Early Childhood Memories Matter in the Happiness Equation

Early recollections reveal insights into ingrained happiness perspectives.

Posted Aug 26, 2018

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As a projective technique, early recollections provide glimpses into a person's lifestyle or outlook on life. Ingrained convictions relating to happiness are frequently observable in the first memories of life. With some individuals, the remembrances suggest a sense of well-being and a relative contentment. In other instances, there is a negative quality to the recollections and an evident discontent. For those with tendencies towards unhappiness, there are ways to foster more positive perspectives through awareness and a determination to pursue change strategies.  

In the following early recollection, Stuart, a 30-year-old pharmaceutical salesperson, relates a memory with a theme that compromises his degree of happiness. "I was 5 or 6 years old and playing on a beach.  Another kid about my age was tossing stones out into the water. I picked up a few rocks and threw them as hard as I could. I could see them hit the water and make circles. The other kid was able to throw the rocks further than me." Responding to a follow-up question, Stuart said that the part of the memory that he remembered most was, "Each time he threw a stone that went further out in the water than my throw." His feelings at that point were, "I felt kind of angry and jealous."

In Stuart's life, he is able to cite numerous times when he has felt jealous and irritated when other people have been more successful than himself. At the same time, Stuart lacks an awareness of how this pattern of measuring success against the accomplishments of others compromises his capacity for happiness. Rather than being satisfied with his own efforts, another person's comparative attainment jeopardizes his sense of well-being.

As with most people, Stuart's ingrained perspectives on life do not yield easily to change in a positive direction. In order to pursue a potentially more satisfying way of being, Stuart needs to recognize the self-defeating nature of his jealousy towards the success of other people around events that matter to him. With an awareness that comes about through self-insight or therapeutic intervention, a commitment to developing an alternative way of thinking and acting becomes possible.

Consistent with strategies common in the happiness and positive psychology literature, Stuart might cultivate his capacities of appreciation towards himself and other people. In contrast with his early recollection, Stuart may begin to develop a sense of gratitude with what he has in life without making comparisons with what others have or have achieved. On a daily basis, Stuart could acknowledge various ways his life is enriched in small and major ways. 

Another change strategy is more challenging for Stuart, but also therapeutically beneficial. Rather than allowing jealousy to emotionally take hold around the achievements of others, Stuart could make small steps towards appreciating their successes. This shift in behavior is clearly unfamiliar to Stuart and contradicts his outlook on life and early recollection. However, if he is able to communicate his appreciation of the efforts of others, Stuart will also begin to feel a kinship with them that is gratifying and evokes a sense of well-being. 

Seeking change in beliefs in life-long beliefs is never easy; I do not mean to trivialize how challenging this can be. At the same time, self-defeating convictions are possible to recognize through early recollections. In turn, the remembrances suggest a path to positive strategies that have a potential to contribute to more satisfying lives.