Pick Better Memories: The key to a happy future.

If you want a better future, reshape how you think about the past.

If you want a happier future, you have to learn to pick better memories.

 

In recent weeks I heard different people I care about say all of the following things about why they are struggling with happiness: 

“Why does everything always have to be so hard?”
“I remember that trip. We fought all the way.”
“She feels like her life will never be good again.”

It’s tough out there, in life. We’re all in it together, but sometimes it seems like we’re being singled out to go through some particularly hard things, or a sequential string of very difficult days (or months, or years). 

Eventually, after having experienced enough of these difficult events, we can resign ourselves to that being how it “always” is, or “always” will be. 

 

That’s when we bring out the “never” or “can’t” or “always” labels and start sticking them all over our lives, our capabilities, our relationships, our health, or our happiness. I’m personally guilty of this at times, so I’m not singling you out, but I have to tell you that this behavior is very damaging to your neurochemistry, your psyche, and your future happiness. 

What you allow yourself to think about is directly tied to how you feel. It’s not the other way around, although you can let it feel that way. You can, and I’m sure you sometimes do, let it go this way:

I feel down, so I spend the day thinking about all the reasons I’m in this down frame of mind. I call to mind all the things that have led me to this particular emotional state. 

The healthy way to handle that type of thought process is this:

Quit it. 

Stop it. It’s hurting you.

And so my friend, I just want to tell you the solution: 

If you want to be happy in the future, pick better memories and thoughts about the past. (Click here to Tweet that!)

If your heart is beating, you can make the next moment of your life different than the previous ones. You are in control of how you feel, and how your life plays out, at least in between your own ears. And when you make the decision to think differently, then you empower yourself to behave differently. 

The problem with the past is, it was never as bad (or as good) as your mind makes it out to be when you dwell on it. 

I say this in the face of admitting to you that I’ve been through a divorce, a war, PTSD, and the loss of a son. 

And yet I’m here, my fingers are moving, and I have a day in front of me in which I am free to chose how I think and how I behave. 

And so are you. 

Let me re-state this: 

The problem with the past is, it was never as bad (or as good) as your mind makes it out to be when you dwell on it. 

It’s true, because you got through it. That crisis you felt was going to wipe you out? You survived it and you’re here today, reading this letter. 

How’d you pull it off? Because somehow God gave you the strength to do so. Just like He promised. 

Don’t beat yourself up for struggling with this. We all do. I do, every day. I spent two hours yesterday morning looking at pictures of my son and letting myself dwell on the fact that there will never be new pictures of him. I’ll keep getting older, but he’ll always be nineteen. I’m writing this letter to myself as well as you.

And in the Bible book of Exodus, the people were only a few miles into their trip out of slavery and they were already griping to Moses and complaining to God about the “good old days” of having plenty to eat back in Egypt. Their minds clouded out the fact that they were beaten, raped, pillaged, enslaved, cruelly worked and whipped and crushed for hundreds of years. Just a couple of days in the desert and they were remembering the whole thing as one big buffet line filled with all kinds of yummy snacks. 

That’s the problem with memories. They lie. 

So quit it. Stop looking back and romanticizing the past, and stop magnifying the problems you have. They’re what they are, and you have two choices, just like we do when it snows:

Let it pile up and trap you inside, or grab a shovel and get to digging. 

In the Bible book of Lamentations, there’s a famous passage that was turned into a hymn, in chapter three. If you’re a church person, sing along:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
His mercies never come to an end
They are new every morning, 
Great is thy faithfulness
The Lord is my portion says my soul
Therefore I will hope (trust) in Him

That’s the famous part. But the chapter starts with the writer (most scholars think it was the prophet Jeremiah, but he never identifies himself) saying some hard things about his life.

Take a look:

I am the man who has seen affliction
My soul is bereft of peace
I have forgotten what happiness is 
My endurance has perished, so has my hope.

Sound familiar? The writer is doing the same thing I do, the same thing you do, when you say, “Why is everything so hard?”

Here’s the answer, like I said before: pick better memories. Make a choice. Choose to think about the things that will lift your spirit, improve your brain chemistry, and enable you to take positive steps to change the outcome. 

Grab a shovel, like the writer did.

Notice what he does in verse 21. It’s the key to surviving the snowstorms of life. 

He grabs a mental shovel, digs through his problems, and chooses better memories. 

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:

Just a couple of verses before he said he has no hope, and now he says he does. What changed?

His attitude, because he remembered the truth:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
His mercies never come to an end
They are new every morning, 
Great is thy faithfulness
The Lord is my portion says my soul
Therefore I will hope (trust) in Him

The writer, and you, and me, can always choose to list off the hard things:

I am the man who has seen affliction (true)
My soul is bereft of peace (true)
I have forgotten what happiness is (true)
My endurance has perished, so has my hope (true)

But in the end, just like on a snowy day, we have the power to choose to be stuck under the massive snow pile of the hard parts of life, or to dig out and enjoy the scenery. 

What happens then is you start to change your posture the next time bad things begin to happen. 

When I was in Iraq, my scrub tech (and future son-in-law) Nate demonstrated this beautifully. He was sitting on a table when a truck bomb blew up outside, not far from the hospital. The blast threw him off the table and onto the ground right in front of me. While other people were diving for cover, and some of us (not saying who) were trying not to lose control of bodily functions, Nate immediately said, “Well Doc, there’s gonna be casualties soon. I better get the OR ready.”

Once we make the decision- But this I call to mind– to be people who grab the shovel and dig when it snows, we are free to live a life unencumbered by negative thinking and the haunting memories of our past. 

And if we want to become healthier, feel better, and be happier, we have to learn to call to mind the truth, no matter how much snow has fallen. 

The Steadfast Love of the Lord is not just an old hymn. It’s the shovel that will dig us out of any snowstorm our life can bring us.

Start digging, my friend.

And start today.

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I'm Dr. Lee Warren. I'm a writer and a neurosurgeon.

I help smart people understand how they're wired, so they can become healthier, feel better, and be happier.

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