This article first appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. In November, GGSC is hosting a summit on Mindfulness and Well-Being at Work; find out more here.
What would you rather do right now, write down the last conversation you had or watch a funny video guaranteed to make you laugh?
What about a month from now? Do you think you’d rather read about a random conversation you had last month, or watch another funny video?
These are some of the questions researchers asked in a recent set of studies exploring our tendency to underestimate how much pleasure we get out of rediscovering mundane experiences. Participants in these studies consistently expected that they would not be very interested in rereading a log of an ordinary event in their everyday lives. But a couple of months down the road when the time came to reread that log, they found themselves much more interested and experienced more pleasure than they had expected.
This was partly because they had forgotten a lot more of the event than they had expected they would! In the moment, we think why record our everyday experiences, we will remember them in the future and they aren’t that memorable anyway. Even just a month later though, our memories of the event begin to dim, the details fall away, and what once seemed ordinary feels a bit more extraordinary.
Since having a child last year, my husband and I have discovered the power of embracing the ordinary. Like many new parents, our phones and cameras are filled to the brim with photos of our daughter. (Someone reassure me I won’t regret it if I go through and delete some of the near duplicates!)
When she was first born and mostly just lay there, I felt silly taking photos and videos of her just kicking her little legs. I did it anyways because I don’t have any videos of myself from when I was a kid and I remembered how much I’d loved to watch my friends’ home videos. Now, just over a year later, I find myself already looking at those old videos and laughing with my husband at how tiny and silly she was that time she rolled off the pillow.
And it’s not just her. I love looking at how much our house has changed in the pictures as she has grown. I feel the same way when I look at my old family albums—I get as much enjoyment looking at the old-school strollers my mom used and reminiscing about our old houses as I do when I look at the photos from my first day of school or one of my birthday parties.
So what does this mean for your everyday lives? Even when it seems silly, or not worth it, take the time to record the seemingly unmemorable moments in your life. The future-you will be grateful.
Wondering how to record the everyday moments? Here are a few suggestions:
- A Photo a day. Pick a time every day (or once a week) to take a photo, no matter what you are doing. At the end of the year, make a yearbook. For some tips, and reasons why it works, see Greater Good in Action.
- Capture the context in your photos. Don’t just take posed photos that crop out the environment. Include the messy house, the front yard, or the car in your photos. Someday the environment will be as interesting as the subject.
- A Day in the Life. I often see bloggers do a “day in the life” post, and they are some of my favorite posts to read. I’ve even done one myself. Pick a typical day and take the time to record what you are doing each hour. You could do this several times a year and keep a record of them in a journal or on your computer.
- Day reconstruction task. Psychologists often use this task as part of their studies to discover more about people’s everyday lives. Take the time one morning to reconstruct everything you did the previous day in brief episodes (e.g., commuted to work, ate lunch) and answer questions about each episode (when did it start and end, what were you doing, who were you with, how you felt). You could do this several times a year and keep a record of them in a journal or on your computer.
- A directed journal. Keeping a journal may be more than some people can commit to, but writing down a simple sentence or thought in response to a question might feel manageable. Think about the things you find most interesting to recall from your past and then choose a few set topics to write about—what you had for dinner, the last song you listened to, the last conversation you had, the last item you bought. Even doing this once a month (the first of every month?) might bring you more joy in the future than you could anticipate. There are specific, research-tested variants of this exercise, like keeping a gratitude journal, writing down three good things that happened each day for a week, or creating an awe narrative.
How to make the most of embracing the ordinary? Make a digital (or physical!) time capsule of these logs and pick a time each year to look back over them and reminisce. When you find yourself in a bad mood, pull out your pictures or journal. I’ve started looking at old photos on my phone when I’m in a funk and I’m always surprised by how effective it is at snapping me out of my bad mood. In addition to just being pleasurable, I think it also helps us realize how brief any one moment is and how quickly life changes.
A different version of this piece originally appeared in the blog Psych Your Mind.
Amie M. Gordon, Ph.D., studies the role of prosocial emotions (e.g., gratitude) and cognitions (e.g., perspective taking) in close relationships. She also conducts research on the impact of sleep on relationship quality. She received her Ph.D. from UC Berkeley and her B.A. from UCLA. She blogs for Psychology Today in Between You and Me.
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