At Christmastime, my brother, my father, and our chocolate Labrador pile into the car to drive across the state of Washington to see my grandparents. We’ve been doing it since I was born. The three of us—before my brother and I put our headphones in to tune everything out—try to have meaningful conversations. Soon I’ll go back to school in England, my brother will go back to school in California, and Dad will go back to work in Washington, a transatlantic triangle keeping us apart. The three of us are together twice a year, at best, but on our car trip there’s rarely anything new exchanged. We recount memories of Mom; we discuss job prospects, baseball teams, and books (if we’re lucky); and usually we end up having a brief argument about religion or politics to round it all out. Nothing to write down. Nothing to remember.
Quotidian life seems too banal to document. Why write down routine conversations, ones we’ve had a million times and will have a million times more? Isn’t it more important to remember extraordinary moments: first steps, graduations, jobs, awards, marriage, retirement, vacations? Yet people seldom realize how fondly they will look back on days spent mundanely: a day spent reading in the bay window, a picnic in the park with friends. These things may not stick out while they are happening, but revisiting them can be a great pleasure. “Who would call a day spent reading a good day?” writes Annie Dillard. “But a life spent reading—that is a good life.”
Ting Zhang is on the eve of getting her doctorate at Harvard Business School, where her focus is the psychology of rediscovery. Most recently, she was the lead author of a four-part study published in Psychological Science. In it, she took 135 university undergraduates from the northeastern United States and had them create time capsules. In these capsules, the students wrote about a range of current experiences: their most recent conversation, their most recent social outing, how they met their roommate, three songs they had just listened to, an inside joke, a photo they had recently taken, a recent Facebook status they had posted, a sentence they wrote for a school essay, and a question they responded to on a final exam.
They then rated how curious and interested they thought they would be about seeing this time capsule in the future. On a one-to-seven scale, the students gave an average rating of three. Three months later, immediately before looking at the capsule, the students were asked again to rate how curious and interested they were in their capsules’ contents. Their average answer now jumped to a 4.34. What this shows, Zhang writes, is “that even simple interventions (e.g., taking a few minutes to document the present) could generate unexpected value in the future.”
So I decided to collect memories of the banal. I had five days with my family over Christmas and each day I spent 10 minutes writing about what we had done—what I had seen, eaten, touched, and smelled—and then collected an object to mark the day. When we went to the movies I brought home my ticket stub. When we went to a seafood restaurant I brought home a dolphin figurine that came with our bill. After we opened gifts on Christmas morning, I saved a swatch of wrapping paper to remember not just the gifts but the pleasure of opening them.
Surely, I will throw these items away some time or another. I can’t hoard trinkets forever. But I want to wait to revisit them after I have forgotten the moments they represent. Within the year my grandparents will likely move to an assisted living home. My father, brother, and I will no longer make the cross-state car trip. I won’t see Tuesday morning movies featuring “Cary” and “Bogey” at the Galaxy Multiplex with my grandparents. The family won’t sit around in the living room eating cinnamon rolls and talking while my grandfather adjusts his hearing aid and tells everyone to quiet down when Meet the Press comes on.
Like me, the people in the study were most interested in rediscovering the mundane experiences. Asked to write down what they were doing on an ordinary day (a few days before Valentine’s Day) and then on an extraordinary day (on Valentine’s Day), participants had more pleasure reading their entry about the ordinary day three months later than their entry about the extraordinary day. The ordinary experience had also been more difficult to remember than the extraordinary one and so its rediscovery felt fresher.
Still, most people Zhang asked didn’t feel like recording their day. Given a choice between writing about their day for five minutes or watching a talk show host interview an author for an equal amount of time, only 27 percent of people chose to document their day and only 28 percent of people—regardless of whether they chose to write or not—thought that they would care later about what they were doing that day. Three months later, 58 percent of people said they regretted choosing the talk show clip over journaling. They were bad at estimating how much they’d value the present once it became the past.
“They choose to forgo opportunities to document experiences in the present,” Zhang writes, “only to find themselves wanting to retrieve those records in the future.”
In Swann’s Way, what is it that Proust’s narrator recounts about his younger years? It is the tea and madeleines he has with his mother; it is the goodnight kiss he receives as he lay in bed; it is the strolls he takes along the Champs-Elysées. In the end it is his snacks, his goodnight kisses, and his walks—not his dreams of trips to Venice or to the church in fictional Balbec—that he cherishes most deeply.
It may just be that it’s hard to understand what a moment means, in the context of a life, while it’s happening. “I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realizes an emotion at the time,” Virginia Woolf wrote. “It expands later, and thus we don't have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.”
Fortunately, our brains are wired to help us remember certain events that later take on great significance. Participants in a new study published in Nature viewed photos of animals and of tools. After the participants had seen all of the images multiple times, the researchers began administering mild electric shocks when participants viewed a certain category of photos (tools or animals). It was a Pavlovian exercise that made the participants better able to remember the category of images linked with a shock.
But what is most interesting is that participants given a shock while viewing photos of tools at a later time were in fact better able to remember all tool images from earlier, even before shocks were administered. The same went for those viewing the photos of animals. That’s to say, participants recalled a mundane memory (a picture of a tool or an animal) because it later became significant (when shocks were administered). This suggests that the brain can retroactively improve our memory of mundane events so long as they become significant later.
As incredible as this finding is, “significant events” do not exclusively comprise a human life. A car trip with my family is not deeply significant at the time, and seems unlikely to become so in the future. The time capsules that the participants in Zhang’s study created would probably never hold deep significance. Yet the participants still showed great interest in what they had been posting on Facebook or thinking about their roommate. Mundane or not, these memories were still part of their identities.
Plus relying on the brain’s mechanisms alone can be a fool’s game. Humans have a tendency to misremember and to forget even the recent past. Memories can be swayed by future events, by the memories of others, and the details that seem so certain turn out to be entirely misguided. And Zhang has shown that people are happy to have those records, either way.
That’s because the moments that tend to be the most meaningful are rarely the ones we expect. Near the end of my mother’s life I recorded her talking. Just talking. She talked about ice cream and swimming and what she would get at the grocery store. It seemed like nothing at the time, an ordinary moment. And yet now, to me, it’s everything.