Harness the Power of Firsts
The importance of first experiences also means that, say, if you go to university, you are more likely to remember events from the beginning of your first year than later in that same year. In a study led by David Pillemer, professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire, participants were asked to describe memories from their freshman year in college. “We are not interested in any particular type of experience,” said the researchers, “just describe the first memories that come to mind.”
If we want life to slow down, to make moments memorable and our lives unforgettable, we may want to remember to harness the power of firsts. In our daily routines, it’s also an idea to consider how we can turn the ordinary into something more extraordinary in order to stretch the river of time. It may be little things. If you always eat in front of the television, it might make the day feel a little more extraordinary if you gather for a family dinner around a candlelit table—and if you are always eating candlelit dinners, it might be nice to eat dinner during a movie marathon.
Make It Multisensory
We are all aware of the journey a taste can trigger when it comes to memory. You taste the limoncello and instantly you are transported back to that summer in Italy and can sense the warm evening air on your skin. It is the feeling when past happiness is momentarily restored. We have all experienced tastes, sounds, smells, sights or a touch that sends us back there, a sensation that reminds you that you were once loved, that you were happy.
Companies like Air Aroma and ScentAir work with hotels and shops to create these scent-specific locations. One of ScentAir’s clients is the M&M World store at Leicester Square in London. “What they sell comes pre-packaged,” ScentAir UK’s managing director Christopher Pratt said in an interview for the Independent, “so although it looked like the place should smell of chocolate, it didn’t.” It does now. Okay, you get the whiff of the idea.
But why does scent matter? It all comes down to creating a unique and multisensory experience that can be converted into memories for the guests or customers. “We’re creating a lasting memory,” explains Carly Fowler from Air Aroma. “Scent has the ability to directly influence how a hotel is perceived and remembered. From the moment guests arrive, they want to feel that their experience is special.”
It may be a cliché to say you should stop and smell the roses, but research suggests it’s good advice to increase your satisfaction with life. One study by professor of psychology Nancy Fagley at Rutgers University examined eight aspects of appreciation, including awe, or feeling a sense of connection to nature or life itself, and found it connected with happiness among the 250 participants.
But our attention is a currency. It is finite, a limited resource which we can allocate. We pay attention to something. Our attention is a coveted and lucrative market. And these days it seems that the most precious real estate is our eyes. While Netflix declares that sleep is their biggest competitor, marketing agencies are on the lookout for the last bits of our unharvested awareness.
Being without our phones or without electricity can make us pay attention. With no phones and no TV, there are fewer sirens luring us in and grabbing our focus and we are more in control of where we place our attention. The Center for Humane Technology in the US has been pushing for realigning technology with humanity’s best interests, advocating technology that protects our minds and design that aligns more with how we want to live. Here are some of their suggestions of how to live more intentionally with your devices:
Turn off all notifications
Press. Me. Now. The red dots want your attention. Go to settings—remove all notifications.
Uh, shiny, bright colors! In the settings, you can adjust the digital candy to look less appetizing.
Try keeping your home screen to tools only
Reserve your home screen for essential tools such as maps, camera and calendar. Move the attention grabbers off the first page or into folders.
Launch other apps by typing it in
Search intentionally for the app you want to open instead of having it stare suggestively at you on the home screen.
Send audio notes or call instead of texting
It is less stressful to say it than to type it. It is also a richer form of communication. The tone of your voice also gives valuable information
Create Meaningful Moments
We remember when we pay attention—and we pay attention when we are present, engaged, committed, when what we see and process is meaningful to us.
just being exposed to something does not mean we will remember it. If it is not important—not meaningful to us—we are less likely to notice it, process it, encode it, store it.
If you don’t believe me, then tell me how many horizontal lines there are on your right palm. You have probably seen your palm many times but have failed to notice and then recall how many horizontal lines there are on it. That is a good thing, because the number of lines on your right palm is not meaningful, important information.
There is no doubt that some of our most meaningful and memorable moments are when we connect with other people.
And it does not have to be the big days, the weddings and births. It can also be the connections we form on a daily basis. The tiny moments which may go unnoticed or seem insignificant to others can be those moments that never leave us, those moments when the small things in life turn out to be the big things in life.
“The moment my daughter looked up to me to say, “I’m so happy,” for the first time.”
“This morning, feeling my husband coming to bed and spooning me from behind, very tightly. Then our dog joining us and licking us both.”
“We were four friends playing in the streets in Bogotá, Colombia. Afterwards, when we were tired of playing, we shared one Coke and some bread.”
“My colleagues decorated my workspace because they knew I was having a hard time and it would cheer me up.”
These thousands of moments shape our common stories. These moments are the atoms of our relationships. The thing you notice when you read or listen to people’s happy memories is how often people play a part in them—many people: grandfathers, nephews, friends, daughters, parents, boyfriends, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, sons, sisters, mothers, grandmothers, husbands and wives.
Our loved ones seem to be the ones we remember best and we search to hold happy memories of them.
Capture Peaks and Struggles
The study by Kahneman suggested that duration plays a small role in retrospective evaluations of experiences; such evaluations are often dominated by the discomfort at the worst and at the final moments of episodes. This is called the peak–end effect, or peak–end rule.
Kahneman and his colleagues have tested and retested this peak–end effect with film clips, getting people to watch other people’s discomfort—even colonoscopies.
According to Kahneman, the peak–end rule is that our memory of past experience (whether pleasant or unpleasant) does not correspond to an average level of positive or negative feelings but to the most extreme point and the end of the episode.
It can also be seen as the tyranny of our memory. The tyranny of our remembering self is dragging the experiencing self through an experience that is more unpleasant for the experiencing self. In that sense, our remembering self is kind of a prick.
the take-home message is that, in the art of making memories, we need to keep in mind that the ending is important and the peak is important. And sometimes, to reach the peak, we need to struggle—and when it comes to memorable experiences, that might not be a bad thing.
There is a website called The Burning House, and it’s a collection of pictures of things people around the world would save if their house was on fire. It allows a wonderful peek into the human mind and heart. What are our most treasured possessions?
Diaries, letters from Grandma before she died, scrapbooks, Marilyn Monroe’s autograph, a mixtape from my aunt, my grandfather’s old nautical compass, a doll containing a secret from my best friend, Nutella and a bottle of Jack Daniels.
The answers are diverse and sometimes reveal a conflict between what’s materially valuable and what’s of purely sentimental value. But there is one common denominator that runs across the answers. The most common thing people would take out of their burning house is their photo albums.
Most of our photos these days remain in the cloud, on drives, inside apps or on social media and never make it into print. Browsing old school photo albums has been almost completely replaced by scrolling through Instagram and Facebook.
The fact that we are outsourcing our memory to the internet makes things even more complicated. The Instagram generation are not only their own PR managers; they are also architects of their future memories. However, we also risk digital amnesia through losing our precious photographs and messages along with our phone or laptop. Studies also show that, if we think we can re-find a fact online later, we are less likely to commit it to memory in the first place.
People mistakenly think of memory as being like a camera or a filing cabinet. If you want to remember something, you can search for the file and look it up. But that is not how memories work. A memory is not a thing, it is a process. Memories are mental constructions, re-created in the here and now, based on what your demands of the present are. When you piece the details together, some belong to the event itself and some may have been added later. There is no mental YouTube where your experiences are stored in perfect condition and can be replayed in the original version. Every time you play it, you alter it a little bit.
The past has a bright future. And remember: one day, your life will flash before your eyes—make sure it is worth watching.