Happiness and Memory

It’s the busy time of year in academe. Do you find yourself forgetting more things? Bad news – especially if you are a student with final exams coming up, due dates on papers, projects to coordinate or graduation parties to plan. Also unfortunate if you are a faculty member living up to that absent-minded stereotype – forgetting to bring papers to class, forgetting to come to class . . .

Well, maybe you are just happy. Really. Memory researchers experimented by showing groups of people two different video clips – one watched a “Seinfeld” episode and the other a how-to on laying floor tiles. Amazingly, those who watched “Seinfeld” reported greater levels of happiness than those fully prepared to go out and lay tile. Next the researches gave participants a memory test. The performance of the “Seinfeld” group was consistently worse. Happy people are more forgetful.

Having spent years as an absent-minded student, professor and administrator, I was enormously cheered by this result. It’s not my fault that I lose my office keys all the time – I can’t help it if I’m happy. I felt so cheerful about this lack of personal responsibility that I promptly forgot where my next meeting was located, but did I care?

One of the many pluses of living in a community of equally absent-minded academics is that there is often someone with interest and expertise to match my latest enthusiasm. I couldn’t wait to share this with my friend Mary Ann Chalkley, Psychology Department. Mary Ann was not surprised. In fact, she told me these findings are consistent with previous work showing that people perform best on memory tests when their stress is at a middling level and worse when they are either not stressed at all or very stressed. Happy people aren’t stressed. Hence, happy people have poor memories.

Hmmm. So, maybe we are not all happy right now. Maybe we are just REALLY stressed out by the end of the semester. Oh, dear. Well, at least I am beginning to recall where I left my car.

The secret to a happy life is good health and poor memory. – Albert Einstein