An Experience vs the Memory of an Experience

This morning, as I ran, I watched this Ted talk by Daniel Kahneman. Well, I’ve watched the first 7 minutes of it so far (I get to watch the rest tomorrow.) but it already gave me some food for thought so I wanted to share with you.

One of the things Daniel shares is that there’s a difference between an experience and the memory of an experience. He talks about a man who watched a symphony for some time (let’s say 40 minutes) that he really enjoyed. Towards the very end, there was some very loud disruption and the man said “it ruined the whole experience!” Daniel talks about how this is clearly not true. For the first 35 minutes, the man was truly enjoying the show, so it wasn’t the experience that was ruined, it was the memory of the experience. How we remember things is not how they actually were. I think even though we know this, it’s significant to think about it.

Especially because Daniel also talks about some specific ways memory can be tricked. According to his studies, endings matter. In the case above, the symphony ended negatively so it left a bad impression on the man’s mind. They also did studies on colonoscopies. They took two individuals: A and B. A had a short but intensely painful exam. And B had an exam that was twice as long and just as intense for the same duration as A but then it got less intense for the second half. One would think B would rate his experience as worse than A since he had at least just as much pain and had to go on for twice as long. But because the ending of his exam was less painful than A’s ending, the memory of B’s test is less painful in his mind than A’s memory was. So endings matter. Apparently more than the overall experience.

These two ideas led me to think about my own life. I am still struggling quite a bit and working actively and regularly on coaching myself and being acutely aware of the good in my life. There are many moments of joy and peace and contentment in my days but the end of my work days are often hectic and frustrating. And by the time work is over, kids are in bed, etc. I am spent and worn out and I often remember that feeling more strongly than the others in my day.

So to rectify this, I thought it might be interesting to start keeping a “spot check of feelings” log during the day. Where each hour I would take a second to see how I feel at that moment. Am I happy? content? peaceful? frustrated? whatever it is, i note it and move on. This way, regardless of how my day ends, I can look back and see all the moments in my day and not let my memory of my day overwrite the actual experience of the day. If the gentleman at the symphony did that every ten minutes, he’d realize he enjoyed 75% of the show and it might change his overall view. So I am going to see if it works for me.

The other idea I had was to end each day with something really good/happy/calming/joyous. Since endings matter and I know this, why not use it to my advantage? Even if I am dead tired and frustrated, I think I can find a 15-30 minute activity that will turn the last moments of my day around. And if those last moments are so crucial to memory maybe I can “trick” mine by ending my days with a happy moment.

So since I like lists, my plan tonight is to make a list of 10 things that are 15-30 minutes each. Things that bring me joy or peace. Things that I can do at night. I will pick one each night and see if I can trick my memory.

I bet I can.

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