Positive memory retrieval generates pleasant feelings that can counteract negative affective states and improve mood. However, not all positive memories are created equal. Our most treasured memories are likely experiences we shared with other people (e.g., birthday party) rather than something we did alone (e.g., receiving good grades). Here, we explored whether the social context within a positive memory enhanced its subjective value and contributed to an individual's well-being. In Study 1, participants were asked how much they would be willing to pay to reexperience positive memories that occurred with socially close others (high-social), with acquaintances (low-social) or alone (nonsocial). When controlling for the memory's positivity, participants were still willing to pay 1.5 times as much for high-social than for low-social or nonsocial memories. Likewise, participants chose to reminisce about high-social memories more frequently than less social ones of equal positive feeling. In Study 2, recalling memories rich in social context recruited regions previously implicated in mentalizing and reward (e.g., caudate), which further correlated with greater ability to savor positive emotions in daily life. Finally, we examined the benefit of social context by asking participants to recall positive memories that varied in social context after acute stress exposure. In Study 3, recalling memories that included higher social context led to a greater dampening of the physiological stress response (i.e., cortisol). Taken together, these findings suggest that social context inherent in a positive memory enhances its value, providing a possible mechanism by which positive reminiscence aids stress coping and enhances well-being.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
- Developmental Neuroscience
- Autobiographical memory
- Positive emotion
- Social rewards