Ah, The Good Ol' Days: 5 Reasons Why We Glamorize The Past

by Nycolle Diniz

Every grandchild ever to exist heard about how great the "good ol' days" were. Well, this is wrong for a number of reasons. Politics has nothing to do with it and the economy does not affect it, either.

We, as humans, glamorize the past. So, the “good ol’ days” will always seem better than they were.

In 2012, I went to live in India for a year as an AIESEC trainee. During my first month there, absolutely everything went wrong. The job I was supposed to have was a lie, and they refused to pay me.

The accommodation provided was a tiny mattress on the floor of an overcrowded room of a hotel in the middle of nowhere. As if the culture shock and 50ºC heat was not enough, I was f*cked.

Fortunately, things did not stay like this. Looking for another accommodation, I ended up meeting and living with my future best friends. Looking for a different job, I got a much better one.

Suddenly, talking about this experience no longer filled me with sadness.

Today, this memory brings me a sense of pride regarding the challenge I conquered. From the perspective of my new situation, the emotion associated with my tough situation changed, which allowed for a new life story.

This happens all the time. Everything that happens in our lives gives us accompanying emotions, from happiness to fear to boredom — you name it.

Remembering the same events after they happen also brings about emotions. But, they are not always the same as before.

Researchers have found that there is a pattern to this notion. The intensity of negative emotions tends to be forgotten more quickly than the intensity of positive ones. This reflects a psychological phenomenon called the Fading Affect Bias (FAB).

Think of memories as facts in our own personal biographies we enjoy re-experiencing, modifying and reinterpreting every time we re-read the story.

We constantly twist our experiences to our own benefit. Because of this, as people get older, they tend to rate their childhoods as happier than they were.

But, why do we favor positive exaggeration to negative?

1. Negative memories are harder to keep

In every age, ‘the good old days’ were a myth. No one ever thought they were good at the time. For every age has consisted of crisis that seemed intolerable to the people who lived through them. -- Brooks Atkinson

Whatever does not kill you makes you stronger, right? Negative emotions prepare you for the realities of life; they are more useful for long-term survival than positive emotions.

So, should it not be that negative emotions scar you deeper, you will remember them better in the future? It might seem as if the FAB is a counter-intuitive finding.

However, negative emotions only “make you stronger” because of the FAB. Challenges and difficulties do scar us, but with time, you will not remember them as negative anymore.

Just as with my first month in India, we reinterpret negative experiences as transformative moments. In this way, instead of keeping the memory of the real negative event as it was, we make our story a narrative of success achieved through suffering.

One of the main reasons why this happens is because maintaining an intense negative emotion simply places unnecessary burdens on our brains, hearts and general health.

2. The more we share, the more we change

Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were. -- Marcel Proust

During my following months in India, the memory of my first month quickly began to change. Not only because my situation was improving, but also because I started sharing the story with my friends.

Friends help you see the good sides of situations; they share their own negative experiences in the process, which makes your experience feel better. By sharing moments, you deepen the bond between friends.

Some of our most embarrassing stories transform into our favorite ones. This is not because the initial experience was good, but because the reaction you received from people while telling them was.

Suddenly, you relish the experience due to the laughter the story provoked and the friendships it helped to build.

With a little help from your friends, you can change your outlook of the experience and, with time, your outlook of the memory of it.

3. We want to look better in our own minds

Nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days. -- Doug Larson

When it comes to our life stories, we are stuck with ourselves as both narrator and main character.

We all want our life's story to be interesting; however, that does not only mean framing the negative events as transformative experiences, as we have seen before. It also means evaluating yourself under a more positive light.

We are the heroes of our stories. The FAB helps us construct this meaningful life narrative by changing our memories in ways that are favorable to us. So, essentially, we are making ourselves look better… to ourselves. Wait, what?

It is understandable to try to look better for others, but why do we feel the need to lie to ourselves, as well?

Research points out that having an enhanced positive version of yourself helps maintain a healthy sense of optimism and of persistence during hard times. We need to like ourselves to be able to live with ourselves for so long.

Moreover, we need to like ourselves to keep moving forward.

4. We have to keep positive, in spite of everything

Say goodbye to the oldies, but goodies, because the old days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t it bad as it seems. -- Billy Joel

There is a connection between our memory of the past and our ability to imagine the future; our memories act as a record of our experiences, and we use them to guide our future behavior.

FAB not only allows you to alter negative occurrences as learning experiences and remember yourself more positively, it also makes it possible for you to look toward the future with a sense of hope and anticipation.

If I didn't change my memory of my first month in India, I probably would never live in a foreign country again. No one would ever date again after a first breakup. There would be no second marriages.

There would be no second anything after a first negative experience. In this way, FAB is essential for our survival.

FAB makes us better at facing and mastering life challenges. Keeping the emotions associated with positive memories helps us be emotionally healthier and prepare us for new experiences.

In comparison, keeping the emotions associated with negative memories for prolonged periods leaves a person unmotivated to face the future.

5. Only a positive mind stays positive

It is an illusion that youth is happy, an illusion of those who have lost it; but the young know they are wretched for they are full of truthless ideal which have been installed into them, and each time they come in contact with the real, they are bruised and wounded. -- W. Somerset Maugham

As one function of the Fading Affect Bias is to maintain the positivity in relation to your life, research shows the FAB is disrupted in people who experience depression.

Even those who suffer from mild depression are more likely to maintain negative emotions from unpleasant experiences. Part of the reason for this might be the inability to transform negative events in positive experiences, as well as not fully enjoy life’s positive emotions.

In these cases, the “old days” will neither be better or worse, just old, as negative as today.

Common sense has it that healthy people have realistic views about themselves, life and the future. Being too positive can often be considered delusional or insane; however, the facts presented in research show a completely different view.

Maintaining positive memories and emotions makes you healthier, happier and better prepared to face life’s challenges.

So, do not be afraid to be positive. Do not feel stupid for thinking highly of yourself and the world. You are not silly for being hopeful. What makes you happy makes you stronger.