The Surprising Value of Recalling The Ordinary Life
A few days ago I wrote about how I keep a largely automated diary using the Momento app on my iPhone. When I started to keep this diary it was a side effect of using twitter and over the years, as the tweet count topped a thousand, I noticed that while any individual tweet was ephemeral, the collection became valuable. A few years ago as I was reflecting on my Dad’s passing I searched my twitter feed for that time period and discovered to my relief that I had a great record of his last few days, including many details I’d forgotten. Had I known how important those tweets were going to be the record would have been even better.
Although I generally think of my diary as a practical memory aid, It’s also a wonderful way to look back at periods of my life purely for reflection, to re-live happy, and sometimes sad, times. It’s for this reason that I keep my personal twitter feed mostly clear of non-diary posts as I explained in my recent article.
When I wrote my diary article I recommended that others do the same, automatically aggregating, tweets, movements and photo’s into a surprisingly rich and evocative record of life. Today as I write this I have solid research to backup this recommendation.
Recent experiments have shown that people significantly under appreciate the value of trivial day to day memories, just like my routine tweets. Here’s how they described the experiment:
they asked volunteers at the beginning of the summer to create personal “time capsules”—with songs they were listening to, an excerpt from a school paper, thoughts about a recent social event, a photograph, and so forth. They also asked them to predict how curious they would be about this time capsule in the future, and how meaningful and interesting it would be later on. Then, at the end of the summer, the scientists interviewed the volunteers again: How curious are you? How interesting is this photo? How meaningful are these songs?
The idea was to see if the volunteers were off base in their predictions, and they were. They were actually much more curious to open the time capsule than they thought they would be, and once opened, they were surprised at how enjoyable the rediscovery was. In short, they didn’t expect to savor these trivial experiences from the past, but they did
It’s important to note that these experiences were nothing special, they weren’t the holiday photo’s, the family wedding or the big night out:
The volunteers consistently underestimated the value of rediscovering experiences later on. Importantly, the more ordinary the experience, the worse they were in their predictions. It seems that people get unexpected value from reflecting on the simpler, more mundane aspects of daily life.
A final insight in another study showed that people who valued these recalling these experiences were also unlikely to be motivated to recall them:
the individuals who underestimated the pleasure they would get from rediscovery were less likely to document the present experience, but they were just as likely to want those rediscovered experiences in the future. They were out of luck. Such a disconnect between forecasting and actual future experience is a recipe for regret
It’s this insight that, for me, vindicates my automated approach to diary creation, I get most of the benefits of real journal writing but with very little effort. In fact my motivation for tweeting on a day to day basis is to let friends and family know where I am, what I’m up to, how my health is, things I like, books and movies I recommend etc. Trivial but useful updates, that build into something more.
Read more from the wonderfully titled sources article Wrapping a Present for the Future
I’m writing this post sitting in the window seat in Caffe Nero in Lytham, a short cycle ride from home and a stones throw away from Lytham green and this lovely windmill overlooking the Ribble Estuary.