Would you rather enjoy today, or have great memories tomorrow and forever?
Should you optimize decision making in life to have great experiences in the moment or to create great memories to look back on later?
They are not the same thing; to get one you may have to trade off on the other. In other words, oftentimes if you want to maximize the likelihood of experiencing pleasure in the present means you minimize the likelihood of creating a great memory to look back on in the future.
Travel illustrates the choice. Sit on a beach in Mexico for a week and you’ll almost certainly enjoy a decent amount of experienced, in-the-moment pleasure. But it’s not likely to lead to many memories, especially if you’ve sat on a lot of beaches before. On the other hand, wind your way through the streets of Cairo for the first time and you’ll likely experience some harrowing and maybe not altogether very fun moments, but you’ll be telling stories about your journey years later.
There are merits to both styles of travel. The experiencing-self enjoys being able to be in the moment on the Mexico beach; to be mindful, meditative, and attentive; to feel each sensation. To have a great meal in a low-stress situation, say. The remembering-self (to use Daniel Kahneman’s terminology), on the other hand, wants memories. In an article about his trip to Tasmania, James Fallows said, “I judge travel by the density of the memories it creates.” Why? Because memories underpin meaning.
It’s when I take stock of my life as a whole — “as a whole” being a trigger phrase for memory — that I feel most deeply satisfied. It’s when I look back on all that I’ve experienced that my life feels most meaningful. I revel in the sweep of nostalgia. Ultimately, I think memories matter most. We are the stories we tell ourselves, says Joan Didion. Yet, unless we’re on a strong diet of self-delusion, we can only tell stories about things we remember.
Practically speaking, I’d argue most people underinvest in memories. Here some tips:
Prize novelty. Novelty leads to memories. Seek bulk, positive randomness. Mix things up. New food, new people, a new route home from work. Steven Johnson wrote about slowing down time by moving to California from New York. A new place forces you to pay attention and take in new complexity—denser memories result. As we get older, by default, people experience less and less novelty. I sometimes hear people who turn 50 remark that their 40 birthday felt like just yesterday. I’ve never heard somebody who turned 30 say the same about turning 20. We generate fewer and fewer memories in late age. Unless, that is, we do something about it, by prioritizing novelty. Here are 50 specific ways to invite newness into your life.
Take on challenges; endure struggle; feel intense lows and highs. You remember what you have to overcome. As Oliver Burkeman says, an awe-filled life is about feeling more intensely — experience lower lows, like during a mighty struggle where you’re totally exhausted, and revel in higher highs when you make it to the finish line.
Do things with people. And use people as a key variable. Great memories usually involve other people. Relationships matter. But think of people as a variable that can easily layer novelty on top of the tried-and-true. New people, old places. Or old people, new routines. Go to Mexico every year for Christmas, but with a different group of friends each time. Or go on a different hike every week, but with the same friend.
Seek novelty, yes, except when novelty itself becomes routine. Non-stop travelers no longer see a new hotel or city as new. Instead, they process the novelty in terms of their past experiences. The new hotel is worse/better/different than last night’s hotel, instead of being evaluated on its own terms. Meeting new people from different backgrounds becomes a chore instead of an exciting quest to understand the variety of human nature.
Review and re-live memories soon after the fact. Go to the Sunday brunch after the Saturday night wedding. Walk down memory lane with your colleagues after a big week at the office. As I’ve written, doing this systematically can significantly increase an experience’s meaningfulness – in part by solidifying the memory.
If you consciously focus on creating a great memory in the moment, it sticks. A friend writes: “I once had a passion fruit Pisco sour in Lima, Peru that was so great I quipped: “Just the memory of the drink would have been worth the $7.” Something about making that statement has made the memory of the drink stick much better in my mind. I can still almost taste it and I especially remember the thick, velvety texture. Perhaps just a coincidence, but I do see some potential in focusing consciously on how great certain memories will later be.”
You want to both enjoy today and have a rich memory?
The wise approach seems to be to optimize for both the experiencing-self and the remembering-self at the same time. You want both in-the-moment pleasure and memories.
Witness the balancing act in this regard at weddings. To create memories, couples spend a fortune on wedding photographers. The couple’s logic is, “In the end, all we’re left with are the photographs of the day.” At a recent wedding I attended, the photographers popped out of a curtain behind the couple as the couple was reading their vows. It was distracting; it hurt the moment that was being experienced by everyone at the time. But it no doubt led to some especially intimate photographs that will be enjoyed for years to come.
But elsewhere at the wedding, present-experience optimization prevailed. The couple didn’t stop during the vows and hold a pose for the photographer. They didn’t re-do certain lines for the benefit of the photographer to capture them at just the right angle with their mouth open just so. They selected the flowers, tables, and music primarily with the experience-self’s experience in mind, not caring what was going to show up best for the photographs and videos that the remembering-self would enjoy later.
Optimizing for both is good guidance for life decisions more generally. Thus, the bottom line…
Bottom Line: Have a few key areas of non-novelty; put everything else on the chopping block. Do have a long-term significant other. Do have a “home” that doesn’t change every year. Do maintain some traditions and routines. Cherish these routines. (Put them in a lockbox that only you and Al Gore have the key to.) Then, experiment widely, take chances, and kill your status quo everywhere else – you’ll be investing in your memory bank, slowing down time, and increasing the meaning you feel when you take stock of your life.
(Thanks to Stephen Dodson, Charlie Songhurst, Tyler Cowen, Nathan Labenz, Michael McCullough, David Zetland, and Brad & Amy Feld for their useful feedback on this topic.)