A Counterbalance to Unpleasant Memories

Harvesting positive experiences.

Of the many insights gained through writing my life’s story, the excess of unpleasant over pleasant memories has stood out like Al Sharpton would at a KKK rally or Trump as the guest of honor at a Cinco de Mayo fiesta in Tijuana. It has been such a striking, baffling, and irritating sore thumb, that I needed to find out why.

It’s not as if I grew up in Dickensian squalor or drought-stricken Ethiopia with a distended stomach and a permanent ribbon of flies on my lips. On its surface, anyone would call my life privileged.

So why does the number of unpleasant memories far outnumber the pleasant ones?

Survival Tactic

In their paper, ‘Bad is Stronger than Good,’ research psychologists at Case Western Reserve University and the Free University of Amsterdam suggest that survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes, but it is less urgent with regard to good ones. Hence, it would be adaptive to be psychologically designed to respond to bad more strongly than good.

Put another way: it won’t matter how lovely the tall green grass swayed on the Savannah the day your best friend was mauled by a Saber-Toothed Tiger when you were out hunting together, but forget where it happened, and you might become its next meal.

‘Bad’ has a longer Shelf Life

A widely accepted account of the impact of life events was put forward by American psychologist Harry Helson and called adaptation level theory. In this view, the impact of substantial changes in life circumstances is temporary. Change produces strong reactions, but the circumstances that result from the change gradually cease to provoke a reaction and eventually are taken for granted.

Applying this theory to human happiness, psychologists P. Brickman and D.T. Campbell postulated a “hedonic treadmill” by which your long-term happiness will remain roughly constant regardless of what happens to you because the impact of both good and bad events will wear off over time.

In testing the hedonic treadmill, however, it emerged that bad events wear off more slowly than good events. Brickman and Campbell interviewed three groups of respondents: people who had won a lottery, people who had been paralyzed in an accident, and people who had not recently experienced any such major life event (the lottery wins and accidents had occurred about one year before the interview).

Confirming the hypothesis for positive events, the lottery winners did not report greater happiness than the two other groups. The research proposed that this result was due to habituation: The euphoria over the lottery win did not last, and the winners’ happiness levels quickly returned to what they had been before the lottery win. Ironically, the only lasting effect of winning the lottery appeared to be the bad ones, such as a reduction in enjoyment of ordinary pleasures.

No man has been shattered by the blows of Fortune unless he was first deceived by her favors. – Seneca

In contrast to the transitory euphoria of good fortune, the accident victims were much slower to adapt to their fate. They rated themselves as significantly less happy than participants in the control condition. The victims continued to compare their current situation with how their lives had been before the accident (unlike lottery winners, who did not seem to spend much time thinking how their lives had improved from the bygone days of relative poverty). Brickman et al. called this phenomenon the “nostalgia effect.”

The seeming implication of these findings is that adaptation-level effects are asymmetrical, consistent with the view that bad is stronger than good. After a short peak in happiness, we become accustomed to the new situation and are no more happy than we were before the improvement. After a serious misfortune, however, we adjust less quickly.

Put another way, you are more upset about losing $50 than you are happy about gaining $50.

The Stories We Remember and the Words We Choose

Returning at dusk from the hunt and settling around the campfire with your clan, the pleasant memory of the swaying Savannah grass, if recalled at all, will be perfunctorily described. But you will go to great length and in exquisite, emotion-wrenching detail when recounting the death of your best buddy. How helpless and pained you felt at seeing him try to fend-off the slashing cuts of the Saber-Tiger’s razor-sharp teeth; the harrowing screams which will forever haunt your sleep; the terror of watching the grass darken with all his blood.

In 1975, James R. Averill, psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, constructed a Semantic Atlas of Emotional Concepts by an exhaustive compilation of 558 emotion words. When he had participants rate them, he found that there were one and one-half times as many negative terms as positive ones (i.e., 62% negative vs. 38% positive).

Spend five minutes writing down as many emotion words you can think of and you’ll probably arrive at a similar result.

Human recall for positive versus negative emotions was studied in 1990 by psychologists D.L. Thomas and E. Diener. They found that people tended to underestimate the frequency of positive experiences, but not negative ones, which is consistent with the view that the relative weakness of positive emotional experiences makes them more forgettable. Across two other studies people reported bad events over good events by about a four-to-one margin.

It may also be, however, that positive experiences are so much more frequent than negative ones and that the greater frequency accounts for the relative underestimation. How often do you recall being first in line at the cash register in your local supermarket versus all those times you waited behind the lady with the fat wad of discount coupons, or behind the old man wanting to rid himself of all the pennies he’s collected since World War II? The relevance of underestimating positive experiences will be made clear further on.

The inordinate amount of effort we expend on describing unpleasant memories is similar to the one we expend to change our moods. Research shows that people use many more techniques for escaping bad moods than for inducing good ones which is consistent with the hypothesis of the greater power of negative emotions.

Counterbalance

Dragging-out the pleasant memories of my childhood from the dark pit of memory often feels like looking for gold in a coal mine. Mostly, what I find are minute, scattered flecks, such as a smell, a flashing image, an emotion viscerally recalled. These I must then carry in my mind for a while until they begin to coalesce into a clearer, more complete memory. The task is arduous and time-consuming, and I know – and saddened to know – that many of what I am sure were wonderful experiences are now irremediably lost.

But what I can do – and have been doing and perfecting for the past five years – is prevent the gold of my present to suffer the same fate.

It began by writing down – almost daily – any positive moment or experience I had had in the recent past, along with three things for which I was grateful.

As I recorded these moments, I realized that the more detailed and vivid my descriptions were, the more lasting the memory. This exercise has made me realize how much we impoverish our lives by underestimating or taking for granted our positive experiences by considering them mundane and commonplace, “the most unphilosophical, irreligious and immoral word in the English language” according to author John Cowper Powys.

In her book ‘On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation,’ Alexandra Horowitz says that to the child, as to the artist, everything is relevant, little is unseen.

By striving to recover my childhood capacity to see everything again for the first time, refusing to label a single one as “commonplace,” and adopting the habit of recording my positive moments in vivid language, I have not only begun to counterbalance all the oppressive weight of “bad” memories, but have been rewarded with two other precious insights:

  1. Any day I fail to recall a recent positive moment makes me realize, with great alarm, that I have lived without awareness, dishonoring the gift of life with callous inadvertence. This has made me more attentive to simple joys and pleasures enriching my life as a result.
  2. Being of an analytical bent, I categorized the 118 positive moments I have recorded to determine the type of experiences which had provoked an emotion strong and memorable enough to make me want to write them down. The result was stunning, inspiring, but not altogether surprising.

A third were moments of kindness and love (given and received), making someone happy, or involving meraki, a word that modern Greeks often use to describe doing something with soul, creativity, or love — when you put something of yourself into what you’re doing, whatever it may be. Many were moments when I cooked and shared a meal and stories with loved ones.

A second third have been moments of utter calm and serenity. No dramas, no emotional upheavals. Where the future – with all its wants and wishes – was totally annihilated. A state of mind known in Greek as ataraxia, a lucid state of robust equanimity characterized by ongoing freedom from distress and worry. These usually occur out in Nature.

One tenth were moments when I celebrated the successes of others.

Close behind were times when I experienced “flow,” the mental state in which I performed an activity (writing usually), fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process.

Moments when I displayed grit and discipline in tackling challenges comprised six percent of my positive experiences.

A similar proportion when I rewarded myself.

I was up to 97%, and money, fame, and meaningless thrills and distractions were conspicuously absent.

I discovered what truly brought me joy.

Remembering such a moment, author Henry Miller wrote:

“Christ, I was happy! But for the first time in my life I was happy with the full consciousness of being happy. It’s good to be just plain happy; it’s a little better to know that you’re happy; but to understand that you’re happy and to know why and how, in what way, because of what concatenation of events or circumstances, and still be happy, be happy in the being and the knowing, well that is beyond happiness, that is bliss, and if you have any sense you ought to kill yourself on the spot and be done with it.”

Rather than kill myself, I now purposely seek out the experiences that I know bring me joy and hoard those positive memories in vivid language to ensure they never fade into oblivion.

Age with Grace

I am midway through the autumn of my life.

Morbid thought?

Depends on how you orient yourself to the moment.

Having rushed, leaped, and tumbled down the peaks of my life’s spring and summer, my river – more serene now – flows across its valley towards its inexorable embrace with the ocean where I will lose my name.

My eyesight is failing, my eyebrows thinning, and I wear a permanent flesh skull-cap on my head. My toes turn black-and-blue in the cold, and my left fingers tingle at night. Occasionally, I am thrown off the bed by Charley Horses. My skin has the rugosity of the bark of an old tree or alligator, and the backs of my hands are splotched like a Jaguar’s pelt and wrinkled and rough as the inside of a Starbucks cup holder. If I had to date again, I’d need to first become an expert in Photoshop.

Aging is a privilege denied to many so I’m not complaining but attempting to discover what the point is.

I figure I have three options:

  1. I could try, with the desperation of a drowning man, to cling to what little remains of my youth.
  2. I could turn despondent, bitter, ornery, nostalgic, cynical, and niggardly.
  3. I could learn how to be old.

When I was young I knew what I hoped to become; but I have become what I do not know how to be: old. – Phillip Wylie

Having totaled several cars, dabbled in drugs, lived in three countries, proposed to three women, married one, divorced, fulfilled my procreative imperative (two wonderful girls), helped raise them, and made and lost fortunes, is there a purpose to this final run?

Modern-day American culture doesn’t seem to think so. Youth-enthralled, centomaniac (obsessed with the new), and thanatophobic (afraid of death), it insulates itself by either confining the elderly in retirement homes, or by ignoring, shunting, or disdaining their doddering presence and advice.

Which, in my mind, is tantamount to either locking-up or burning all history books.

Faced with such rejection, many of our elders are increasingly turning to option 1.

The United States is the country with the highest number of cosmetic procedures, growing from around 1.6 million in 1997 to almost 13.7 million in 2016. Those aged 35 to 50 account for 39 percent of all procedures on which Americans spend more than 15 billion dollars every year.

It does not surprise me that the practice gained popularity in the 1970’s in the wake of the youth revolt of the previous decade. “Don’t trust anyone over 30” was one of the favorite slogans.

While granting that the senior leaders at the time were making a huge mess of things (Bay of Pigs, Vietnam War, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident), fast-forward thirty years and those once young, rebellious whippersnappers – by then at the helm and all over 30 – were leaving behind their own impressive wrecks: the Savings and Loans crisis (1986-1995), the ‘Black Monday’ stock market crash (1987), the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (1989), the Dot-Com Bubble and Bust (2000), and a much warmer climate, to name just a few fuckups. Groovy dudes, thanks!

Although I engage in regular exercise (for strength, energy, clarity, and calm), I have chosen to opt out of effacing the proof of time’s passing on my body. The word ‘Character,’ I’ve learned, is derived from the Greek kharassein: to sharpen, cut, engrave. Character is the etching of life’s trials and tribulations into our faces, bodies, and souls. Think of it: if you needed serious advice, would you ask a wizened man, or one whose face was as smooth and unblemished as porcelain?

The way-station of old age, said the Persian poet Hafez, is one that must be passed cleanly. “Don’t let the urgencies of youth stain the whiteness of your hair,” he urged.

In traditional Japanese aesthetics, ‘Wabi-Sabi’ is a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.

‘Sabi’ is beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs.

An old man who cannot bid farewell to life appears as feeble and sickly as a young man who is unable to embrace it. In many cases, it is a question of the selfsame childish greediness, the same fear, the same defiance and willfulness, in the one as in the other. – Carl Jung

What about Option 2?

Not really an option, but a direct result of our unwillingness to accept the conditions laid out at the moment of our birth. After all, aging and death are terminal illnesses that strike each one of us the moment we’re conceived.

I believe the reasons for the bitterness, cynicism, anger, and pessimism evinced by so many elders are twofold: they feel devalued by society, and they need the outside world to reflect what they believe is their decaying, dark reality. “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” said Desiderius Erasmus.

Again, Jung:

“After having lavished its light upon the world, the sun withdraws its rays in order to illuminate itself. Instead of doing likewise, many old people prefer to be hypochondriacs, niggards, pedants, applauders of the past or else, eternal adolescents – all lamentable substitutes for the illumination of the Self, but inevitable consequences of the delusion that the second half of life must be governed by the principles of the Self.”

I don’t believe in aging. I believe in forever altering one’s aspect to the sun. Hence my optimism. And to alter now, cleanly and sanely, I want to shuffle off this loose living randomness: people; reviews; fame; all the glittering scales; and be withdrawn, and concentrated. – Virginia Woolf

Which brings me to the matter of purpose – Option 3: Learning to Age with Grace.

I am not talking here about dignity or refinement; I am using the term ‘grace’ as it refers to the bestowal of blessings.

I agree with Jung and philosopher Hermann von Keyserling who said:

“Past are the times in which the mere acquisition of material enriched me inwardly. At one time or another, everyone reaches a critical stage, at which he can go no further in the former (material) sense, and the question presents itself: whether he is to stagnate entirely or transfer his development into a new dimension. And since life, whenever it is not exhausted, is incapable of stagnation, the necessary change of dimension takes place automatically at a certain age. Every individual, as he becomes mature, strives after greater depth and involution.”

But I believe that to stop there, basking in the glow of our increased self-awareness and hoarding the treasures obtained in our quest for greater depth, not only fortifies the dividing wall between young and old, but denies future generations the accumulated wisdom that could avoid a future crisis. It deprives the world of blessings.

When the seed is ripe, its hold upon its surroundings is loosened, its pulp attains fragrance, sweetness and detachment, and is dedicated to all who need it. Birds peck at it and it is not hurt, the storm plucks and flings it to the dust and it is not destroyed. It proves its immortality by its renunciation. – Rabindranath Tagore.

A few years ago I wrote this to my daughters as they entered adulthood:

“I know the world for you right now seems chaotic, ruthless, unjust, and fraught with danger. Imagine you’re dropped into the depth of a jungle. What would you do? How would you feed yourself? How would you know which plants to eat and which to avoid? How would you protect yourself from the elements? Now imagine that the only thing you can take with you are either tools (knife, waterjug, flint) or a survival manual written by a hunter-gatherer who lived in that same jungle years ago. Which would you choose?”

Weeks later, driving one of them home from work (berating her for something she had done – or not done) I asked her why it was that kids refused to learn from the wisdom of their parents. If we had already traversed the jungle, been battered and wounded, fought and slain tigers, and crossed victorious over to the other side, why insist on going through the same suffering? Isn’t that the value of adaptation in the process of natural selection?

In her characteristic wisdom, she responded:

“Because they wouldn’t be nor feel like our own victories. We want to have our own scars suffered in honorable combat with our own tigers.”

I was stumped…

Later reflected…

And then wrote her my response:

“There are wounds you do not want, trust me.

I am not proposing to be your North Star or compass, but simply your lighthouse, because:

An only life can take so long to climb clear of its wrong beginnings and may never. – Philip Larkin

My intention is to spare you from the deadliest tigers.

In primitive, oral cultures, the young find their orientation in their world through stories and songs. They learn about their origins, how the world was created, how the human emerged, and – to my point – how to survive.

In the mythology of Aboriginal Australia there is something called ‘Dreamtime’: the dawn when the totem Ancestors first emerged from their slumber and began to sing their way across the land in search for food, shelter, and companionship. These meandering trails, or ‘Dreaming Tracks,’ are auditory as well as visible and tactile phenomena. The Ancestors were singing the names of things and places into the land as they wandered through it. The song is thus a kind of auditory road map through the wilderness. To make its way through the land, an Aboriginal person has only to chant the local stanzas of the appropriate Dreaming.

In Aboriginal belief an unsung land is a dead land. If the songs are forgotten the land itself will die.

I propose that an unsung story awakens the Tiger.”

The slumber of the ancestors is the involution Keyserling wrote about; it is Jung’s withdrawal of the sun in order to illuminate itself, it is Woolf’s withdrawal and concentration.

But the purpose, to me, is not to remain in slumber, but to emerge and sing our map to the young helping them find their way through the land.

Given my track record, there is not much I can say about what the right thing to do is, but I certainly have enough scars and wounds to which I can point so they’ll know what not to do. These are the only blessings I can bestow.

My period of involution is near its end and I’ve begun to write down my ‘Dreaming Track’: the chronicle of my tribulations, my joys and sorrows, loves and disappointments, victories and defeats, and of my most exalted as well as most ignominious moments.

Writing a Memoir is not the only way. Although they don’t say it, young people (especially men) are longing to be initiated into adulthood by the elders of the tribe; they hunger for the ripened fruit of their wisdom. The bestowal of blessings can come from mentoring a young boy or girl at a school or community, reading to children in a public library, or being more present in the lives of nephews and grandchildren.

At best, we might prevent a looming calamity, or at least, have the satisfaction of saying “I told you so” as we watch them getting mauled by a tiger.

“Old age, calm, expanded,

broad with the haughty

breadth of the universe.

Old age flowing free with the

delicious near-by freedom of death.

I see in you the estuary that enlarges and spreads itself grandly

as it pours in the great sea.” – Walt Whitman


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