How do you look back at your life? Do you look back at an old relationship and only see the fights and tears, or do the special moments come to mind? Do you dwell bitterly about how awful your old boss was? Or do you see that it was a bad fit and you’re much better off in the position you’re in now?
As it turns out, those who don rose-coloured glasses to look over their past are happier people, reports a new study from the journal Personality and Individual Differences. In the study, researchers found that extroverted people tend to look back and see the positive memories of things that happened in their past, while those who are more neurotic and introverted focus on the negative.
Since, well…I’m one of those people who straddle the optimistic-neurotic worlds, I called Dr. Ryan Howell, assistant professor of psychology at San Francisco State University and coauthor of the study, to find out more.
Q: What’s the link between extroverts and happiness?
A: There’s about 30 years worth of research that has shown that extroverts are happier with their lives and neurotics are less happy with their lives. But we had a hard time figuring out why until this paper, when we started to focus in time perspectives and looking back.
Q: So how does the way we look back at our lives and experiences factor in?
A: We noted that extroverts and neurotics basically live the same types of lives — it’s not like their life events are that different. Good and bad things happen to all people. But when we go back into our memory banks, extroverts are more happy with their lives while introverts aren’t. So it’s not necessarily that they’re more optimist people. It’s not even really what the current state of affairs are. But it’s really more about the features in your past that you are drawn to.
Q: So is it that they’re reframing their memories or are they just drawn to certain parts of their memories?
A: People have a natural tendency to look at their past in a certain type of way. This is the built-in engine that they come with. So you’re drawn to different aspects of the memory — imagine if you’re on a vacation and something went wrong. Some people tell the story to laugh it off and talk about it. Others tell the awful story.
Q: Is it possible to change how we look at things?
A: While it’s difficult to change your personality, you certainly can change your time perspective. So it’s reframing the experience — you can train yourself to look back at the event and draw out something positive out of it. You’ll have more success changing your time perspective than your personality.
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