I recently spent a day at the beach. Cars filled the parking lot, so I had to park at the back and lug my  gear to the shore. My lunch bag dropped in the sand, open. The water was too freezing for a short swim and the sun too hot for a long bake. A strong wind turned my beach umbrella inside out. A drowning bee stung me on the bottom of my foot, a last gesture that gave it a second life for at least a few hours. And the day ended with…the most gorgeous sunset I’ve seen in years. So all’s well that ends well. I drove home thinking I’d had a great time.

The remembering self

Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow describes the multi-layered phenomenon that is happiness. I concluded about my beach day, “That was a good. I was happy.” But how did that happy memory arise? What does it really mean? One important component of happiness, it turns out, is the happiness that is remembered. Because happiness in the moment only lasts for the moment. We tend to derive much more pleasure from remembering our past states of happiness. This is done through what Kahneman describes as the “remembering self.” And what you remember has a lot to do with two things: your peak experience (the peak magnitude of your feeling during an experience) and your feeling at the end of an experience. The duration of the happy moments also plays a role.

Looking back on your life

So if these  components are key in determining how you feel about  experiences when you look back on them, they’re also key to how you feel about your life. It makes a strong case for thinking carefully about how you spend your time. If you’re going to judge your weekend based on peak experiences, what can you do that will give you a “high” to remember? If your feeling about your work day will be more about how you end it than what you did the rest of the hours, can you postpone a pleasant task until right before you turn off the lights? And how can you re-prioritize your obligations and choices in life to elongate the happy moments?

I drew a number of conclusions after learning about the remembering self. It’s fine to stay in a dumpy hotel if you’re going to be outside all day. I’m going to try to plan one unusual, fun thing for Ron and me to do each weekend. Hospice care at end of life is important in helping someone die a “good” death. When selecting a comedy to watch, choose  at least partly based on length. End the day with your favorite song. Pain meds are good. Hike.

I will remember more about the view at the top of the mountain than I will of the slog to get there.

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