1950s America sure was a swell time, wasn't it? The economy was booming, the middle class was thriving, suburbs and freeways were springing up all over the place. People were polite, always dressed classy, and the world was a safe place.
Well, no. The Korean War happened, the Cold War between the Soviet Union and United States was finding its groove, racial segregation was a thing, and Senator Joe McCarthy was running around with unchecked power, ruining lives by accusing whoever he wanted of being Soviet spies.
The reality of the 1950s was not swell, yet we remember it fondly. Why? It turns out us humans are fragile creatures who consistently distort the past, and our emotional attachment to it can have long lasting and serious consequences in other areas of our lives.
It all starts with the way we remember things in the first place. When you live through a moment, your brain automatically incorporates your reactions and assumptions as it tries to remember it. You've already colored the memory to suit you. It's not a perfect, unbiased recording of the truth. And it gets worse when you try to remember it.
Our brains aren't exactly hard drives. It's not like watching Titanic for the hundredth time, where everything is exactly the same as you saw it the other billion times. Your brain is reconfiguring and rebuilding the memory each time you remember it. That means that your experiences since that memory was created can color what you remember. If you have a great time with someone, and then later on had a falling out with them, that falling out will affect how the memory is built in the future.
Even worse, we're highly susceptible to false memories. Harvard University's Daniel Schacter once conducted an experiment where he listed out a string of words to an audience: candy, sour, sugar, bitter, good. After a couple moments, he asked them to recall whether certain words were on the list. He asked candy, they said yes. He asked sugar, they said yes. He asked sweet, they said yes. Except that sweet wasn't on the list. Because the words on the list were related to the word sweet, the audience naturally pulled in that association.
Our unreliable memories can hurt us when we have to make major life decisions. Howard Forman, assistant professor of psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, tells Business Insider that when we make decisions we're weighing the present situation with our pasts. This creates something called a psychological distance.
Forman uses the example of a job change to illustrate how psychological distance works. You're excited and in love with your new job, but eventually you settle into the daily grind and gain psychological distance from your old job. Instead of remembering that your old job was intolerable, you remember the good things about the job. How fun your coworkers were, or the friends you made, or how it gave you good experience to get your current job. Those are the things that spring to mind first, rather than why you actually left.
This effect can become a menace when we're going through periods of great change. When you're young, for instance, the future feels wide open. Anything is possible, and there are a number of pathways for you to choose. Why romanticize being a child when you have streets of wonder and avenues of hope waiting for you?
Then life starts chipping away. You pick a career, you graduate, you get a job, you get married, you get a kid, you get a house. Your options narrow down at every step, the bursting optimism of the future gives way to the grind of reality. And every step of the way, the past will beckon.
Researchers think this is a way for our brains to cope when making major life decisions. Change is scary, the future is scarier. So our brains latch on to our pasts to give us a safety blanket. It's a way to stabilize ourselves and give us confidence that we can move forward into the future.
That stabilization can tip into a destructive loop if not moderated. "Because we feel vulnerable about the future, we keep trying to solve problems in our head," clinical psychologist David Carbonell tells Headspace.
Catherine Pittman, associate professor of psychology at St. Mary's, says what happens is that too much stabilization can lead your issue from your cerebral cortex, where it's trying to root out a logical problem, to the amygdala, the emotional center. That's when anxiety and fear get mixed in, and when you get yourself into a cocktail of poison.
Stephen S. Ilardi, associate professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, tells RealSimple you can then fall into rumination, a cycle of overthinking where your memories linked to negative emotions are pulled in and whipped into your current predicament.
"We only see what our negative mood wants us to see - the events in our past that are negative, the events in our present that are negative, the things that could go wrong in the future," says Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, chair of Yale's psychology department.
That, in turn, saps motivation and pulls us down further - like quick sand. It can lead to anxiety disorders and depression, which can affect our relationships and lives. It affects how we make decisions, which decisions we make, and even cripple our ability to make decisions in the first place.
How do you snap out of it? You can develop a self-awareness, telling yourself what you're doing as you're feeling it. You can also direct your attention elsewhere, to tasks and work that are self-fulfilling. Work and exercise are good options, as is socializing. Plus, there's always professional help in the form of a therapist.
The way our minds work is a system of interlocking parts, affecting and rubbing against each other. The past, and how we refer to the past, is one of the few points in this system where we can attempt to nudge the system before it moves beyond our control.
You can't kill the past or revere the past. You can only accept that it happened, take your lessons and build on top of it. If we can remember that, we can avoid romanticizing it, and therefore avoid the pitfalls of demonizing the present and compromising our futures.