When you tell a story about something that happened in the past, the language you use can affect your long-term feelings about the subject, according to a new study from Will Hart, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Alabama.
In four experiments, Hart asked more than 100 people to recall positive experiences, like winning awards or getting into college, and negative experiences, such as their parents’ divorce or a friend’s death. When the participants described positive events as continuative (I was hugging my brother instead of I hugged my brother), they experienced more positive feelings, says the study, published online in Psychological Science (Nov. 12, 2012). Likewise, when they described negative events as continuative (I was being treated at the hospital instead of I was treated at the hospital), they felt more negative feelings.
This difference in response happens, in part, because ongoing-action words do a better job of triggering strong memories. “People who used the ongoing verb form indicated a more vivid memory while thinking about the past experience,” explains Hart. “Vivid memories exert a greater influence on our feelings.”
To boost your happiness, use continuative verbs when recalling positive events. “Place yourself back into the experiences,” says Hart. “Discuss how you were feeling and what you were thinking about. This can lead to a temporary mood boost.”
Conversely, keep in mind that avoiding continuative verbs can help you detach from upsetting memories. By talking about troubling experiences like they’re over and done with, says Hart, your bad feelings are more likely to seem like a thing of the past, too.
This article originally appeared as “Happy Talk” in the June 2013 issue of Experience Life.