When you sit around with family, the discussion invariably turns to the past. We all like to learn a bit more about where we came from, and so that is a chance for people to share family stories. Some of those stories may be told decades after they happened.
Often, past events are recalled with rose-tinted glasses that make those past events seem so much better than anything happening in the present.
Why is it that the past seems better than the present?
One possibility is that people experience emotions from the past more strongly than emotions from the present, and so that makes the past seem more intense than the present. A paper by Leaf Van Boven, Katherine White, and Michaela Huber in the August 2009 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, suggests that actually the opposite is true.
They had people evaluate the intensity of a variety of experiences and examined how that intensity changed over time. For example, they had people watch a clip of a scary movie. Immediately after watching that clip, they thought it was very scary. About 20 minutes later, they had people watch a second clip. People thought that the second clip was also very scary. Interestingly, if they evaluated the first clip again after viewing the second, they didn't think it was so frightening looking back on it. That is, the intensity of the emotion went down over time. It didn't go up.
So people have strong views about the past, even though they don't experience past emotions very strongly. What is going on?
A second possibility comes from research by Tory Higgins and Charles Stangor in a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1988. They point out that when people make judgments about things, they usually do it in relation to something else. For example, when they say that a concert is excellent, they mean that it is excellent compared to the concerts they have seen up to that point.
They argue that when people think back to events in the past, they remember the evaluation they gave that event, but not the reason for that evaluation. For example, thinking back to a concert attended in high school, they remember that they thought it was "excellent" but forget that the basis of the judgment was all the concerts that they had seen up to that point in high school. Had they seen that concert as an adult with a greater base of experience, they might not think the concert was so wonderful.
When we look back on events from our youth, we are likely to remember many things as being excellent, or awesome, or brilliant. We just forget how we decided on their excellence or brilliance. With a broader base of experience as an adult, it takes a lot for us to be truly awed. So we decide that things must have been better when we were younger.
Finally, a third factor comes from the time difference itself. Quite a bit of research suggests that we tend to think about the distant past more abstractly than we think about the present. Lots of the specific things that are happening right now involve the petty annoyances that you have to deal with to navigate daily life. There are bills to be paid, stacks of laundry to be done, tests to be taken and errands to run. When you think about the past, those petty annoyances don't come up. So, all you think about are the great times you had.
In addition, when you look back on past events, you know how they turned out. Uncertainty is stressful. The present often feels less pleasant than the past, because we're still waiting to find out how the various education and business ventures that are part of our life now are going to work out.
It is worth keeping in mind that the past was never as stress-free as it seems when looking back on it. And the present is often better than it may feel as you are going through it.
Follow Art Markman, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/abmarkman