece of clothing), deciding if it made me happy or sad, and then placing it either in the charity box or the ‘keep-me pile’ accordingly.
And when it comes to places, I’ve many a time wanted to return somewhere on holiday because the association of joy and peace from a previous trip was so intense. But again it only took one bout of food poisoning in one favourite spot for me to strike it off the list! Apparently, when we form the memory of a place, the details of such place are created in the hippocampus, however the positive or negative associations and emotions are encoded in a different place of the brain – the amygdala. Research has suggested that it could be possible to manipulate neural circuits within brains to alter these connections, however it is something that I have struggled to do myself. Replacing those negative associations with positive ones takes time and effort, so for me the simpler solution has been to create new positive connections.
Whilst trying to discover more for this blog I then came across something called ‘mood congruence’, which is a term used to explain that we tend to remember events that reflect our current mood. Again this made sense to me on Monday morning – I was feeling low with the news, so all those negative memories started to flood in! And to make it worse, the memories were quite extreme – accidents, deaths, crises. Which again could be explained by my reading – it appears that emotionally charged situations lead to longer lasting memories of specific events. No surprise there really – it makes sense that we are more likely to remember a meal where a friend burst into tears, or conversely told us they were getting married, as opposed to one where they simply relayed their daily shopping experience. It is the emotions we feel at the time that are relevant to our memory.
So what did all of this mean for my Monday morning? Well, it initially meant I was aware of the games my mind was playing, which for me is always the first step to addressing things. But what next? Well clearly I went to my new ‘happy café’. I then took a look at my ‘happy list’ (Day 2 on the 21-Days to Happiness) and called a friend who decided to pop down to say hi. And finally, when I got home I decided to do a meditation that takes me to a happy place in my mind. My happy place is an imagined one, with sea and sand and sun and Archie. Whatever yours may be, going to your ‘happy place’ in your mind (either through a guided meditation / visualisation practise or just by quietly closing your eyes and recalling the details and associated feelings and senses of a special place) has been shown to reduce anxiety and stress amongst other things.
“When things in the real world get too stressful, take a short while to close your eyes and visualize something nice. Go to your happy place in your mind and think of things that make you smile. Your imagination can help improve your mood more than you think.”
Dr Anil Kr Sinha
So Hubbers, it may be worth finding your happy places – be they in your mind, or in your life. A go-to location whenever you need a boost can be nothing but a positive addition to your happy list!
It took me 3 years after my friend died to go back to Ricky Aquadrome of all places – too many happy memories of us and the kids all together there when the children were little (they even all ended up in the lake one time).