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Checkup: Happy Memories Make Happy People

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Air date: June 12, 2011

Host: Jeremy Shere, PhD

Check Up Mental Health Men's & Women's Health Research
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We all want to be happy. And you may have heard that the keys to happiness are living in the moment and being optimistic about the future. But according to psychologist Ryan Howell, being happy is also a matter of how you see the past.

"When we are asked question about our life satisfaction I think what happens in we go back and review our memories. And certain people, particularly extroverts, are in tune with their past in such a way that allows them to focus on the positive features, as opposed to neurotics who focus on the negative features."

Ryan Howell is assistant professor of psychology at San Francisco State University. He authored the study with SF State graduating senior Jia Wei Zhang.

He says whatís interesting is that thinking positively about the past has little to do with what actually happened. In other words, itís not necessarily the case that happy people have had better lives and better experiences than people who are less happy. Itís more that happy people are better at seeing the past in a positive light. For example,

"Weíve all had experiences when weíve gone on vacation or trips and something has gone bad. Some people say weíre going to think about this and weíre all going to laugh. And some people seem to let that seep in on them and they get angry and frustrated and anxious or worried and canít let go. So the same event, how a person thinks about that, and what features of the event they want to focus on -- thatís whatís really important and not so much the event itself."

The good news is that anyone, neurotics included, can learn to see the past through rosier glasses.

"While we have a hard time changing our personalities, we are who we are, we can train ourselves to think about our past differently. We can train ourselves to focus on different features of our present. And we can train ourselves to be more optimistic about the future."

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Iím Jeremy Shere.