I recently heard of a man, older and wiser than me, who does something quite wonderful.
At the end of each day he writes in a journal. Then he reads the entry he made one year ago, five years ago and ten years ago. He does this every night and has been doing it for most of his life.
He’s on to something. Let’s talk about why.
There’s an abundance of research that has found our accuracy in predicting how we will feel about things in the future isn’t that sharp. We are similarly fallible in estimating the future emotional impact of negative and positive events. We’re robbing ourselves of opportunities for happiness.
It’s likely that some of the things we experience today will seem so mundane as to not be worth capturing. According to new research however, this underestimates the potential happiness to be gained in the future when we ‘rediscover’ them.
A meal, a passing conversation, where we were at 3pm on 20 August 2004 – rediscovering these ten years on can be an unexpected source of joy.
Why do we underestimate the joy of rediscovery? Because we never stay the same. We make the mistake of thinking that the person we are today will be the person we will be in the future, and that we’ll respond to the same things in the same way. We also tend to believe that the details we consider mundane today will hold their mundane status, and that our memory of the details will be accurate.
The truth is that our memories aren’t perfect – they fade, they are overwritten, they change shape over time.
In a recent study, researchers explored how people would feel when they recorded their seemingly insignificant experiences and rediscovered them in the future.
The Research: What They Did
Participants created time capsules consisting of their responses to the following:
- the last social event they attended;
- a recent conversation;
- how they met their roommate;
- three songs they recently listened to;
- an inside joke;
- a recent photo;
- a recent status posted on their Facebook profile;
- an excerpt from a final class assessment; and
- a question from a recent final exam.
For each question, participants had to predict:
1. how curious they’d be to see what they’d said;
2. how surprised they’d be after seeing what they’d documented; and
3. how meaningful and interesting they would find each response in the future.
Three months later they were allowed to read (‘rediscover’) their initial responses, but not before they rated how curious they were to read those responses.
What They Found
Results showed that the participants weren’t particularly good at predicting how curious they’d be in the future to read their responses, and how interesting those responses would be to them.
Even after only three months, the capsule more meaningful to them than they had anticipated.
So They Did a Second Study
In a second similar study, researchers asked participants to rate a conversation as ordinary or extraordinary. The more ordinary a conversation was rated, the more people underestimated how good it would be to rediscover it.
And a Third
In a third study, participants who were in an intimate relationship were asked to write about their experience of an extraordinary day (Valentines Day) and an ordinary day (a typical day around February 14).
Interestingly, perceptions of ordinary events became more extraordinary over time, whereas perceptions of extraordinary events stayed equally extraordinary.
People remembered less of what they had written about ordinary events than about extraordinary events.
And (Finally!), a Fourth
A fourth study found that because people underestimate the joy of rediscovery, they bypass opportunities to document their experiences. They the report in the future that they regret not being able to retrieve those records. It’s our human way, it seems, to underestimate our future curiosity for past experiences. We also tend to underestimate how fascinating we’ll find the process of rediscovery.
As a result, people forego the opportunity to document things that happen in the present. This is partly because people believe they will be able to remember more about an event than they actually can. This is generally the case for ordinary, rather than extraordinary, experiences.
Researcher Ting Zhang of Harvard Business School explained, ‘We generally do not think about today’s ordinary moments as experiences that are worthy of being rediscovered in the future. However our studies show that we are often wrong:
What is ordinary now actually becomes more extraordinary in the future – and more extraordinary than we might expect.’
He continued, ‘People find a lot of joy in rediscovering a music playlist from months ago or an old joke with a neighbour, even though those things did not seem particularly meaningful in the moment. The studies highlight the importance of not taking the presence for granted and documenting the mundane moments of daily life to give our future selves the joy of rediscovering them.’
There is a cost to documenting experiences.
Past research has shown that taking photos or writing about them can interfere with the creation of the memory itself, or even create false memories.
The value that comes from documenting events lies in taking the time out to rediscover that which we have documented, not engaging in endless documentation bearing witness to every facet of daily life.
Ordinary moments today, if documented, can be a wonderful ‘present’ to ourselves in the future.
Life isn’t made up of big moments, it’s made up of many small moments brought together. Now we have research confirming how much the small moments matter. All that’s left now is to make them count.