No, You Were Not Happier Way Back When. Here's Why

How to overcome the "rosy retrospection" bias.

Posted Jan 20, 2021

Carolina Magro / Wikimedia Commons
Source: Carolina Magro / Wikimedia Commons

We sometimes get stuck thinking that everything was so much better, and easier, in the past. It’s one of the tricks our minds play on us, especially when we are feeling vulnerable or overwhelmed.

However, rarely is it actually the case that things were “objectively” better in the past. Psychologists refer to this flawed thought pattern as rosy retrospection. It is a well-studied cognitive bias. It happens because when we think about the past, we are more likely to think about people, events, places, and things in the abstract. And, when we think about things in the abstract, we are more likely to focus on positive generalities than the nitty-gritty and sometimes gory details.

Here’s an example: If you think back to a holiday you had with your family, say, five years ago, you’re likely to reminisce about the enjoyable conversations you had, the good food you ate, and the great family photos you were able to take. You’re probably not going to remember how uncomfortable the couch was that you slept on for five nights straight, how you had a cold for the entire trip, how your travel plans were complicated by bad weather, and, not to mention, how stressful it was being with your extended family for a whole week.

In other words, the negative details about past events drift out of our memory over time while the positive aspects of our past experiences remain. It’s good that this happens, as it keeps us in a positive frame of mind in the present. If our minds didn’t work like this, we would be much less likely to go on that same holiday next year or engage in other activities that are important to our psychological well-being. In fact, people who tend to remember negative experiences more than positive ones are likely to exhibit mood disorders such as depression. In other words, rosy retrospection is a cognitive bias—but, like many cognitive biases, it is one that serves an important purpose.

It can, however, lead to lapses in sound decision-making. For instance, it’s one of the reasons why we backslide into problematic relationships. The longer it’s been since we’ve experienced the negative effects of an abusive or unsupportive relationship, the more likely we are to let the good memories outweigh the bad memories and to perhaps forgive unforgivable behavior.

It’s always a good idea to approach our nostalgic feelings with a healthy degree of skepticism. 

Psychological research generally suggests that our best days are ahead of us, not behind. One study, for instance, tracked the trajectory of people’s optimism over time. The researchers found that optimism was lowest in people’s twenties, then rose gradually through people’s thirties and forties, peaking in people’s fifties, and gradually declining after that. Another study found that life satisfaction in Anglo countries—such as the United States, Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom—tends to improve with age.

In other words, there’s good evidence to suggest that your happiest days are still to come. And, even if they’re not, it’s still important to assume that they are. Don’t shy away from looking upon the past with a certain degree of fondness. But, by the same token, don’t use the past as an excuse to be unhappy in the present.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Aleksey Mnogosmyslov/Shutterstock