The key to happiness. Does it exist? What if you could give such a gift to your children? Believe it or not, scientific research suggests you can. Lost amid headlines about preschoolers on anti-depressant drugs and teenage suicides is the good news that parents can and do make a difference with regards to their children's happiness--now and later in life. This article reviews current research on the foundations of emotional well-being to reveal how parents can establish the roots of adult happiness in their children.
Happiness certainly comes to some people more easily than it does others, but nature does not trump nurture when it comes to well-being. Only about half of a child's overall level of happiness is determined by her genetic make-up. A large team of child development experts recently summarized current thinking regarding the nature vs. nurture debate:
Virtually all contemporary researchers agree that the development of children is a highly complex process that is influenced by the interplay of nature and nurture. The influence of nurture consists of the multiple nested context in which children are reared, which include their home, extended family, child care settings, community, and society, each of which is embedded in the values, beliefs, and practices of a given culture...In simple terms, children affect their environments at the same time that their environments are affecting them...At every level of analysis, from neurons to neighborhoods, genetic and environmental effects operate in both directions.
Nature and nurture are both important determinants of happiness; furthermore, they are inextricably intertwined. As the primary nurturers of their children--and because they have at least some measure of control over the environments and contexts in which their children are raised--parents have a tremendous impact on whether or not their children grow up into happy adults.
The primary components of a happy lifeWhat is happiness? What causes it? Happiness comes to different people in different ways; individual definitions of happiness and its causes are as unique as those doing the defining. But most people would agree that a happy person is someone who experiences an abundance of positive thoughts and emotion. People who consider themselves to be happy experience about twice as many positive thoughts and feelings as they do negative. Depressed people, on the other hand, experience an equal ratio of positive and negative thoughts and feelings.
While at first this may seem tautological (what makes a happy life is happiness) there is a range of positive emotion beyond just happiness. Gratitude and love, for example, are not the same than happiness, and yet they contribute as much or more to a happy life as happiness does. So a happy life is, for these purposes, an abundance of positive emotions and those things that make positive emotions easier to come by. Pleasurable experiences, such as a funny movie or a day at the beach, can trigger positive thoughts and feelings. Fulfilling activities, like the exercise of unique strengths and talents, can lead one to achieve "flow," that state of peak performance studied by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced "chick-SENT-me-high"). Happy people also have meaningful relationships with others and the strong social skills and high emotional intelligence needed to form them.
The primary components of a happy life--positive feelings, flow and fulfillment, emotional intelligence and strong social bonds--are deeply intertwined. Experiencing and expressing positive emotion is at the heart of almost all love and friendship. Emotions, if they are positive, can contribute to the growth of new skills and competencies (and therefore flow and fulfillment); if they are negative, they often undermine such growth. Emotional intelligence enables children to read other people's body language, facial expressions, and social cues--which in turn helps them form strong social bonds. Positive thoughts and emotions protect people from negative emotions like fear, melancholy, and anxiety, allowing them to fully invest their mental energy in activity which will promote flow, mastery or gratification. This article briefly separates the childhood roots of adult happiness from each other so parents can better understand how to help their children live meaningful, joyful lives.
Positive thoughts and emotionsThe most obvious source of happiness, positive thoughts and emotions boost our intellectual, physical, and social resources. The work of Barbara Fredrickson demonstrates that positive moods actually cause people to like us better, making friendship, love and alliances more likely. A positive mood "buoys people into a way of thinking that is creative, tolerant, constructive, generous, undefensive and lateral," says Marty Seligman, a happiness researcher and author of Authentic Happiness. Further, the work of Alice Isen shows that positive thoughts and emotions actually heighten our intellectual ability, making it more likely that a physician, for example, will make a difficult diagnosis correctly.
So how do we help children have more positive thoughts and emotions? Seligman shows that positive thoughts and emotions can be broken down into those about the past, such as gratitude and forgiveness; those about the present, such as the enjoyment of life's pleasures; and those about the future, such as excitement, faith, trust, optimism, and hope. Parents can increase the positive thoughts and emotions children feel about the past by making positive reflection habitual. Rituals that encourage children to express gratitude and thankfulness will do just this. Equally important is teaching your children to forgive, which ultimately turns anger and other negative feelings about the past into neutral or even somewhat positive memories, which researchers have shown makes life more satisfying.
The lightening-fast pace of our lives threatens the positive thoughts and emotions we might otherwise feel about the present. Children can be taught to slow things down in order to really "savor" life's pleasures. According to Seligman, savoring is the Buddhist-like "awareness of pleasure and of the deliberate conscious attention to the experience of pleasure." Making such slow-down-and-enjoy-life time habitual in childhood will make for a happier child and form habits for a happier adulthood.
Parents can also help children create more positive thoughts and emotions towards the future by teaching them to be optimists. Learning to be an optimist means learning to recognize and then dispute negative or pessimistic thoughts. It also means helping children change the way they view negative life events: pessimists see the bad things in life as permanent and pervasive, while optimists see negative events as transient, specific to that one situation, and not personal. Importantly, research shows that while some people are, of course, more inherently optimistic, others can learn optimism. Helping children process inevitable negative life experiences optimistically will allow more space for them to have positive thoughts and emotions about the future.
Other positive thoughts and emotions about the future should also be encouraged. Excitement and hope can be supported through routines which encourage children to express their hopes for the future and their excitement about coming events. Opportunities to develop faith can be provided for children, for example, through regular attendance at religious activities. And trust is a positive emotion parents can develop in their children by ensuring that they and other caregivers are always deserving of their children's confidence.
Flow, fulfillment and gratificationAs anyone who has felt sad when a positive experience came to an end knows, positive thoughts and emotions--especially those that come from enjoying life's pleasures--are often fleeting. More lasting happiness can be found through engagement in gratifying or fulfilling activities, even though such activities are often not accompanied by any emotion at all. Csikszentmihalyi, the world's foremost expert on "flow," describes such engagement:
[A] person in flow is completely focused...Self-consciousness disappears, yet one feels stronger than usual. The sense of time is distorted: hours seem to pass by in minutes. When a person's entire being is stretched in the full functioning of body and mind, whatever one does becomes worth doing for its own sake; living becomes its own justification...Only after the task is completed do we have the leisure to look back on what has happened, and then we are flooded with gratitude for the excellence of that experience--then, in retrospect, we are happy.
Flow comes to us when we face a clear set of goals that require well-defined responses. The challenge at hand needs to be neither too difficult given our skill-level, nor too easy. "If challenges are too high," writes Csikszentmihalyi, "one gets frustrated, then worried, and eventually anxious." When challenges are set too low, we eventually get bored and lose our focus. Unlike pleasurable activities, which are relatively easy to engage in (like going out for dinner), gratifying activities are the application of one's unique strengths and so are more difficult to come by (like cooking a gourmet meal at home).
Researchers have shown that "early environments that facilitate competence and a sense of personal efficacy" foster children who flourish. Children find flow and fulfillment in environments that encourage them to exercise their personal strengths; Seligman recommends that parents facilitate this in part by acknowledging, naming, and rewarding the strengths children display. Chores and other must-do activities can be tailored to reflect children's unique abilities--a child who is inherently nurturing, for example, can be in charge of getting his little sister dressed. This would both help him develop a strength (the ability to love and be loved), and make the chore gratifying. He may even achieve flow while doing his chores! By encouraging children to spend more time engaging their strengths in gratifying activities, parents help steer them towards a meaningful and joyful life.
Family time and interactions are also important in helping children achieve flow. Csikszentmihayi found that teenagers who find flow on average spend four hours a week more than other teens interacting with their family. "This begins to explain why they learn to enjoy more whatever they are doing," writes Csikszentmihayi. "The family seems to act as a protective environment where a child can experiment in relative security, without having to be self-conscious and worry about being defensive or competitive."
Another important skill parents teach children is how to deal with free-time and solitude in a way that promotes fulfillment and flow rather than loneliness and depression. Many studies have shown that people are more likely to feel depressed when they are alone; this is thought to be because without other people around to interact with, those who lack internal motivation lose the external motivation and goals other people provide them. As their mind loses its sense of purpose and begins to focus on thoughts that make them anxious, people often seek out stimulation that will screen out anxiety-producing thoughts--such as having a drink or turning on the television.
According to Csikszentmihalyi's research, we rarely find flow in passive leisure activities such as watching television. Children learn to achieve flow when they are encouraged to participate in the kinds of activities likely to produce it, namely those that both challenge them and provide clear goals and immediate feedback. Free-time should be meaningful--either work or play, but not neither. The idea is to ensure that children understand which components of their lives they really enjoy, and which cause them stress and sadness; guided daily reflection can help generate such understanding. When children habitually engage in activities that develop their strengths and help them find flow, they will both be happier children and be poised to know what careers and activities will provide them fulfillment as adults.
Relating to others and the importance of emotional intelligencePerhaps nothing is more important for a happy life than the ability to regulate and express one's emotions. John Gottman's research on emotional intelligence shows that children who can regulate their emotions are better at soothing themselves when they are upset, which means that they experience negative emotions for a shorter period of time. They have fewer infectious illnesses and are better at focusing their attention (a skill needed to find flow). Such children understand and relate to people better, and form stronger friendships. This is very important, because other research shows that "relationships are among the most significant influences on healthy growth and psychological well-being" for children. Similarly, in their study of very happy adults, Ed Diener and Martin Seligman found that the happiest people had stronger social relationships than less happy people.
How well children establish relationships with other children matters to their well-being both in childhood and later in life. Children consistently rejected by their peers have more problems; for example, they are more likely to get in trouble with the law, to do poorly in school, or to have psychiatric problems as adults. David Myers, in his exhaustive work on the links between marriage and happiness, concludes that "there are few stronger predictors of happiness than a close, nurturing, equitable, intimate, lifelong companionship with one's best friend." So how do parents help their children develop the emotional intelligence and social skills they need to establish such strong social bonds?
Emotional intelligence and social competence are rooted in the parent-child bond. Studies show that when parents and caregivers pay close attention and respond to the emotional cues expressed by their children, children learn to regulate their emotions better. Such parental responsiveness is at the heart of secure attachment relationships between parents and young children, and researchers have paid a great deal of attention to how secure attachments contribute to social competence. Findings show that infants and toddlers who are securely attached to their mothers or their daytime caregivers are more mature and positive in their interactions with others. Children who have secure attachments with both their mothers and their caregivers are the most socially skilled of all. "Securely attached young children compared with their insecurely attached peers have an easier time developing positive, supportive relationships with teachers, friends, and others whom they encounter as they grow up."
Research also shows that securely attached children "have a more balanced self-concept, more advanced memory processes, a more sophisticated grasp of emotion, a more positive understanding of friendship, and they show greater conscience development than insecurely attached children." It goes without saying that parents should do everything within their power to establish and maintain secure attachments with children. To do so, parents need to be consistent, dependable, and sensitive to children's intentions and needs.
Gottman's research shows, however, that while love, dependability, and sensitivity may create a secure attachment, they are not enough to foster emotional intelligence in children. Parents also need to "emotion coach" children by offering them empathy and helping them cope with negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, and fear. Emotion coaching helps build and maintain secure attachments and develop loyalty and affection between parents and children. Gottman's research reveals that parents who are effective emotion coaches are more than just aware of their children's emotions. Such parents see emotional expressions in their children--even anger and frustration--as opportunities to connect with and teach their children. They listen to their children empathetically, helping to explore and validate a child's feelings. Importantly, they don't stop there: they help the child verbally label the emotions he is feeling, and then they set limits with the child ("it is not okay to hit your sister") while helping her problem solve.
Parents can also nurture budding social skills in other ways. Parents help children form friendships by structuring their play environments. The research of Carollee Howes shows that toddlers play best and display more maturity with children they know well and play with often. These positive play experiences provide children with their earliest lessons about forming and keeping friendships. And friendships--as opposed to just familiarity--help children learn to deal with conflict in positive ways, for example by negotiating and compromising.
Teaching happinessYou can teach your child to be happy, or at least happier. By providing an environment and daily routines which support and elicit positive feelings, the practice of fulfilling activities, emotional intelligence, and social skills, parents lay the ground for happy childhoods. And teaching children to be happy now helps them learn the skills and habits they need to find fulfillment and joy throughout their lifetimes.
Belsky, J. (1999). Interactional and Contextual Determinants of Attachment Security. Handbook of Attachment : Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications. J. Cassidy and P. R. Shaver. New York, Guilford Press: 249-264.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding Flow : The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. New York, BasicBooks.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. and I. S. Csikszentmihalyi (1988). Optimal Experience : Psychological Studies of Flow in Consciousness. Cambridge ; New York, Cambridge University Press.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., K. R. Rathunde, et al. (1993). Talented Teenagers : The Roots of Success and Failure. Cambridge England ; New York, N.Y., Cambridge University Press.
Diener, E. and M. Seligman (in press). "Beyond Money: Toward and Economy of Well-Being." Psychologoical Science in the Public Interest.
Diener, E. and M. E. P. Seligman (2002). "Very Happy People." Psychological Science13(1): 81-84.
Estrada, C. A., A. M. Isen, et al. (1997). "Positive Affect Facilitates Integration of Information and Decreases Anchoring in Reasoning among Physicians." Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes72(1): 117-135.
Fredrickson, B. (1998). "What Good Are Positive Emotions?" Review of General Psychology2: 300-319.
--- (2001). "The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology: The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotion." American Psychologist56: 218-226.
Fredrickson, B. L. and R. W. Levenson (1998). "Positive Emotions Speed Recovery from the Cardiovascular Sequelae of Negative Emotions." Cognition and Emotion12: 191-220.
Gleick, J. (1999). Faster : The Acceleration of Just About Everything. New York, Pantheon Books.
Gottlieb, G. (2002). Individual Development and Evolution : The Genesis of Novel Behavior. Mahwah, N.J., Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Gottman, J. M. (1997). Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child. New York, Simon & Schuster.
Gottman, J. M., L. F. Katz, et al. (1997). Meta-Emotion : How Families Communicate Emotionally. Mahwah, N.J., Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Hartup, W. W. and B. Laursen (1993). Conflict and Context in Peer Relations. Children on Playgrounds : Research Perspectives and Applications. C. H. Hart. Albany, State University of New York Press: 44-84.
Howes, C. (1988). "Peer Interaction in Young Children." Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development (Serial No. 217)53(1).
Howes, C., C. Rodning, et al. (1988). "Attachement and Child Care: Relationships with Mother and Caregiver." Early Childhood Research Quarterly3: 403-416.
Larson, R. W. (1997). "The Emergence of Solitude as a Constructive Domain of Experience in Early Adolescence." Child Development68(1): 80-93.
Myers, D. G. (2000). The American Paradox : Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty. New Haven Conn., Yale University Press.
--- (2000). "The Funds, Friends, and Faith of Happy People." American Psychologist55(56-67).
Rubin, K. H., W. Bukowski, et al. (1998). Peer Interactions, Relationships, and Groups. Handbook of Child Psychology. W. Damon. New York, John Wiley & Sons. Volume 3: Social, Emotional, and Personality Development, Fifth Edition: 619-700.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1991). Learned Optimism. New York, A.A. Knopf.
--- (1995). The Optimistic Child. New York, Harper Perennial.
--- (2002). Authentic Happiness. New York, Free Press.
Shonkoff, J. P., D. Phillips, et al. (2000). From Neurons to Neighborhoods : The Science of Early Child Development. Washington, D.C., National Academy Press.
Worthington, E. L. J. and M. Scherer (2004). "Forgiveness Is an Emotion-Focused Coping Strategy That Can Reduce Health Risks and Promote Health Resilience: Theory, Review, and Hypotheses." Psychology & Health19(3): 385-405.
 Seligman (2002), p. 47.
 Shonkoff, Phillips and National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development. (2000), pp. 23-25. See also Gottlieb (2002).
 Happier people are not, however, necessarily wealthier. Once a person’s most basic needs are met, more money does little to nothing to increase happiness. For a review, see Diener and Seligman (in press).
 Seligman, p. 42.
 Shonkoff, Phillips and National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development., p. 104.
 Gottman (1997), p. 143.
 Csikszentmihalyi and Csikszentmihalyi (1988); Fredrickson and Levenson (1998).
 Fredrickson (1998); Fredrickson (2001)
 Seligman, p. 39.
 Estrada, Isen and Young (1997) .
 Seligman, p. 77; Worthington and Scherer (2004).
 Gleick (1999).
 Seligman, p. 107.
 Seligman (1995).
 Seligman (1991), see especially Chapter 12.
 Decades of research show a correlation between well-being and religion—for example, religious individuals are more likely to be healthy than non-religious individuals; additionally, they are more likely to live longer, to fight depression better given difficult circumstances, and to be somewhat happier and more satisfied with life than nonreligious people. For a review, see Myers (2000) . While some of the relationship between religion and well-being is undoubtedly due to the increased social support that often comes with a religious community, research has also shown that the link between religion and well-being is caused by the degree that “religions instill hope for the future and create meaning in life.” See Seligman, p. 60.
 Csikszentmihalyi (1997), pp. 31-32.
 Ibid., p. 30.
 Shonkoff, Phillips and National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development., p. 32.
 Importantly, Seligman distinguishes between strengths, which are moral and contribute to virtues (such as the ability to love and be loved), and talents, which are non-moral (such as being good at soccer). For more information about helping children develop strengths, and how this contributes to personal happiness see Part II in Seligman .
 Csikszentmihalyi, p. 122. See also Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde and Whalen (1993) .
 Csikszentmihalyi, p. 65. See also Larson (1997).
 Gottman, p. 16. See also pages 25, 39.
 Shonkoff, Phillips and National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development., p. 264.
 Diener and Seligman (2002) .
 Rubin, Bukowski and Parker (1998).
 For an excellent review, see pages 163-165 in Shonkoff, Phillips and National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development. As with many of the factors that contribute to a happy life, it is important to note that while correlations have been found between well-being and the discussed variables, causality is not fully understood. In this case, for example, is it peer rejection that causes later problems in life, or is it the behaviors that get the child rejected in the first place that causes them? Similarly, do happy people have more friends simply because they are happy, and therefore are more pleasant to be around, or are they happy because they have more friends? In most cases, the causal arrows probably go both ways, e.g., happiness causes people to be more likable and having more friends makes people happier.
 Myers (2000), cited in Seligman, page 187.
 For a review, see pages 30-35 in Gottman.
 For a review, see pages 236-238 in Shonkoff, Phillips and National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development.
 Howes, Rodning, Galluzzo and Myers (1988).
 Shonkoff, Phillips and National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development., p. 236.
 For a review of this literature, see Ibid., pp. 236-237.
 Belsky (1999).
 Gottman, p. 16; Gottman, Katz and Hooven (1997).
 Gottman, p. 17.
 See Gottman, particularly Chapter 3, to learn more about how to emotion coach your child.
 Howes (1988).
 Hartup and Laursen (1993).
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Memory is our past and future. To know who you are as a person, you need to have some idea of who you have been. And, for better or worse, your remembered life story is a pretty good guide to what you will do tomorrow. "Our memory is our coherence," wrote the surrealist Spanish-born film-maker, Luis Buñuel, "our reason, our feeling, even our action." Lose your memory and you lose a basic connection with who you are.
It's no surprise, then, that there is fascination with this quintessentially human ability. When I cast back to an event from my past – let's say the first time I ever swam backstroke unaided in the sea – I don't just conjure up dates and times and places (what psychologists call "semantic memory"). I do much more than that. I am somehow able to reconstruct the moment in some of its sensory detail, and relive it, as it were, from the inside. I am back there, amid the sights and sounds and seaside smells. I become a time traveller who can return to the present as soon as the demands of "now" intervene.
This is quite a trick, psychologically speaking, and it has made cognitive scientists determined to find out how it is done. The sort of memory I have described is known as "autobiographical memory", because it is about the narrative we make from the happenings of our own lives. It is distinguished from semantic memory, which is memory for facts, and other kinds of implicit long-term memory, such as your memory for complex actions such as riding a bike or playing a saxophone.
When you ask people about their memories, they often talk as though they were material possessions, enduring representations of the past to be carefully guarded and deeply cherished. But this view of memory is quite wrong. Memories are not filed away in the brain like so many video cassettes, to be slotted in and played when it's time to recall the past. Sci-fi and fantasy fictions might try to persuade us otherwise, but memories are not discrete entities that can be taken out of one person's head, Dumbledore-style, and distilled for someone else's viewing. They are mental reconstructions, nifty multimedia collages of how things were, that are shaped by how things are now. Autobiographical memories are stitched together as and when they are needed from information stored in many different neural systems. That makes them curiously susceptible to distortion, and often not nearly as reliable as we would like.
We know this from many different sources of evidence. Psychologists have conducted studies on eyewitness testimony, for example, showing how easy it is to change someone's memories by asking misleading questions. If the experimental conditions are set up correctly, it turns out to be rather simple to give people memories for events that never actually happened. These recollections can often be very vivid, as in the case of a study by Kim Wade at the University of Warwick. She colluded with the parents of her student participants to get photos from the undergraduates' childhoods, and to ascertain whether certain events, such as a ride in a hot-air balloon, had ever happened. She then doctored some of the images to show the participant's childhood face in one of these never-experienced contexts, such as the basket of a hot-air balloon in flight. Two weeks after they were shown the pictures, about half of the participants "remembered" the childhood balloon ride, producing some strikingly vivid descriptions, and many showed surprise when they heard that the event had never occurred. In the realms of memory, the fact that it is vivid doesn't guarantee that it really happened.
Even highly emotional memories are susceptible to distortion. The term "flashbulb memory" describes those exceptionally vivid memories of momentous events that seem burned in by the fierce emotions they invoke. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a consortium of researchers mobilised to gather people's stories about how they heard the news. When followed up three years later, almost half of the testimonies had changed in at least one key detail. For example, people would remember hearing the news from the TV, when actually they initially told the researchers that they had heard it through word of mouth.
What accounts for this unreliability? One factor must be that remembering is always re-remembering. If I think back to how I heard the awful news about 9/11 (climbing out of a swimming pool in Spain), I know that I am not remembering the event so much as my last act of remembering it. Like a game of Chinese whispers, any small error is likely to be propagated along the chain of remembering. The sensory impressions that I took from the event are likely to be stored quite accurately. It is the assembly – the resulting edit – that might not bear much resemblance to how things actually were.
When we look at how memories are constructed by the brain, the unreliability of memory makes perfect sense. In storyboarding an autobiographical memory, the brain combines fragments of sensory memory with a more abstract knowledge about events, and reassembles them according to the demands of the present. The memory researcher Martin Conway has described how two forces go head to head in remembering. The force of correspondence tries to keep memory true to what actually happened, while the force of coherence ensures that the emerging story fits in with the needs of the self, which often involves portraying the ego in the best possible light.
One of the most interesting writers on memory, Virginia Woolf, shows this process in action. In her autobiographical essay, A Sketch of the Past, she tells us that one of her earliest memories is of the pattern of flowers on her mother's dress, seen close-up as she rested on her lap during a train journey to St Ives. She initially links the memory to the outward journey to Cornwall, noting that it is convenient to do so because it points to what was actually her earliest memory: lying in bed in her St Ives nursery listening to the sound of the sea. But Woolf also acknowledges an inconvenient fact. The quality of the light in the carriage suggests that it is evening, making it more likely that the event happened on the journey back from St Ives to London. The force of correspondence makes her want to stick to the facts; the force of coherence wants to tell a good story.
How many more of our memories are a story to suit the self? There can be no doubt that our current emotions and beliefs shape the memories that we create. It is hard to remember the political beliefs of our pasts, for example, when so much has changed in the world and in ourselves. How many of us can accurately recall the euphoria at Tony Blair's election in 1997? When our present-day emotions change, so do our memories. Julian Barnes describes this beautifully in his Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending, when a shift in his protagonist Tony's feelings towards his former lover's parents unlocks new memories of their relationship. "But what if, even at a late stage, your emotions relating to those long-ago events and people change? … I don't know if there's a scientific explanation for this … All I can say is that it happened, and that it astonished me."
Of all the memories we cherish, those from childhood are possibly the most special. Few of us will have reliable memories from before three or four years of age, and recollections from before that time need to be treated with scepticism. When you think about the special cognitive tricks involved in autobiographical memory, it's perhaps no surprise that it takes a while for children to start doing it right. Many factors seem to be critical in children's emergence from childhood amnesia, including language and narrative abilities. When we are able to encode our experience in words, it becomes much easier to put it together into a memory. Intriguingly, though, the boundary of childhood amnesia shifts as you get closer to it. As a couple of recent studies have shown, if you ask children about what they remember from infancy, they remember quite a bit further back than they are likely to do as adults.
There are implications to the unreliability of childhood memories. A recent report commissioned by the British Psychological Society warned professionals working in the legal system not to accept early memories (dating from before the age of three) without corroborating evidence. One particular difficulty with early memories is their susceptibility to contamination by visual images, such as photographs and video. I'm sure that several of my childhood memories are actually memories of seeing myself in photos. When we look back into the past, we are always doing so through a prism of intervening selves. That makes it all the more important for psychologists studying memory to look for confirming evidence when asking people to recall their pasts.
And yet these untrustworthy memories are among the most cherished we have. Memories of childhood are often made out to have a particular kind of authenticity; we think they must be pure because we were cognitively so simple back then. We don't associate the slipperiness of memory with the guilelessness of youth. When you read descriptions of people's very early memories, you see that they often function as myths of creation. Your first memory is special because it represents the point when you started being who you are. In Woolf's case, that moment in her bed in the St Ives nursery was the moment she became a conscious being. "If life has a base that it stands upon," she wrote, "if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills – then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory."
What should we do about this troublesome mental function? For one thing, I don't think we should stop valuing it. Memory can lead us astray, but then it is a machine with many moving parts, and consequently many things that can go awry. Perhaps even that is the wrong way of looking at it. The great pioneer of memory research, Daniel Schacter, has argued that, even when it is failing, memory is doing exactly the thing it is supposed to do. And that purpose is as much about looking into the future as it is about looking into the past. There is only a limited evolutionary advantage in being able to reminisce about what happened to you, but there is a huge payoff in being able to use that information to work out what is going to happen next. Similar neural systems seem to underpin past-related and future-related thinking. Memory is endlessly creative, and at one level it functions just as imagination does.
That's how I think we should value memory: as a means for endlessly rewriting the self. It's important not to push the analogy with storytelling too far, but it's a valuable one. Writing about her novel, Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel has explained how she brought the protagonist Thomas Cromwell alive for the reader by giving him vivid memories. When writers create imaginary memories for their characters, they do a similar kind of thing to what we all do when we make a memory. They weave together bits of their own personal experience, emotions and sensory impressions and the minutiae of specific contexts, and tailor them into a story by hanging them on to a framework of historical fact. They do all that while making them fit the needs of the narrative, serving the story as much as they serve truth.
To emphasise its narrative nature is not to undermine memory's value. It is simply to be realistic about this everyday psychological miracle. If we can be more honest about memory's quirks, we can get along with it better. When I think back to my first attempt at solo swimming, it doesn't bother me that I have probably got some of the details wrong. It might be a fiction, but it's my fiction, and I treasure it. Memory is like that. It makes storytellers of us all.
•Charles Fernyhough is a writer and psychologist. His book on autobiographical memory, Pieces of Light: How we Imagine the Past and Remember the Future, is published by Profile Books in July. You can pre-order it here. He is the author of The Baby in the Mirror (Granta), a reader in psychology at Durham University and a faculty member of the School of Life. You can follow him on Twitter at @cfernyhough