Study tests which memories can make us happy in the future.
People rarely miss a chance to record the highlights of their lives.
Phones, albums and social media sites are full to bursting with holiday snaps, wedding videos, baby photos, and all the rest.
But even the more mundane, everyday experiences can provide unexpected joy down the line, psychological research finds.
A series of studies, published in the journal Psychological Science, was inspired by the finding that we are surprisingly poor at predicting what will make us feel happy in the future (Zhang et al., 2014).
In one study, 135 students were asked to create a time capsule at the start of the summer which included:
- a recent conversation,
- the last social event they’d attended,
- an extract from a paper they’d written,
- and three favourite songs.
At the time, they also predicted how they’d feel about these items when they opened the capsule three months later.
Despite being relatively mundane, the students significantly under-estimated how surprised and curious they would be when they opened it.
They also found the capsule much more meaningful to them than they had predicted.
Ting Zhang of Harvard Business School who co-authored the research, said:
“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.”
Another study found that, in comparison, people were pretty accurate at judging the value of more stand-out events, like what they did on Valentine’s Day.
Taken together, the studies are a reminder of how we tend to undervalue the happiness we can get from everyday events.
“People find a lot of joy in rediscovering a music playlist from months ago or an old joke with a neighbor, even though those things did not seem particularly meaningful in the moment.
The studies highlight the importance of not taking the present for granted and documenting the mundane moments of daily life to give our future selves the joy of rediscovering them.”
This doesn’t mean that we should continuously take pictures of anything and everything, because that would interfere with enjoying the moment, Zhang warned.
Still, it’s worth bearing in mind our tendency to undervalue the pleasure we will get in the future from what seem like everyday moments right now.
Hello, and welcome to PsyBlog. Thanks for dropping by.
This site is all about scientific research into how the mind works.
It’s mostly written by psychologist and author, Dr Jeremy Dean.
I try to dig up fascinating studies that tell us something about what it means to be human.