What is your favorite sunset experience
We memory savers
Are experiences only worth something if we can preserve them? Just enjoy the sunset instead of photographing it.
Imagine the best possible experience - for example a ten-year sailing trip in the Caribbean, a space trip across the galaxy or a dinner with God himself in the Kronenhalle in Zurich with a 1947 Cheval Blanc Vandermeulen. How much would you be willing to pay for your favorite experience? Take a moment, describe in key words the greatest experience you can imagine and write down your price limit.
Follow-up question: How much would you be willing to pay for your favorite experience if you couldn't remember anything afterwards? Specifically, you no longer have any idea what your Caribbean yacht looked like. You step out of your space capsule and you don’t even know if the stars were glittering. You can't remember whether God was a man or a woman, and certainly not how the 47 tasted. You can search your brain for as long as you want - there is nothing left, absolutely nothing. Most of the people I ask this question answer that such an experience would be worthless to them.
Increase in value
You probably feel the same way. But how much would you be willing to pay for your favorite experience if you could remember it for a day? For a year? A decade?
Unfortunately, there are no scientific surveys about this yet. The answers I have collected are anecdotal: an experience only counts when it is remembered. Let's call this phenomenon the memory account. The longer we live with the memory, the more value is ascribed to the experience. If a (positive) memory lasts until the end of life, the experience is retrospectively rated the highest. If it only lasts up to half of the rest of your life, only half the value is assigned to it - and so on, down to zero: without a memory, the experience is perceived as completely worthless.
The momentary experience is much stronger, spicier, more colorful than the foggy memories.
That is surprising and nonsensical. Surely it is better to experience something fabulous than not to experience it - memory or not. After all, the moment you experience it, you will have a fabulous time! In addition, you and I will forget everything after death anyway - because there will be no more "you" and "I" at all. Death will erase your memories. Is it so important that you drag it along to this point in time?
It would be interesting to explore the emotional world of dementia patients because that is exactly what they experience: a series of momentary experiences, moment by moment, without any memory of them. As far as we know, this is also the attitude towards life of most animals. You only have the moments, but little or no memories. There are always nurses in clinics who treat dementia patients harshly, with the reason: "They don't remember it anyway." That is true, but the patients are very much experiencing the moment. Your experiencing self works - and the same goes for you.
Remember - or experience?
Studies show that people who remember beautiful experiences are happier - especially when they look at them through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia. Many psychologists conclude from this that one should take the time to specifically remember the beautiful moments of the past. A questionable endeavor. Why shouldn't we use this time to create beautiful present moments, in the here and now?
The effort to consciously experience the current moment does not seem to me to be greater than refreshing old memories, on the contrary. In addition, the momentary experience is much stronger, spicier, more colorful than the foggy memories. You don't even have to experience a skydive or the perfect sunset to enjoy the moment. Even if, as you do now, you sit in a chair and read this column, you will (I hope so) experience a series of happy slices of time. Perceive these time slices consciously, even physically, instead of rummaging around for any memories.
Today the “feeling of being in the moment” of the sixties is back in vogue, under the label “mindfulness”.
You won't dig up much anyway. In the case of a vacation trip, for example, we only remember the high (or low) of the trip and its end. This is Kahneman's peak-end rule, which we learned about in a previous column. We might think of two or three other scenes as well, but that's it. People always think that remembering is like watching a movie a second time. No, memories are one-dimensional, stale, abstract, often flawed, sometimes put together and ultimately unproductive. In short, we overestimate the value of memories and underestimate the value of the moment experienced.
"Be Here Now"
A necessary correction did not come until the 1960s, when awareness of the “here and now” moved into the spotlight. The youth experimented with LSD, free sex and happenings. In 1971, the fired Harvard professor Richard Alpert (known by the Indian guru name Ram Dass) wrote the bestseller “Be Here Now”. You couldn't think of a better motto for this attitude to life. Ram Dass largely propagated ancient Buddhist practices and adapted them for the West. Today the “feeling of being in the moment” of the sixties is back in vogue, under the label “mindfulness”. An elite class of urban hipsters, yoga teachers and lifestyle coaches are crazy about it.
Maximize your current experiences rather than your future memories.
That is all well and good, but mindfulness is often confused with “not thinking about the future”. A mistake. The popular calendar saying “Live every day as if it were your last” is an idiotic instruction that would catapult you to the hospital, grave or jail in no time at all. It is very much part of the good life to make provisions for the future and to recognize dangerous traps early on and to avoid them extensively.
Conclusion: Our brain automatically deals with all three time levels - the past, the present and the future. The question is, which ones do we focus on? My suggestion: make a long-term plan every now and then, and when it is done, focus fully on the now. Maximize your current experiences rather than your future memories. Enjoy the sunset instead of photographing it. Even a life of so many fabulous moments without any memory would be a fabulous life. Stop thinking of experiences as deposits in your memory account. The account will be deleted on the day of your death at the latest.
The Swiss writer and entrepreneur Rolf Dobelli landed two bestsellers in the German-speaking world with the two books “The Art of Clear Thinking” and “The Art of Clever Action”. Now he is following it up - with new columns on the art of the good life, a selection of which appears here. The book is now available in stores under the title of the same name. You can order it directly from Amazon here.
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