Color & Control:

The Way We Were

Grilled cheese, learning to drive and Howdy Doody

All of us have experienced thousands of happy moments in our lives. Too often they remain buried under the rubble of the everyday worries and problems that take up space in our heads. I sometimes conduct workshops designed to help participants retrieve and savour their happiest memories. 

I begin these workshops by asking participants to close their eyes, breathe deeply and reflect on happy, cherished memories and outstanding experiences of their lives. “Think back to your childhood and the best times you ever had—family vacations, special birthdays, grandparents who were there for you, the home where you grew up, family pets, favorite teachers, toys, games and movies, school and sports achievements.” 

Then I progress through the happy memories that come to mind over the years: Driving a car, falling in love for the first time, high school graduation, university days, your first full-time job, crazy, wild times, a marriage proposal, having children. I touch on many rites of passage and life transitions to awaken good memories. As I observe their faces, many of the participants, with their eyes still closed, have smiles…. just thinking about their lives. 

After five minutes, I instruct them to open their eyes. “Don’t talk to anyone. Write down your happy memories as quickly as you can, with as many specific details as you can remember. No editing. Now, go”. Pens sprint and pages flip over. When the frenzy begins to wane, I ask them to choose one memory and share it with the others. 

Typically, my participants begin with “safe” subjects (a fishing trip with Dad, winning the cross-country race in grade 10, the birth of a first child) – especially if it’s a group of men. But, with any luck, someone will open up with a more profound memory, permitting others to follow suit.

At one of these workshops with a group of CEOs, John remembered a trip with his father. “It was the happiest trip of my life, and the last one my Dad and I took together;” John said, dabbing his eyes with Kleenex. “Dad was terminally ill with cancer. One morning he asked me to take him to Vancouver so he could see his eight-year-old grandson one last time. Though it was against doctor’s orders, we went. During the five-hour flight, we reminisced, laughed and bonded. I told him how much I loved him and that he was the best father.” As John’s voice broke, the Kleenex box was passed around to all the other CEOs at the table. 

When John spoke, his vulnerability and openness encouraged the rest of the group to dig a little deeper. Before long, this facilitator needed the Kleenex box, too! 

Savouring the positive
We know that life hands us unhappy memories as well as happy ones, but ruminating on them doesn’t bring inner peace. Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worthwhile and the factors that contribute to happiness, wellbeing and flourishing. 

In their book “Savoring”, psychology professors Bryant and Veroff describe the process as engaging fully in a pleasurable experience through consciousness and mindfulness and locking in every detail you can take in.  By focusing on your senses, your mind automatically captures a screen shot and installs the pleasurable experience vividly in your brain. The benefits are life enhancing, emotionally and physically. 

What’s more, these happy memories can be retrieved later at will and evoke the same emotions and feelings as originally experienced. For example, my long-time girlfriend and frequent traveler, Carlie, tells me she transports her mind to places where she was really happy in order to de-stress and relax. “When things aren’t going well, I step away and take myself to a quiet place like a beach. Sometimes at night I’ll ask myself where are the 5 best places I’ve been to recently or what was the best thing about this week?” In this way, she is able to savour the happy moments.

Our immune system benefits from happy memories as well. Whether we feel happy or sad, hormones released from the brain send messages to cells throughout the body. This crucial mind-body connection influences our health. Happy feelings increase the number of disease-fighting natural killer cells – our bodies’ police force – that may help to explain why optimists are often healthier than pessimists. 

Scientific studies have revealed that the more we activate a brain region called the Ventral Striatum, which contains an on-off switch within our control, the more wellbeing we will experience. There will also be a subsequent decrease in the stress hormone, cortisol. Neuropsychologist and author of “Hardwiring Happiness”, Dr. Rick Hanson, calls it “Taking in the Good”. He explains, “Good things keep happening all around us but much of the time we don’t notice them; even when we do, we hardly feel them. Someone is nice to you, you see an admirable quality in yourself, a flower is blooming, you finish a difficult project – and it all just rolls by. Instead, actively look for good news, particularly the little stuff of daily life: the faces of children, the smell of an orange, a memory from a happy vacation, a minor success at work and so on. Whatever positive facts you find, bring a mindful awareness to them – open up to them and let them affect you. It’s like sitting down to a banquet: don’t just look at it – dig in!”

According to Hanson, we must savor a pleasant feeling for 15, 20 or 30 seconds to install it into our deeper memory. Summon up your senses, feel the positive experience and, like a ray of light, absorb it into your heart, which he calls a treasure chest. 

Putting philosophy into practice 
My friend Arthur Soler’s secret to enjoying life is found in his ability to retrieve his positive memories at any time. Over lunch, this remarkable company president shared his philosophy: “The most important thoughts we have in our minds are all the wonderful experiences we’ve had. I keep a mental file of all these memories. Any time I have another pleasurable experience I file it. Right now I could tell you twenty incredible experiences I’ve had, just like that. If I’m unhappy about something, I can draw on these memories and I’m instantly filled with joy. When people focus on their problems, they ignore all the outstanding experiences and pleasures they’ve had in life.”

I asked Arthur to share just one memory. “My mother, who is over eighty, is the most beautiful person I’ve ever known. If she died I would be very sad. What will sustain me is remembering all the extraordinary things she did for me. Three months ago she opened her heart and said, ‘When I die, just remember, nobody could have ever loved you more than I did’. I will never forget this.”

That day I had an opportunity to test Arthur’s approach. My lawyer telephoned about some frustrating business; after I hung up, I could feel my stomach churn. I took a moment to reflect on some joyful memories – seeing my first double rainbow; graduation day, when I became a chiropractor; my first leading role in Christopher Columbus, a grade five school play. I remembered treating Mel Gibson when he had a sore back; my mother’s delicious cheese blintzes with sour cream; crying with joy as I watched the Christmas Day parade at Disneyland. My mind filled with happy images: seeing the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show; my brother Steven with his favourite childhood friend, his Howdy Doody puppet. I savoured each memory with pleasure. In a few minutes my heart was so full of joy there was no room for any negative emotions.

Now it’s your turn. Make a list of all your wonderful memories. Choose a few, savor them, feel them from the depth of your core for 30 seconds and I guarantee you’ll experience positive emotions and gratitude. If you’re having trouble sleeping, fill your dreams with sweet memories instead of worries. 

I also recommend that you create a personal memory book. Find a book or binder with blank pages, close your eyes, reflect on your joyful memories and start writing, beginning with “I remember…” I have over 500 delightful memories in my memory book and continually add new ones. Here’s a peek at one to get you going: 

I remember my mother making me the gooiest, most delicious grilled cheese sandwiches, with two orange Kraft cheese slices on challah. That was my favorite lunch. She would butter the outside of the bread, put one buttered side down on the grill, wait for the magic sizzle, add the cheese, then add a piece of buttered bread on top. She knew just how I liked it. When the melted cheese squirted out from all sides, it was time to lift the lid. The last sound I always heard was my mom scraping the hardened bits of cheese off the grill.  

Dr. Elaine Dembe is a health and wellness practitioner in private practice for 45 years in Toronto. She is a Chiropractor and the author of 3 best-selling books.

Related Articles

Recent Articles

Complimentary Issue

If you would like to receive a free digital copy of this magazine enter your email.