If you think back on your life and tell your life story, you will undoubtedly remember some happy times (like going on a family trip or meeting a significant other for the first time) as well as unhappy times (like a serious illness or losing a job). Of course, everyone’s life story is unique, but when you look at your life, it would be interesting if there were particular times of people’s lives that tend to be particularly happy or unhappy.
This question is actually difficult to answer well, because the happiness of a particular memory may also be affected by how old you are when you recall it. For example, adolescence is a difficult time of life to go through, because every event seems momentous. When you look back on that time of life and place it in the context of everything you have experienced, though, the difficult times may not seem as negative as they did when they happened.
Answering this question well requires being able to explore the life stories that the same person tells at several different points in their life—a kind of study that takes a lot of time and effort to conduct. A study like this was presented in a 2023 paper in the journal Memory & Cognition by Theresa Martin, Nina Kemper, Florian Schmiedek, and Tilmann Habermas.
In this study, cohorts of younger and older German adults were asked to tell a brief version of their life story to an interviewer at four-year intervals. The youngest participants were eight years old when the study started, and the oldest were 65. Participants spanned a range of ages.
Participants started by writing down the seven most important memories of their lives and then told an interviewer a 15-minute version of their life story that included the seven memories they listed. The life stories were then analyzed into units and each was coded for whether it was a happy, neutral, or unhappy memory.
This study design enabled the researchers to analyze whether memories from a particular age are happy or unhappy and to separate that from the age of the person recalling the memory, because the same person recalled events at several different points of their life.
Several interesting trends emerged from this analysis.
First, women’s memories were coded as less positive overall than men’s memories. This was true for memories for most parts of people’s lives and for people of most ages (except for women around the age of 40). On top of that, there was an overall trend for men and women to remember things less positively with age, so older adults had the least positive memories overall than younger adults. (It should be noted that part of this effect may reflect that the oldest adults in the study grew up in Germany during World War II.)
Second, there was a tendency for early memories (particularly of adolescence) to be less positive than memories of the late teenage/early 20s. Memories after the late teenage years decreased in positivity up to about the age of 50 and then there was a tendency for the memories to get more positive again. That said, the highest overall positivity was for memories of that late teen/early 20s period.
The prompt for telling the life story narrative asked people to talk about how they got to where they are now. As a result, the narratives did tend to have a structure in which people talked about early challenges (illnesses, deaths in the family, struggles in school) that led to later triumphs. That may help to explain, in part, why memories tended to increase in positivity for older ages (and for the most recent memories that people recalled at any age of the study). There is some bias to see earlier challenges as leading to a positive outcome.
Frequent readers of my writing for Psychology Today will note that I often try to draw some implications about a study for people’s lives. I find this pattern of results really fascinating, but recommend just thinking about it rather than looking for a deeper lesson. There are many explanations for this overall set of findings, and further research will be needed to understand it better.