How to Hack Your Holiday Memories

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James Stewart sits while Donna Reed looks to him in a scene from the film 'It's A Wonderful Life', 1946. (Photo by RKO Radio Pictures/Getty Images)
Photo: RKO Radio PicturesArchive Photos/Getty Images2012 Getty Images

This is supposed to be “the most wonderful time of the year,” a time of fun holiday parties, warm get-togethers with family, and all-around peace and love. But as everyone knows, it doesn’t always work out this way — even though we’re bombarded with visions of jolliness and good cheer, the reality tends to be a bit more hectic and stressful, what with packed schedules, travel, and last-minute gift-giving. Despite the romance associated with this time of year, it can actually be peak season for stressful and aggravating experiences. This, of course, ends up affecting how we look back on the end of the year. All too often, memories of family tension or being stranded on a tarmac for hours seem to win out over the good stuff.

But what if there were a way to prevent that? What if we could choose which memories of the holiday season — or any season — will stand out most vividly and which we’re content to let fade with the passage of time? While it isn’t possible to do this with an exacting, sci-fi level of precision, it is possible to use some basic findings about human memory to increase the odds that you will remember that amazing New Year’s party but forget that Christmas-dinner squabble over Obamacare. 

Perhaps the most important thing for aspiring memory-curators to realize is that the more intensely we feel emotion during a given event, the more likely we are to remember it. As James McGaugh, a professor at UC Irvine who specializes in the study of memory, wrote in a 2013 paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that ran down the current state of research into this subject, “emotional arousal enhances the storage of memories, thus serving to create, selectively, lasting memories of our important experiences.” 

The emotion-memory connection makes sense, when you think about it: Emotional arousal is usually a pretty good signal that something important is going on. To take the obligatory evolutionary example, if you experience a heart-pounding close call involving a sabre-toothed tiger, there may be important details from the experience that will be worth remembering during your next run-in with a predator.

Applying this lesson to December 2014 is easy, at least in theory. If you enter every experience knowing that the more emotionally aroused you get, the more likely you are to remember it, it should be possible to exert a bit of control over the chaos that is this time of the year. If you’re having a wonderful time at a holiday party, yes, solid memories of it will form no matter what, but you may be able to ramp up the quality and lastingness of these memories by going out of your way to have fun interactions with your fellow partygoers, by letting loose on the dance floor, and so on. The same goes for a quiet evening with family members whom you haven’t seen for a long time: At the risk of sounding sappy, don’t hold back. If you love the people you’re with, let it show, and feel it. Doing so could help leave a stronger imprint of your time with loved ones.

There’s a flip side to this as well: If we can use emotional arousal to help us solidify our best holiday memories, we can also use use its opposite to prevent distressing memories from sticking. That is, try not to get too emotionally caught up in the bad stuff. The best bet, whether your annoyance is coming from an airline or a family squabble, is to adopt a Zen approach and not let the situation get the best of you.

This is easier said than done, of course. In the moment, it can feel good to embrace your frustration, or to scream at someone who is annoying you (even — or maybe especially — if they are a close relative). But 20 years from now, do you really want to remember the 12-hour flight from Philadelphia to Boston? Do you want your family’s fracas permanently burned into your brain instead of the time you spent building a snowman with your niece? Probably not. So just take some deep breaths and hum your favorite song to yourself, or bury yourself in a book, or do anything else that will help prevent those emotion-enhancing stress hormones from flowing during the bad times.

The emotion-memory trick is probably the best weapon in your arsenal, but there are some others as well. For example, a growing body of research suggests that taking photos of events leads to poorer recall of them later on. As Linda Henkel, a psychologist at Fairfield University, explained on “All Things Considered back in May, “As soon as you hit ‘click’ on that camera, it’s as if you’ve outsourced your memory. Any time we … count on these external memory devices, we’re taking away from the kind of mental cognitive processing that might help us actually remember that stuff on our own.” It’s easy, especially when everyone around you has their phone out, to give in to the temptation to snap photo after photo when you’re having fun. But this could be counterproductive in the long run, so your best advice to is to suppress your shutterbug tendencies. (As for whether pulling your phone out during a family fight could help prevent vivid memories from forming — well, let us know how that goes.)

Finally, there’s a fairly straightforward step you can take in the weeks after the holidays. “One way to keep memories strong is reactivating them though reminiscence and sharing stories,” said Henkel in an email. “We not only strengthen our memories that way, we strengthen the social bonds that help us feel a sense of belonging and help us find meaning in our lives.” So if you want to remember the good times you had, actively reflect on them and talk about them with those who were there. Human memory doesn’t work like a hard drive, where data is stored in a pristine, semi-permanent state, available for retrieval whenever it’s needed — rather, memories reinforce themselves when we think or talk about them. Again, the same logic applies in reverse: If you want the bad memories to simply fade away, try not to dwell on them.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and batted-around during the holidays. But we do have at least a little bit of freedom to shape our year-end memories. It might take some conscious effort, but you’ll thank yourself a decade from now when you’re not plagued by vivid — and unnecessary —  memories of bickering with your still-bossy older sister.