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Tech by VICE

We Treasure Ordinary Moments More Than Extraordinary Ones

As it turns out, it’s the little things that we remember most fondly, not that epic, boozy trip to Vegas.

by Jordan Pearson
Sep 3 2014, 9:00am

Image/Flickr

If your feed is anything like mine, Facebook is a black hole of ostentatious self-promotion, littered with photos from your rich friend's latest booze-soaked excursion to Vegas. Less prevalent are posts documenting their more mundane moments—an idle conversation at a coffee shop, an errand during lunch. They may want to rethink their strategy: New research shows boring memories are actually more satisfying to relive.

Researchers at Harvard Business School recently completed four studies designed to gauge how much pleasure participants received by looking back at trivial events, like an average day with their partner, versus extraordinary ones like Valentine's Day. They measured this against how much pleasure they expected to receive.

In light of social media's swirling photographic vortex of #TBTs and sepia-toned plates of expensive food, the results were perhaps surprising: the majority of participants reported being much more interested in reflecting upon the utterly mundane moments of their lives rather than the exceptional ones; though they didn't expect to.

"This research shows that we can find joy in the everyday moments of our lives. It's hard for us to see their value in the moment," Ting Zhang, the paper's lead author, told Motherboard over email. "Our data suggest that ordinary moments grow to be more extraordinary in the future, and more extraordinary that we expect."

According to the researchers, the results can be explained by a tendency to assume that we will remain more or less the same over time, and hence will remember our boring routines, rendering documentation unnecessary. The study's results suggest that—surprise—we actually change a lot, and it's exactly our routines that we miss the most. Although, it's worth noting, studies have shown that taking photos in the first place is liable to compromise your memory of events.

"Doing a little bit of work today to document these ordinary moments generates unexpected happiness in the form of future rediscovery," Zhang wrote. "As one participant wrote, 'Even that small amount was able to bring the whole conversation back to me: where we were, who I was with, the way the sun was coming in the windows during the discussion, even the feelings evoked by the conversation. Thank you for that!'"

In their first study, the researchers asked over one hundred undergraduate students to fill a time capsule with various unexceptional items—a transcript of a recent conversation, a photo of the last social event they attended, etc—and asked them to fill out a survey indicating their predicted interest and actual interest after they opened the capsule in three months. In nearly every case, the participants reported being far more curious and interested in the items than they initially assumed.

The other studies followed a similar template, though the researchers switched up the methodology to test for different variables. For example, in one study, they let participants choose whether to record an ordinary or extraordinary conversation before gauging their satisfaction. In another, they randomized whether the subjects would revisit an uncommon event, Valentine's day in this case, or an ordinary day. In every instance, the results reflected a correlation between trivial moments and genuine interest.

Given that the study was completed at a business school, I asked Zhang whether this research was tied to commercial interests. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer was yes.

"These data suggest that there could be value in products and services that let us send our current thoughts and experiences ourselves in the future," he wrote. "Right now, we are interested in how rediscovering moments of our past might be useful in organizations—might managers be better leaders if they rediscovered their thought processes and the challenges they faced when they were just starting out in the organization?"

One could foresee Google Glass, or any of its already numerous knock-offs, being this kind of product: allowing us to document every trivial moment in our lives and re-living it. Although, as the Harvard researchers themselves note, this is a terrible idea. After all, the deluge of status updates and posts about ostensibly exciting things is tough enough to deal with on a daily basis.