For a study published in the journal Psychological Science, Ting Zhang and her co-authors put subjects through a series of experiments designed to find out how they thought about ordinary and out-of-the-ordinary experiences. In one experiment, they asked people to write about a conversation they’d had, rate how extraordinary it was and predict how much they’d enjoy reading what they’d written in the future. When they contacted the subjects seven months later, they were generally more interested in reading their conversations than they’d predicted, and the effect was greater for the ordinary conversations than the extraordinary ones.
In another experiment, Ms. Zhang her colleagues asked subjects who were in relationships to write down what they did and how they felt on Valentine’s Day, and to do the same thing for a non-Valentine’s day (specifically, Feb. 8). Again, they asked them how extraordinary each day was, and how much they thought they’d like reading about it in the future. And again, the subjects undervalued the ordinary day much more than they’d undervalued Valentine’s Day. The study authors write:
“Individuals are more likely to mispredict the value of rediscovering ordinary events than to mispredict the value of rediscovering extraordinary events, which are more memorable. Additionally, ordinary events came to be perceived as more extraordinary over time, whereas perceptions of extraordinary events did not change across time.”
At Motherboard, Jordan Pearson sees the study as evidence that we should change our social media behavior:
“If your feed is anything like mine, Facebook is a black hole of ostentatious self-promotion, littered with photos from your rich friend’s latest booze-soaked excursion to Vegas. Less prevalent are posts documenting their more mundane moments — an idle conversation at a coffee shop, an errand during lunch. They may want to rethink their strategy.”
Will Ms. Zhang’s research lessen the Facebook comparison effect by encouraging people to post more ordinary things, thus revealing how basically unremarkable (and yet potentially enjoyable to remember) our lives really are? Perhaps, but Business Insider has another idea: Its headline declares, “This Harvard Study May Give Millennials Scientific Justification to Be Even More Narcissistic.” Richard Feloni is somewhat more measured in the piece that follows:
“The findings suggest you shouldn’t feel bad if you’re compelled to blog about your day, tweet about what you had for lunch, or Instagram that photo of a pretty sunset. The post may come in handy when you’re in a bad mood sometime down the line.”
Of course, all this assumes that you’re turning to social media as the means to record your experiences. The study results might also support a more old-fashioned form of self-documentation: writing in a journal. As Rachel Feltman writes at The Washington Post (under the headline “You’re reminiscing wrong”), “By keeping a daily journal or curating slow and steady stream of personal photos, you reap enjoyment tomorrow from the mundane goings-on of today. Just be sure to actually go back and look at them.”
“Our research shows that we can find joy in journalling about ordinary events, and importantly, later rediscovering those journal entries at a future point in time,” Ms. Zhang told Op-Talk in an email.
However, she pointed out that people write in their journals for many reasons, and entries meant to work through emotions may feel different upon rereading than those just meant to record the events of a day: “We don’t have data on whether rediscovering journal entries that were intended for cathartic release is helpful.”
“We also need to do more research on what the best way is to document these ordinary moments,” she added. “Journalling is done after the moment is over, whereas other methods, such as taking photos or videos, are captured while we are having the experience, and of course, each captures a different aspect of the experience.”
The psychologist James W. Pennebaker has studied the effects of writing about very un-ordinary experiences: He and others have found that writing about a traumatic or otherwise emotional experience for a specific, limited length of time can lead to health benefits, from lower blood pressure to a reduction in the viral load of people with H.I.V.
“What it seems to be doing is reducing general stress levels,” he told Op-Talk, speaking of the process of writing down experiences. “People sleep better after they do this. People come to understand the situation better.”
The activity can be similar to therapy, he added, but “when you’re writing, you can be completely honest, because the writing’s for you and you alone. And you don’t have worry about being censured or criticized by others.”
Writing about everyday things, he said, “could be valuable for all sorts of reasons. One is it helps to consolidate what you’ve done during that day, another is just as a marker of what you’ve done — you could go back and look at it.
“It’s kind of like making your bed,” he added. “Some people benefit because it helps provide a little structure and perhaps a self-evaluative tool.”
But journaling might not be for everybody: “Don’t take any of this advice too seriously,” he advised. People “have to try things on their own and see what works.”
And as Ms. Feltman notes, keeping a journal won’t help you relive your past experiences if you don’t refer back to it from time to time.
“People are tremendously future oriented,” Leaf Van Boven, a psychologist who has studied the effects of spending money on experiences, told Op-Talk. “They tend to be focused much more on the future than the past.” And what Ms. Zhang and her team show is that “a mundane experience is basically gone. We lived through it, we have no reason to continue thinking about it, and so it’s really lost to us.”
And even if you keep a diary of your day-to-day life, “you still have the issue that once you’ve written it down, it’s lost to you. What makes it valuable is if you not only keep a daily diary, but then have some way of, every once in a while, picking a day at random and reading what you did that day.”
Some research, he added, suggests that one of the benefits of taking photos is that they give us “a very concrete way of displaying and triggering memories.” What Ms. Zhang and her co-authors show, he said, is that “mundane experiences can be great, so long as we pair them with this ability to recall them and enjoy them in the future.”
This may suggest a certain value in efforts to measure daily life — it’s easy to imagine modifying a project like Nicholas Felton’sanalysis of all his 2013 communications to include reminders of those communications in 2014 or beyond. And as Ms. Feltman points out, “You can get an app that helps you record one second of your life every day, or one that spits out random social media musings from years passed.”
But if the high-tech approach doesn’t appeal to you, you could always flip back to a random page in your diary (if you have one). If Ms. Zhang and her team are right, you’ll enjoy it more than you think.
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