(First published by The Quarterly Magazine)
Here’s an offer: a free, two-week holiday, wherever you like, and with whomever you chose. You can climb mountains, swim with dolphins or go kayaking down the Colorado River. You can meet orang-utans, make beautiful friendships, shag whoever you like.
You’d expect there to be a catch, and here it is: as soon as you get off the plane or boat or train from your holiday you will forget everything. Those photographs you took? They will disappear. No one will be able to remind you of the great times you had – not even the people you met – and you won’t see them again. Just for good measure, your tan will be replaced with the pallid skin tone you set off with.
Interested? Most people I’ve asked don’t leap at the chance.
Psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, examines the nature of our two Selves. We have an Experiencing Self: the part of us that lives in the present, and actually enjoys things in the moment; and then there’s the Remembering Self: the part that wants to collect memories, to help us form a general assessment of how our lives are going.
The fascinating conclusion at which Kahneman arrives, is that many, possibly most, of our choices are made by the Remembering Self. And here’s something rather disturbing: our Remembering Self is a bit of a tyrant. It wants to improve the quality of our future memories, not our future experience. In fact, our Remembering Self doesn’t really care if we’re enjoying the moment, it only cares about how the moment will be recalled.
Memory is our only means of getting a perspective on how happy we are over time. We want to look back on a year, a week, a holiday, or an entire life, and feel that it’s been worth it. So it’s little wonder that we often give as much attention to taking a picture of a wonderful scene than enjoying the scene itself. When we take photographs we are being controlled by our Remembering Self, who is tyrannically pushing our Experiencing Self out of the way. We rarely take photos of miserable events, or rainy days. We want to construct a happy past for ourselves, even if it’s biased.
When it comes to assessing how much we enjoyed a holiday we are not reliable witnesses. For an accurate measure of how happy we are we’d need to keep a daily or even hourly score – and experimenters have done just that with volunteers. The interesting thing is that these scores don’t accurately match our memories of how we were enjoying the experience. Our memories play tricks.
One trick is called Duration Neglect: we don’t pay much attention to how long an experience lasts. For example, our Remembering Self will tend to think that a happy picnic that lasts one hour gives us the same amount of pleasure as one that lasts for three – and yet any objective measure would indicate that a three hour happy picnic will bring three times more pleasure. (Tip: if you want a memorable holidays, go on lots of short ones).
Another trick our Remembering Self plays is that when we assess an event we pay much more attention to how it ends than any other part of it. If we’re mugged on the last day of a holiday we will say ‘it ruined our whole holiday.’ But how can that be? The bad experience can’t go back in time and destroy all that pleasure we had for the previous six days. But the Remembering Self doesn’t care about how much fun we actually had, it cares only for the story we tell ourselves. And as we all know, a story with a sad ending is a sad story, no matter how happy everyone was until that last page.
So, who is choosing your holiday, your Remembering Self or your Experiencing Self? A clue is in the type of trip you’re drawn to. If it’s complete relaxation by the beach with a few good books you want, then you probably need to de-stress, and maybe don’t care how memorable it is. In fact, you might even be so in need of a rest that you’d take my offer of the free holiday that you never remember. You’re being guided by your Experiencing Self.
On the other hand, are you thinking of swimming with dolphins, trekking through a jungle, climbing Kilimanjaro? Then it may well be that you feel the need to replenish your stock of memories. Your Remembering Self, as an astrologer might say, is in the ascendant. Your Remembering Self knows that when you return, you will have improved the global view you have of your life. This will help give you a feeling of success, peace, happiness.
Here’s another offer: This time, I guarantee the holiday will be a disaster. A week of delays, bad food, noisy hotel. You’ll have your money stolen, and get a serious bout of food poisoning. However, as soon as you get off the plane, train or boat, you will forget every single ghastly moment. And I’ll give you enough money to spend on the trip of a lifetime.
Not interested? Okay, how about this, and this is my final offer: You keep half the money, and you don’t go on a trip. But I give you the memories of the most amazing holiday you can possibly imagine, complete with photographs, videos and souvenirs. You will be utterly convinced that you had the time of your life.
Do we have a deal?
(Do read Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kaneman, if you haven’t already. And why not check out my book and ebook while you’re there: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Brian-Gullivers-Travels-ebook/dp/B00DOI5VIQ