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Science in mind

Don’t just photograph life’s highlights, study suggests

We assiduously document life’s obvious highlights: Our cellphones are filled with photos of the first day of school, graduations, weddings, and birthdays. A new study by a team of Harvard Business School researchers suggests, however, that we underestimate the pleasure we will gain from rediscovering our most mundane moments.

In fact, the most boring, everyday stuff may give us more pleasure in retrospect than our extraordinary experiences.

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, found that our poor judgment may even mean we go about preserving our memories the wrong way: We may be passing up the opportunity to record the experiences we are least likely to remember and most likely to enjoy reliving.


“I was going through family photos and realized that most of them were of very extraordinary events (birthdays, holidays, family vacations), but there were very few pictures that captured the everyday, ordinary moments — the way things were most of the time,” Ting Zhang, a graduate student at Harvard Business School and the lead author of the study, wrote in an e-mail. “Every once in a while, when I did stumble across those photos, they felt very special and were a nice surprise.”

Zhang and colleagues designed a series of experiments that allowed them to test whether her feeling was more broadly true.

In one study, researchers asked 135 undergraduates to create a time capsule at the beginning of the summer filled with a long list of quotidian facts: the last party they attended, a recounting of a recent conversation, a story about how they met their roommate, three songs they just listened to, an inside joke. Then, they asked the participants to rate how interested they would be in the information in the future.

Three months later, the participants were both more curious and interested than they had anticipated in reading their seemingly unmemorable responses.


In another study, the researchers went on to show that people were not just underestimating the value of rediscovering old information; they specifically enjoyed reliving ordinary moments. Participants were contacted a week before Valentine’s Day and asked to write about a recent experience with their romantic partner. Then, the day after Valentine’s Day, they were asked to write down what they did on the romantic holiday.

Although the participants rated their Valentine’s stories as more “extraordinary,” researchers found that ordinary events seemed to age well. Like a wine that gets better over time, events that had seemed ordinary in the present grew more extraordinary to the people as time passed. Events that had seemed extraordinary at the time, on the other hand, grew no more special.

The researchers also found that these types of errors may be leading people to make bad choices when they decide what to document in their lives. In a final study, the researchers asked whether participants would prefer to write down a description of a recent conversation or watch a short, entertaining video. The vast majority opted to watch the video.

Regardless of what they had chosen, the researchers then asked people do both — and asked them how curious they’d be in a month to reread their writing or watch a different video. Few people thought they would care to read about an account of a random, hum-drum conversation.

Again, they were wrong about how curious and interested they would be in an ordinary recollection.


Zhang said that she and her coauthors have taken their results to heart: Many have purchased five-year diaries that let them rediscover what they wrote in past years as they make new entries.

The next step, she said, is to understand whether the kind of documenting that has become so ubiquitous in a culture of shared videos and pictures provides the same sort of joy of rediscovery as the more involved act of thinking and writing things down.

As for why we’re so bad at knowing how much ordinary moments will give us pleasure later, Zhang said it is probably a combination of factors. We remember less than we think we will about everyday events. It also may have to do with our inability to correctly anticipate how much we will change as people in the future — or how circumstances will change as daily routines are altered.

One participant wrote: “Rereading this event of doing mundane stuff with my daughter has certainly brightened my day. I’m glad I chose that event to write about because of the incredible joy it gives me at this moment.”

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.