The concert started. We had been waiting for this all year. The band came on stage, and all of a sudden all the cell phones went up to filming the band. I thought, “Why on earth can’t we just enjoy this moment?”
But I was wrong. And it has major implications for what makes us happy. This is why:
We don’t live our experiences; we live the memories of our experiences.
For a long time, I have been a fan of being present in the moment. But the idea that we are happiest if we live in every single moment is not supported by brain science.
Nobel Laureate, Daniel Kahneman in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow asked this question: What if I offered you the most amazing vacation with everything that you could want – the location, the food, the experiences, the people that you would go with? It is a once-in-a-lifetime, no-experience-spared vacation customized for you,
BUT you could not remember any of it once you left. How much would you pay for that vacation?
If you are like ninety percent of people, you would not pay very much for it. Many answered that they would pay nothing.
Let me ask you that same question from the opposite perspective: If you knew you had to have an incredibly painful surgery, but you could be assured that once it was over you wouldn’t remember any of it, how would you feel about the surgery?
A few years ago, my dad had to have a bone marrow biopsy, which is incredibly painful. They drilled into his hip and there was no pain medication. My dad said he screamed during the entire procedure. So I asked my dad if he had to go through that procedure again, but this time they had to drill into both hips, what would he decide? His face winced at the very thought of it and he said, “I don’t think I would do it again.” But then I asked him how he would feel if he was assured not to remember anything after going through the experience. His face lightened up and he said, “Oh. No, okay. I’d be okay with that.”
I was actually shocked to hear his answer, but it underscored what Kahneman found in his research: we don’t live our experiences. We live the memories of our experiences. That is why Kahneman says you see so many people going on vacation taking pictures, taking videos at events and putting them on websites. We are trying to maintain those memories. Somehow intuitively, we know we don’t live the experience but we live the memory of the experience. And we can live that memory long after.
There are three ways to use this reality from neuroscience to build happiness into our lives.
1. Keep two separate journals.
There are benefits to writing down both your darkest thoughts and brightest joys – but you write them for very different reasons. There is good evidence that the very act of writing out your darkest thoughts relieves the stress of them. But you don’t want to review these constantly. By contrast, recording the wonderful things that you see every day creates a log that you can return to often and relive the beautiful landscape of your life. Win the victory again. Laugh hard again. Make love again. It is this second journal we want to live with. It is the story of our happy life.
2. Upload lots of photos to Flickr.
The more we see them, the more we relive them.
3. Ask yourself, “What is the best thing that could possibly come from this day or situation?”
Our brains love puzzles. If we give our brains a puzzle to solve, it will search until it finds a solution. So even in the worst of days or the most negative of circumstances, our brains can be tasked with finding the best possible purpose, and it will produce one. All we have to do is ask.
This builds happiness because it becomes the filter through which we relive our memories. Neuroscience also shows that every time we retrieve a memory, we view it through the filter of how we feel in that moment. Our memories change over time; there is nothing we can do about it. What we can affect is HOW our memories change. By using the filter of simply asking what is the best that could possibly come from every memory, we positively affect how we remember our past. And that positively affects our own happiness.
Now, this is not easy in the middle of tragedy; trust me, I know. I have heard a doctor tell me my daughter had a stroke. I have stood there as we discovered a child was deaf. I watched my dad die. Life is not delicious in every moment and sometimes the very best that can possibly come from a situation is that we get stronger. But if we task our minds with finding some possible growth that might come from a challenging situation, we will find it.
And then we can write about it. Or take a picture of it. And the building of those memories will build our happiness.