What matters most when we remember our lives is what we’ve said about our experiences to other people.
Think about it: aren’t your most vivid memories the stories you’ve told again and again? About how some random doctor on the wintry Trans-Siberian Railroad injected you with some unknown serum, or how your husband lit up the living room with every tea-light Waitrose had the night he proposed?
If you want to have lived a beautiful life, tell beautiful stories about it.
“How was your day?” is the most important question we get asked : an opportunity for you to shape your own history, several times a day. So do you answer “Ugh, the train was so packed I couldn’t even open my newspaper?” Or do you take a few seconds longer to seek a nicer memory, like how your colleague brought in chocolate from Italy?
The “peak-end rule” says you judge an experience as an average of the best (or worst) moment and the last moment. So when you are asked “how was your day,” it’s natural to think of the last thing you did, like that horrible packed train. If you then tell this to someone when you get home, it reinforces that memory. Since our journeys to and from work are often what we’ve done just before someone asks us “how are you?”, they take an out-sized place in our memories.
Solution? Optimize your commute. Or talk about something else!
This link, between sharing your story and remembering it yourself, probably goes way back to cave man days. Surely those things you bother to tell others, like what plants are poisonous, are the most important things to remember?
Researchers have done some experiments exploring this link between speaking and memory. One study reasons that we don’t have early childhood memories, for instance, because we didn’t have the vocabulary to describe them at the time!(http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15065919)
I wonder if students would learn better if they spent a few minutes at the end of class telling their neighbor what they learned. And if the cliche question parents ask their kids, “what did you learn today in school?”, isn’t their most important contribution to their kids’ long term academic success?
Don’t believe me? Try an experiment now on yourself : when next forwarding an article (or Aabservation), don’t just copy the link. Write two sentences saying what you thought was interesting in it, and see what you still remember in a week.
Indeed, telling each other things about our lives is important, both for learning, and for having lived a beautiful life. Our life is a sandy beach which we walk along, picking up grains to touch and admire as we go. Each time we handle them, we have a choice: to coat them with the black grime of criticism and kvetching, or to build them up as shiny pearls of delight and wonder.
Chose pearls. It’s a nice way to end a story.