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Our Memories Become More Positive With Age

Remembering positive experiences with gratitude is beneficial across age.

Key points

  • As people age, memories tend to become more positive and people become more generous.
  • Therapeutic interventions that help people focus on memories of positive, grateful experiences can alleviate stress and depression.
  • Parents can foster gratitude in their children through reminiscing to build self-esteem and altruism.

My husband and I both have birthdays in the next few weeks, and we are wondering where all the time goes. How can we be this old? Then we start to reminisce about our years together, and the time before our relationship, and the memories flood back along with the smiles and tears. More smiles than tears—as a great deal of psychological research confirms, we actually recall more positive than negative memories as we age.

Not only do we tend to focus on positive experiences as we get older, but even when recalling more negative events, we also focus more on the positive aspects of these experiences, what we learned and how we grew. And this positivity bias in recall with aging has beneficial effects on our personal well-being and our behavior towards others.

New research by Erika Sparrow and colleagues, just published in the journal Psychology and Aging, reviewed 16 studies on aging and altruism, asking whether people become more generous and giving as they get older. The answer is yes—regardless of financial status, level of education, or gender, older people responded more generously when asked to give resources or help others than younger people. It seems that remembering the good times in our own lives extends to feeling good about others.

So maybe all of us simply need to think happy thoughts. Can it really be this easy? Mara Maher reports, in the journal Memory and Emotion, that the focus on positive aspects of our past as we get older seems to be intentional, a specific goal-directed process to create more positive memories in order to increase our sense of well-being.

Recalling and reminiscing about positive experiences makes us feel better about ourselves and more optimistic about the future. As we age, we become better able to focus on these positive aspects of our past to regulate our mood, make us feel better about ourselves, and face an uncertain future with more equanimity. So there are at least some good things about getting old! But must we age to reap these benefits?

Perhaps not. Two lines of research suggest that we can deliberately engage in retrieving and reminiscing about positive experiences in our lives in ways that benefit us, regardless of our age. First, Ateka Contractor and colleagues have developed a therapeutic intervention for individuals suffering with Post-Traumatic Stress. Individuals are asked to recall specific positive experiences, to write about them, to narrate them, to elaborate on the details, and this exercise alleviates feelings of stress and anxiety. Helping these individuals to retrieve and process more positive memories from their lives seems to be an effective treatment.

And it is not just individuals who have experienced trauma. Recalling and narrating positive experiences seems to work for lots of people. For example, Ernst Bohlmeijer and colleagues found that people who experience even mild depression or daily stress benefit from “gratitude exercises,” daily diaries where individuals write about positive experiences of their day and reflect on past experiences for which they are grateful. Taking time to actively think about, elaborate on, and reflect on the positive experiences in our lives provides perspective and boosts our sense of well-being, regardless of our age.

And we can start this process with our children! Andrea Hussong and Jennifer Coffman have developed the Gratitude Conversations Program to help parents begin to have conversations with their pre-teens and teenagers that help them foster gratitude.

Research from The Family Narratives Lab has demonstrated myriad benefits of reminiscing between parents and children, including helping children learn to meet challenges and regulate their emotions. Parent-child conversations about past experiences in which children felt grateful similarly help children build an understanding of family and community as support systems and help children understand that they are part of a community that gives and receives, a community of mutual care. Reminiscing about our positive experiences in a grateful context builds self-esteem, altruism, and generosity.

We may be getting older; we are also becoming more generous! This birthday season, my husband and I will give the gift of reminiscing to each other, sharing our positive experiences, elaborating, and savoring the details. In doing this, we will build our own sense of well-being and increase our sense of belonging and caring for each other and our family and community.


Sparrow, E. P., Swirsky, L. T., Kudus, F., & Spaniol, J. (2021). Aging and altruism: A meta-analysis. Psychology and Aging, 36(1), 49.

Mather, M. (2006). Why memories may become more positive as people age.

Contractor, A. A., Banducci, A. N., Jin, L., Keegan, F. S., & Weiss, N. H. (2020). Effects of processing positive memories on post trauma mental health: A preliminary study in a non-clinical student sample. Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry, 66, 101516.

Bohlmeijer, E. T., Kraiss, J. T., Watkins, P., & Schotanus-Dijkstra, M. (2021). Promoting gratitude as a resource for sustainable mental health: results of a 3-armed randomized controlled trial up to 6 months follow-up. Journal of happiness studies, 22(3), 1011-1032.

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