A recent study shows looking back on ordinary moments boosts happiness. Here’s how to put that insight to use.
If someone asks what will make you happy, you’re most likely to say something like a long beach vacation, seeing old friends, or even watching a hilarious video. But whatever you specifically choose, almost all of us opt for something extraordinary and outside of our everyday experience.
That’s a mistake, according to research out of Harvard I reported on last year. It’s not that sitting on a sun lounger for a week won’t give you a wellness boost, it’s just that simply looking back on pleasant, day-to-day memories will too, the research showed. And that’s often a lot easier to manage.
“People find a lot of joy in rediscovering a music playlist from months ago or an old joke with a neighbor, even though those things did not seem particularly meaningful in the moment. The studies highlight the importance of not taking the present for granted, and documenting the mundane moments of daily life to give our future selves the joy of rediscovering them,” Harvard Business School’s Ting Zhang commented at the time.
How do you put this insight to use exactly? A great new article from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, which studies positive psychology, offers a few handy tips. After recapping the research findings, psychologist Aimie M. Gordon gets down to nuts and bolts, suggesting several ways you can apply this insight in your everyday life.
1. A photo a day
It can be hard to remember (and motivate) yourself to record everyday moments, so make it easier by setting up a simple daily ritual. “Pick a time every day (or once a week) to take a photo, no matter what you are doing. At the end of the year, make a yearbook,” Gordon writes, adding that “for some tips, and reasons why it works, see Greater Good in Action.”
2. Capture context
When it comes to making you smile, those photos are only as good as the recollections they can call up, so try to suppress any instinct you might have to whitewash or “improve” your current reality. You’re trying to remember things as they were, not how they would look if a photographer for Better Homes and Gardens were coming by. So “include the messy house, the front yard, or the car in your photos,” Gordon urges. “Someday the environment will be as interesting as the subject.”
3. Record an average day
Images are a great way to capture the past, but so are words. Try a “day in the life” blog post or journal entry, Gordon suggests. “Pick a typical day and take the time to record what you are doing each hour. You could do this several times a year and keep a record of them in a journal or on your computer,” she writes.
4. Reconstruct yesterday
This is another idea for getting your everyday experiences down in writing, one that’s borrowed from the psychologist’s toolbox. “Psychologists often use this task as part of their studies to discover more about people’s everyday lives. Take the time one morning to reconstruct everything you did the previous day in brief episodes (e.g., commuted to work, ate lunch) and answer questions about each episode (when did it start and end, what were you doing, who were you with, how you felt). You could do this several times a year,” Gordon explains.
5. A more manageable journal
Journaling in all its forms can be a great way to work through personal and professional issues and reflect on your current life and future goals, but it’s too time-consuming for some. Gordon suggests a way to whittle down the commitment but still capture the essence of your days:
“Think about the things you find most interesting to recall from your past and then choose a few set topics to write about–what you had for dinner, the last song you listened to, the last conversation you had, the last item you bought. Even doing this once a month (the first of every month?) might bring you more joy in the future than you could anticipate.”
Looking for ideas about what to write about? “There are specific, research-tested variants of this exercise, like keeping a gratitude journal, writing down three good things that happened each day for a week, or creating an awe narrative,” she adds.
Could any of these suggestions add more joy to your life?